National Post (Latest Edition)
Childcare isn’t recovery’s big challenge
By now, amid school closures, online learning, and concerns about staying healthy, all of us either have had to face tough decisions about paid work and unpaid caregiving or know someone who has. Not surprisingly, mothers of children under six have been slower in the return to pre-pandemic levels of paid work. Some advocates have responded to that fact by calling for a national childcare system, arguing it is imperative for a full economic recovery.
It would be nice if it were that easy, but it isn’t. There are at least four reasons why a national childcare system has been vastly oversold as a potential driver of Canada’s economic recovery.
Sure, moms are returning to work more slowly than others, but lack of childcare spaces isn’t why. In the early days of the pandemic, some provinces ordered childcare facilities to close. by fall, however, licensed childcare spaces in provinces like Alberta and Ontario were operating at almost pre-pandemic levels, in part because the federal government has provided emergency funding under the Safe restart Agreement. In Alberta, however, about half of spots were going unused. Lack of supply does not seem to be the constraint. That’s not to say there are no challenges ahead, but emergency bridge funding remains the best way to ensure continued supply during the crisis and afterward.
Secondly, as federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland herself has said, implementing universal childcare will be slow — it’s not a quick economic shot in the arm. The program requires negotiated agreements between each province and the federal government. Keep in mind that some proposals call for a tripling of licensed care capacity. Just figuring out where to build spaces will take time. Where will children be living? How much time will it take to find and train staff, especially outside Toronto or Vancouver?
There is also the very real likelihood that the announcement of a national system partnered with slow implementation will disrupt the childcare parents depend on now. Small, independent home-care providers, who are often mothers themselves, face the prospect of losing their livelihood. Transitioning to a universal system may put some providers currently struggling to stay open completely out of business. Non-subsidized care in Quebec collapsed following the implementation of that province’s system in the late 1990s. eventually, Quebec offered a refundable tax credit to encourage the growth of non-subsidized spaces when the system could not provide sufficient subsidized care.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning the high and expanding costs of such systems. While the rhetoric promises low user fees to parents, the public cost of a universal system is considerable. Costs in Quebec have grown rapidly though without a corresponding increase in the number of quality spaces. A recent auditor-general’s report found that despite a $2.4-billion annual tab, 46,000 children were on waiting lists, with another 9,000 in the meantime in non-subsidized spaces.
Canada is now growing its fiscal deficit faster than any other developed country. People of goodwill can disagree about the acceptable level of deficits in a crisis, but Canada’s fiscal position is precarious, even without a new multibillion-dollar program added to annual expenditures.
Coming out of the pandemic, supply could remain a concern, but a national system is not the only remedy. If we’re worried about mothers not returning to work, a recent university of Connecticut study shows that raising childcare tax credits can spur women to take on paid work, especially if they’re single mothers.
When instead of announcing national childcare the Fall economic Statement increased the Canada Child benefit for families with children under six, maybe that was a quiet admission of the inherent difficulties in national systems. If hard cases make bad law, we might also say that once-in-a-century pandemics can produce bad policy. Whatever reasons activists use for pushing a national daycare system, contributing to the post-pandemic economy recovery should not be one of them. There are more efficient, responsive, and creative ways to both meet the care needs of families and spark new life in the Canadian economy.