Our Times 3

Labour of love: Canada’s childcare system in crisis

Canadian Politics

On the opening of the second session of the 42nd Manitoba legislature in November, the Progressive Conservative government’s Speech from the Throne noted worrying plans to “reduce red tape for early childcare educators” and to “introduce new incentives for private investments in childcare spaces.” These plans came after an electoral promise to reduce costs while increasing the amount of available space for childcare.

The road to privatization in the Canadian daycare sector is not new, but recent developments in Manitoba signal the escalation of a crisis facing Canadian parents and Early Childcare Educators (ECEs).

The private–public dichotomy in Canadian daycares

At face value, the privatization and deregulation of daycare facilities increases the number of spaces available for children at low cost to taxpayers. However, this does not necessarily translate to any kind of savings for families. The trend of sectoral privatization is a step backward in providing families and labourers quality education, prices and employment standards.

With the exception of Québec, which introduced low-fee, universal childcare in 1996, most provinces have resorted to private investments in order to meet the demand for daycare spaces. In Ontario and British Columbia, where childcare is more prevalently represented by private facilities, spaces for children can cost parents an average of approximately $1,500 a month; an unrealistic cost for many low to middle income families. The discrepancy between the cost of for-profit facilities and public spaces is glaring. Private daycares tend to cost three to four times more than public facilities. They also tend to pay their staff less, and typically do not provide appreciable employment benefits.

What’s more, the rise in demand-side subsidies harms public funding. These variants of subsidies look to provide tax-benefits to families rather than directly to daycare facilities. Typically, these subsidies are encouraged by governments as a means of expanding competition amongst daycares and to provide “consumers” with more market choice. But, due to long waitlists, many parents will enroll their children in the first daycare available; private or not. As a result, the tax-breaks incentivise parents to enroll in more expensive private daycares for fear of losing the space. The underlying issue with this policy tool is that private daycares have no cap on the amount they are permitted to charge families, whereas public facilities have a hard limit. In effect, increasing the affordability of childcare by using tax deductions does not actually reduce inequalities in the access to formal, quality childcare. Instead, the operating grants provided by governments lose necessary funding to private daycares, and families do not end up saving much money in contrast to publicly subsidized facilities.

Recently, Doug Ford’s PC government in Ontario adopted a demand-side subsidy program to allegedly help parents cover the high cost of childcare. Ford has claimed that the rebates are an equitable policy based on income statuses of households, however, the opposite appears to be true. Households with a single child under the age of six making $55,000 dollars annually are eligible for a maximum tax credit of $5,400, whereas a household making $200,000 are eligible for credits up to $2,520.

The discrepancy in incomes, contrasted with the credits available, make the rebates appear less like an attempt to help struggling parents and more like a tax break for wealthy families. In addition, the policy is highly wasteful. Gordan Cleveland, an associate professor of economics at the University of Toronto, has suggested the policy could cost over $2 billion annually while simultaneously leaving the daycare system worse off than the administration found it. The funding for this rebate system will come from cuts to social programs including public daycare facilities. According to Cleveland, “already, the Ontario government planned to halt the planned increase [of] minimum wage[s] to $15 per hour.” Ford claims this decision was due to his desire to cut taxes, but the plan will almost certainly hurt Ontario ECEs. All this being said, Ontario’s story is not unique. Similar cuts to direct childcare funding are occurring across Canada.

“The funding is poorly managed,” commented an ECE who spoke with Canadian Dimension in the office of a small, but animated, public daycare centre in the Fort Rouge neighbourhood of Winnipeg. With over 30 years of professional daycare experience, she commented on the crisis of funding that public spaces face:

A lot of centres rent a commercial space and with the rise in retail prices and living expenses there hasn’t been an increase in our operating grant for years. The operating grant doesn’t take into account the rise in prices each year. Because the subsidies have been so low, daycares have had to get creative and do a lot more fundraising which can be very difficult. A dollar only goes so far. It’s still not recognized as a valuable or necessary profession. The federal government, as well as the provincial government, must realize that parents can’t keep paying more for spaces.

Labour shortages, daycare rates rising faster than inflation, and the increasing scarcity of spaces for children, plague most provinces. These issues are compounded by a lack of proper funding from provincial and federal governments, and the rapid expansion of the private sector. The crisis facing Canadian parents and daycare workers is now a serious concern. The lack of funding and the government’s increasing faith in market-based solutions ultimately reflect a grave neglect of the crucial social capital that early childcare education provides.

A recent study has found that the first five years of a child’s brain development are the most critical in their lives. In this period, children build the cognitive foundation in which their futures rest. Children learn rapidly in this time, creating new neuron pathways with each new experience. In turn, this sensory activity has direct implications for how a child’s behavioural traits will develop in the future. As Stephen Zwolak, a long-time children’s rights activist, claims, “What happens early in life, lasts a lifetime.”

Professional ECEs have the potential to shape the health of a generation, a task that requires the high standards and skill of ECE work. “It places a lot of responsibility on us,” claimed a Winnipeg-based ECE. “In the grand scheme of things, people have to realize that these children are in our care, for the most part, eight hours a day, five days a week.”

However, the quality of the relationships that ECEs build with children is dependant, in many ways, on the quantity of funds, wages and employment standards provided and enforced by our governments.

Ontario’s Associate Minister of Children and Women’s Issues, Jill Dunlop, makes an announcement about the province’s new Childcare Access and Relief from Expenses (CARE) tax credit. She is flanked by Rod Phillips, Minister of Finance, right, and Stephen Lecce, Minister of Education. The policy has been criticized by experts as inequitable and inefficient. Photo from the website of Stan Cho, MPP.

By the numbers

A study published by the OECD in 2004 indicated, “a protective mechanism used in other countries, is to provide public money only to public and non-profit [childcare] services.” This quote is particularly glaring considering the OECD is a traditionally neoliberal institution which has a history of encouraging the privatization of state assets. So, the commodification of our childrens’ most vulnerable years remains in question. Should we subject the intrinsic value of childhood to market mechanisms and potentially increase the rates of childhood trauma and stress? In the most intuitive sense, children’s care ought not to be a commodity produced only to be bought and sold for a profit. For the sake of the argument, however, let’s look at the numbers.

Investments in childcare pay for itself. According to the Conference Board of Canada, every dollar spent on childcare is paid back six-fold in forthcoming years. Additionally, investment in a public system contibutes to better pay for daycare workers, closing the gap in women’s labour force participation, while cost regulations set low-cost universal fees.

Québec remains Canadas lone example of a low-cost public childcare system. While still a work in progress, and not quite universal, Québec’s expansive public subsidies can provide insights into the benefits of a universal system.

With the implementation of the program, Québec has seen women’s work force participation rise to 85 percent, ranking it among the highest in the world. If universal daycare were applied nationally, an estimated $19.2 billion in annual wages would be available for tax and redistributive purposes.

In addition to this, wages in Québec for ECEs have increased to an average of approximately $20 an hour for program staff and $33 an hour for directors. Relatively, Québec’s daycare wages are a considerable improvement over the national average which sits at roughly $16.50 an hour.

Daycare rates have also been kept at a national low ranging between $7.75-$21.20 a day depending on the socioeconomic status of the family. This is significantly inexpensive, considering families in Toronto can pay upwards of $1,700 a month for childcare.

The social value of daycare work far outweighs the investments dedicated to its improvement. Universal childcare transcends the political rhetoric of “costs”, “expenses” and “balanced budgets.” If the lack of proper funding in the daycare sector reflects unwarranted national attitudes towards an invaluable profession, the privatization of the sector displays governmental negligence. Children, families and workers must be protected under the refuge of a public, regulated, and universal childcare system.

Lucas Edmond is an ex-daycare worker who left the industry roughly a year ago. Currently, he’s enrolled in his fourth year at the University of Manitoba doing his double honours degree in History and Anthropology. He has specialized interests in economic and social history and critical political ecology.


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