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The budget was by common consensus bulletproof, a work of political genius of the kind $143-billion in borrowed money can buy. And, by common consensus, the master-stroke was the proposed “Canada-wide” – don’t say national – “Early Learning and Child Care Plan.”

News reports have relayed, largely uncritically, government claims of the transformative impact it will have on everything from women’s labour force participation to parental mental health to daycare workers’ wages. It has even been suggested it might do something for the well-being of the toddlers in its charge.

The “opportunity” for such a plan, as the Finance Minister has described it, was supposedly the pandemic, which for a time left many parents stuck at home looking after the kids: the parents, because they were out of work; the kids, because the daycare centres were closed. This is an odd way to justify a plan that will cost at least $18-billion a year (federal and provincial shares combined) and probably more, in perpetuity.

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The pandemic, after all, is a once-a-century event. The daycare centres reopened months ago. The parents, almost all of them, have returned to work. We are back to a status quo that, according to pollsters, most parents find perfectly satisfactory, even if some do not. And yet here we are.

Odder still is the professed inspiration for the federal plan: Quebec’s heavily subsidized “universal” child-care plan, which charges parents as little as $8.35 a day to park their kids in one of several hundred regulated, non-profit “centres de la petite enfance” dotted across the province.

The quotation marks around “universal” are advised: The system is universal only in name. It does not extend, obviously, to parents who don’t use it, either because they prefer to look after their children themselves, or because they prefer other forms of care. Neither is it of much benefit to those who can’t access it. The CPEs account for only a third of all kids in care in Quebec; the waiting list now stands at more than 50,000.

No doubt the parents who do get in are grateful for the subsidy, which accounts for as much as four-fifths of the cost of looking after their children. But many are so situated in life that they don’t need the money, or indeed don’t need the care: Lots of non-working parents in Quebec leave their kids at the CPEs, and why not, when the price is so cheap?

The tendency to disproportionately benefit the well-to-do is not accidental. The institutional care providers the subsidy supports tend to operate on weekdays, from nine to five. Parents whose schedules don’t align with those of the providers – those working the night shift, or weekends, or piecemeal – are out of luck. As it happens, these jobs tend to pay the lowest wages.

Experience teaches, moreover, that wherever waiting lists arise, it is the better-off – educated, articulate and above all well-connected – who tend to worm their way to the front of the line. For these reasons and more, research has shown those in the upper quartile of the income spectrum are more than twice as likely to take advantage of the program as those in the bottom fourth.

Against these dubious benefits, what have been the costs? Since 1997, the program’s budget, originally set at $300-million, has more than octupled, to $2.5-billion. The effect of such an enormous subsidy was, predictably, to wildly increase the demand. That in turn inflated wages – the first thing Quebec’s daycare workers did, on being taken under state tutelage, was to unionize; the second was to strike – adding to the cost of the program.

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But the subsidy also led to the collapse of alternative care providers, their services rendered uncompetitive overnight. Unable to spend fast enough to keep pace with the soaring demand for subsidized care, the government was forced to backtrack, raising fees for parents on higher incomes and providing tax credits to offset the costs of private care.

As for the effects of this social experiment on the children themselves, the data is troubling, to say the least. Researchers studying the Quebec plan have found evidence of “more hostile, less consistent parenting, worse parental health, and lower-quality parental relationships,” leading children to experience “worse health, lower life satisfaction, and higher crime rates later in life.”

Some children, nevertheless, might be better off in care than at home – children from disadvantaged backgrounds, whose harried parents have neither the time nor the inclination to, for example, read to them. Yet those are the very children least likely to have access to subsidized care. Those spots are disproportionately occupied, as we’ve seen, by the children of the well to do – children who might well, research shows, be better off at home.

This is the system the budget hails as “the very best example” of a “well-run early learning and child care system.” This is the system to which the other provinces must now conform, to be eligible for federal funding. Meanwhile, Quebec will receive what its media are calling a $6-billion jackpot,” which it can spend on anything it likes.

It is hard not to think the tail is wagging the dog, here. The advantage of basing the federal program on the “Quebec model” is so that the feds can claim to be implementing a national – er, “countrywide” – strategy. Another model might have been better, but then they would have had to explain why Quebec was getting the same funding to run a different plan, when the point of the funding was supposed to be to get the provinces to sign onto the same plan.

Alternatively, the feds would have to tell Quebec that it would only get the federal funding if it agreed to the federal conditions, the same as the other provinces. Which we all know is never going to happen. So instead everyone has to implement the Quebec plan, with all of its well-documented failings.

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Is there an alternative to this looming public policy disaster? Surely there is something we can do for hard-pressed working parents, especially those on low income? Yes, there is: It is to send the subsidy straight to them, rather than, as under the Liberal plan, to providers, by way of the provinces.

There’s a reason economists tend, overwhelmingly, to prefer this approach. It respects parental choices. It can more easily be tailored to income. And it accords more readily with the principles of federalism. There is still time to turn back, before the point of no return is reached.

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