Affordability has been a recurring theme in this election campaign, as federal party leaders court middle-class voters with promises to ease the financial burdens of raising a family.
These promises, aimed at parents of young children, range from tax credits, tax cuts and increased child and parental benefits to the creation of a universal child care system.
Although household income is on the rise in Canada, many families are still feeling strapped for cash. Besides the rising cost of housing, child care fees are a major source of financial pain, said Paul Kershaw, a policy professor at the University of British Columbia.
Due to its absence of a nation-wide, quality, affordable child care system, “Canada has been an international laggard for decades by comparison with other rich industrialized countries,” said Dr. Kershaw, founder of the national research and advocacy organization Generation Squeeze, which represents the interests of Canadians in their 20s, 30s and 40s. “It is one of the primary issues squeezing a younger demographic because child care often costs another rent- or mortgage-sized payment.”
Policy experts, such as Dr. Kershaw, say they are encouraged that affordable and accessible child care has made it onto the platforms of several of the major parties. But they warn even if these promises are carried out, it may take years before parents across the country actually see daycare costs decline and waiting lists shrink.
Meanwhile, the costs of caring for family members with disabilities are expected to rise, as the number of Canadians with dementia is growing along with the population of older adults. The rates of individuals diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and autism spectrum disorder continue to edge higher, says Michael Bach, managing director of IRIS – Institutes for Research and Development on Inclusion and Society.
Several of the major parties have pledged to support families caring for individuals with disabilities, but to date, their promises have largely been “piecemeal,” falling far short of the concerted, large-scale efforts that are needed, Dr. Bach said.
“What that means is it’s going to leave families bearing the costs of this,” he said, noting the costs of caregiving will affect women, single-parent households and people in the lower-income ranges, in particular.
The Liberal platform
Among the Liberals’ promises are to increase the Canada Child Benefit by 15 per cent for children under the age of one, make maternity and parental benefits tax-free, and introduce a 15-week paid leave for adoptive parents.
In addition, the Liberals have proposed the idea of a Guaranteed Paid Family Leave program, which would allow new parents, who currently do not qualify for parental leave through employment insurance, to receive a guaranteed income for the first year of their child’s life.
Dr. Kershaw said this would be a positive step. Currently, many Canadians who are self-employed, precariously employed or are students do not qualify for employment insurance, and thus, miss out on parental leave benefits.
“The Liberals, in their platform for the first time I've ever seen, are actually committing to establish a committee to look at how to make that [Guaranteed Paid Family Leave] happen. That's one really good feature,” he said.
He added another positive feature of the Liberals’ plan is their proposal to ensure at least a certain number of weeks of parental leave is reserved for the second parent. This, he said, is an incremental step toward promoting gender equality by encouraging shared parental leave.
When it comes to child care, the Liberals have pledged to create up to 250,000 before- and after-school spaces for children under age 10, and to lower fees for these programs by 10 per cent. The party says it will provide more support for early childhood educators, including lowering the cost of earning a degree. And it says it would work with the provinces and territories to create a national secretariat that would lay the groundwork for a pan-Canadian child care system.
In terms of child care spending, the party is proposing to add $535-million per year beyond what it has earmarked in the 2019 federal budget, though that amount is significantly less than the NDP and the Green Party have pledged.
Moreover, the Liberal Party says it would double the monthly tax-free Child Disability Benefit, which would provide an increase of more than $2,800 for families of a child with a disability. This would no doubt help the families of those with severe disabilities who are eligible for the benefit, Dr. Bach said. He suggested what would make a broader impact is the Liberals’ commitment to take a human rights-based approach to disability in all federal policies and programs, and to tackle social and economic barriers to employment for individuals with disabilities, particularly young people.
These promises, outlined in the Liberals’ “disability equality statement,” appear to signal a more comprehensive approach than the other parties have to date, Dr. Bach said.
The Conservative platform
Like the Liberals, the Conservatives also promise to make maternity and parental benefits tax-free, and to introduce 15 weeks of paid leave for adoptive parents.
In addition, they propose to introduce a children’s fitness tax credit, which would allow parents to claim up to $1,000 per child for sports or fitness-related activities, and an arts and learning credit, which would allow claims of up to $500 per child. (Parents of children with disabilities would be able to claim an additional $500 per child for the fitness tax credit, and up to $1,000 per child for the arts and learning credit.)
The Conservatives have emphasized their plan to introduce a universal tax cut, which they promise would allow the average Canadian family to save more than $850 in income taxes.
The party makes no specific mention of child care in its platform.
While it promises to put more money in the hands of parents, these proposed measures do not address the current lack of affordable, quality child care, said Martha Friendly, executive director of the Childcare Resource and Research Unit.
Simply giving parents money will not solve this problem, Ms. Friendly said.
“You have to expand the supply, you have to make it affordable, and you have to, at the same time, make sure there’s enough good people to work in it who are willing to work in it,” she said.
When it comes to supporting families of individuals with disabilities, the Conservatives have pledged an initial $50-million over five years to develop a national autism strategy. This, however, is a disproportionately small investment compared with the structural inequality and marginalization that people with disabilities face, Dr. Bach said.
The NDP platform
In an announcement in late September, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh told reporters his party would create a universal child care system by 2030, starting with a $10-billion investment over four years. He said this would create more than 500,000 new licensed child care spots in partnership with the provinces and territories.
Separately, the NDP has also said it would commit $1-billion to improving child care in 2020, and increase that investment annually.
The party promises to work toward a goal of offering child care at a maximum of $10 per day and at no cost to families that cannot afford it.
The NDP is also proposing changes to employment insurance benefits, allowing parents to receive full benefits over a shorter time-frame, and lowering the number of working hours required to qualify for benefits.
The child care plans of the NDP, Liberals and the Green Party all have “very workable elements,” Ms. Friendly said. But she said, when it comes to translating the platforms of any of these three parties into reality, "it’s not a quick fix.”
The Green Party platform
Similar to the NDP, the Green Party says it is committed to establishing a universal child care system. It promises to increase child care funding by an additional $1-billion per year until it reaches at least 1 per cent of GDP per year.
Moreover, the party would eliminate GST on all construction costs related to child care spaces.
The Greens have also vowed to improve and strengthen maternity and parental leave, making it more inclusive, more flexible and better paid.
In an analysis of the parties’ promises around family affordability from Generation Squeeze, the Green Party edged slightly ahead of the NDP to achieve the highest score toward the goal of having all Canadians be able to start a family, if they choose.
While the Greens have provided little detail about how they will improve parental leave, Generation Squeeze noted the party has proposed a universal Guaranteed Livable Income program, which could increase the minimum benefit available to parents of newborns.
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