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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, looks on as as Alberta Premier Jason Kenney makes a child care announcement in Edmonton, Alta., Monday, Nov. 15, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntoshJeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

If you’re looking for actual good news, there’s a sure thing coming at the beginning of 2022: A not-insignificant decrease in the cost of licensed child care for Alberta families.

When negotiations were under way this past summer, I wasn’t sure it was going to happen. There was too much political squabbling between Ottawa and Edmonton. And then negotiations between the two were delayed by a federal election.

Even when a deal was eventually inked in November, the news conference was not completely cordial. It featured Jason Kenney taking shots at Quebec’s sweetheart child-care deal, which he said was evidence of a “two-tier federation.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a jab that the federal Liberals “have never been so united,” when he knew the Alberta Premier was facing more internal-party questioning of his leadership that very morning.

But no matter the political differences, $3.8-billion of federal cash over five years is a near-impossible thing for any provincial government to pass up – especially for a widely popular program that could change the face of labour participation for the better. Getting workers into the economy as Canada eventually pulls itself out of a pandemic-induced funk will be crucial.

What lower-cost child care will mean in individual family terms is this: A parent or guardian (usually a woman) who wants to return to work will have options, with the cost of child care becoming a lesser part of the cost-benefit equation. This will lead to fewer conversations along the lines of, “Well, nearly all my salary will go to paying child-care costs, so I might as well just stay home with the kids.”

Far more universally than before, women who want to will be able to stay in the world of work.

The federal dollars will start flowing to licensed daycares, day homes and preschools in January. Child-care fees will be reduced by February, depending on the cash flows and billing cycles of individual operators. The new, lower costs will also benefit families who have their children in part-time or overnight care.

An example provided by the Alberta government is a household earning $120,000 per year, with one infant attending a licensed family daycare program, full time, at a cost of $835 per month. Under the new regime, that fee would be reduced in two ways: The child-care provider would receive $350 per month as an affordability grant. Meanwhile, the family would be eligible for $253 per month, based on their household income, as a partial subsidy. The family would pay the remaining portion out of pocket. That amount would be $232 per month, or about $11 per day.

There won’t be any hassle from having to pay up front and then be reimbursed. “For families, when they qualify, it just comes off their fees,” said Korrie-Mae Wiszniak, chief executive of Kids at Churchill Park, a Calgary non-profit child-care agency.

“If you have two children in child care, that’s a mortgage payment. We’re thrilled that the costs will start to go down, allowing families to spend their money in other ways.”

Alberta families with household incomes up to $180,000 get the subsidy. (Families who make between $90,000 and $180,000, and who are new to any subsidy as of 2022, will have to apply online to receive it.) Even households that earn above $180,000 will benefit from the affordability grant portion of the fee reduction.

Longer term, Alberta families will pay an average of $10 per day per child by 2026. And the provincial government says at least 42,500 new licensed child-care spaces will be created over the next five years.

There is credit due to the federal government for promoting a national program that could help reduce gender inequality in the home, and that is also good for the economy and the country’s economic recovery.

But there also should be recognition paid to the Alberta government, particularly Children’s Services Minister Rebecca Schulz. She had the difficult task of structuring a program that was politically palatable to both the federal Liberals and her skeptical United Conservative Party. (The Premier worried in April that the grand national scheme would only be about “9-to-5, urban, government and union-run institutional daycare options,” and would provide little benefit to shift workers, or rural or Indigenous Albertans.)

Although Alberta was one of the last provinces to sign a deal with Ottawa on child care (Ontario still hasn’t), it has moved quickly since the deal was announced in November to get the dollars out of the door in the first weeks of 2022.

That doesn’t mean the new system is perfect. Rakhi Pancholi, the Alberta NDP’s children’s services critic, said the child-care push needs to go beyond its near-term focus on affordability.

“Affordability is key. But it’s not the only issue that matters for the long term – and the short-term – for families and children,” Ms. Pancholi said.

She said she has major concerns about whether the province has enough child-care workers even for the existing number of spots. She also worries about the financial toll of the pandemic on operators.

Every Alberta family is supposed to see their licensed child-care fees drop, but for lower-income earners the new rates won’t be dramatically different from the (already subsidized) fees they pay now.

The Alberta government says its plan will reduce child-care fees in Alberta by an average of 50 per cent by early 2022. But the Edmonton Council for Early Learning and Care notes in a recent report that “lower-income families will not see a 50 per cent decrease – and some may see a decrease of less than 15 per cent.”

Fees will continue to drop in the years ahead.

There’s also still concern about whether there should be better financial supports for stay-at-home parents, or those with unofficial child-care arrangements with friends or family. And as the federal government tries to pay off its pandemic spending in the years ahead, there will be more questions about every multi-billion-dollar line item, no matter the spinoff benefits.

But when it comes to care for kids and personal finances, working Alberta parents have something to look forward to in early 2022.

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