Susan Prentice is a professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Manitoba.
An extraordinary new child-care policy was announced in Ontario this week: free full-day (or half-day) child care for children aged 2 1/2 years to kindergarten. Critics pounced on the new policy, criticizing it as last-minute electioneering. Supporters lament its late timing. Whether or not Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals win another term and actually implement the policy, it generates at least five important outcomes, and changes the national social and political conversation.
First, child care is an investment in economic growth and prosperity. Yet we can anticipate that some pundits will decry the cost, arguing that a free program is inefficient. This is where the research evidence is useful: Economists in Quebec have shown that public spending has generated fiscal and social windfalls: maternal employment grew; birth rates rose; and child- and family-poverty rates fell by more than half. The ripple effects of new taxes and reduced social spending mean the child-care program more than pays for itself. As economist Pierre Fortin concludes, “Quebec’s low-fee child-care program is financially ‘profitable’ for both the provincial and federal levels of government.” Additionally, women’s economic and social choices expand with real child-care options. This is a valuable policy outcome even aside from positive government balance sheets.
Then there is the issue of access. Ontario currently has approximately 125,000 preschool spaces, with median preschooler fees of $12,000 in Ontario’s big cities (averaging $14,500 a year in Toronto). Based on Quebec’s experience when it launched an ambitious affordable child-care program two decades ago, there will be massive uptake by mothers and families. Program planners should plan for strong demand.
Third, families with younger and older children will clamour for similar access. With high infant and toddler fees, parents will rightfully be asking that all their children have access to free quality services. We can anticipate a high draw on capital budgets to build new centres, and on colleges and universities to prepare new cohorts of early-childhood educators.
Fourth is the question of who will own and operate the expanded services. Ontario’s municipally owned and operated child-care programs offer some of the highest quality child care in Canada, but, in recent years, many communities have opted to divest this essential service. While three-quarters of the province’s centres are not-for-profit, the rest are businesses with the goal of making a profit. We can predict the commercial sector will strategically try to take advantage of new government funding. Its presence is inevitably associated with lobbying to lower quality standards and to change the regulatory environment. Thus, the province will need a solid plan to reckon with this risk.
Ontario will need to plan to manage another risk: Universal child care is for all Ontarians. Yet, the uptake of public services, even when they are free at the point of use, tends to be inequitable. It will be important to ensure that new child-care programs do not compound already existing social advantages. Program planners will need to ensure that the benefits to children and families are justly distributed so that poor, racialized, immigrant, rural and other marginalized families, as well as children with additional support needs, are at the heart of service expansion. The dedicated $40-million for Ontario First Nations is an important first step toward ensuring Indigenous children and families are full participants in responsive and culturally-affirming child-care settings.
Canada’s free-market approach of the past decades has created the current crisis of few spaces, high fees, dubious quality, low wages and poor working conditions for educators. Families have been holding it together at great personal expense and stress. The lack of needed child-care services has been especially hard on women as mothers, while the chronically low pay, lack of respect and poor working conditions have exploited women as caregivers and early-childhood educators.
At a conjuncture when confidence in governments seems to be faltering, Ontario’s bold announcement that only good public policy can create the services that families need is visionary, and changes the social and political conversation. It underscores that Canadians are citizens, not merely consumers or taxpayers. It is a long overdue acknowledgment that mothers, children, and today’s families have a rightful claim to social support. It recognizes that the public world of work and politics and the private world of families and care are not hermetically sealed.
If the Ontario government can offer free childcare to preschoolers, why should parents anywhere in Canada expect anything less? The announcement puts all provincial governments on notice that childcare is a public good. Whatever happens with the Ontario election, after this announcement, it will be hard to put the genie back in the bottle.