When the Conservative Party of Canada released a costed version of its budget on September 8, leader Erin O’Toole confirmed that the party will cancel the existing signed childcare agreements negotiated by the Liberal government and axe its $30 billion national daycare program.
In lieu of agreeing to bring down fees to an average of $10-a-day by the end of 2025-2026, expand regulated childcare spaces in the non-profit and public sectors, and increase the number of qualified early childhood educators and the wages of those working in regulated care, the Conservatives proposed a refundable tax credit designed to cover up to 75 percent of the cost of childcare for low-income families.
O’Toole is trying to sell this tax rebate as a superior policy to a national childcare plan—but this is just spin on what amounts to a raw deal for parents, children, workers, and even the budget.
Why a childcare tax rebate falls short for parents and kids
Irrespective of what O’Toole and the Conservatives claim, choosing to implement a tax rebate instead of a national childcare program will fundamentally disadvantage parents because it fails to address the chronic shortage of childcare spaces. This scarcity has persisted for decades. At the time of writing, there are only enough licensed childcare spaces for one in four Canadian children under the age of six. The dearth becomes even more acute when one considers parents trying to locate spaces for infants and children with special needs or families living in rural areas and working non-standard hours.
Beyond failing to address this lack of licensed childcare spaces, the Conservative’s planned rebate would put an insufficient amount of money in parents’ pockets. According to the party’s policy playbook, the maximum a low-income family could claim for childcare is $6,000 a year. Considering that the average price of childcare in Toronto is more than $20,000 annually, a tax rebate that pays for barely a third of this cost cannot solve the problem of affordability for low-income families.
In contrast, the Liberal’s $10-a-day childcare program (also supported by the NDP) would cost parents $2,600 for the year. Even in the short term before such a system is fully implemented, parents still come out ahead under the Liberal’s plan of cutting childcare costs in half by the end of 2022—resulting in more than $10,000 in savings if you’re a parent living in Toronto. The savings for all families, especially low-income families, is indisputable if voters choose to reject the Conservatives’ plan.
The Tories’ tax rebate would also disadvantage children because it allows public money to be funnelled into lower quality unlicensed and for-profit care. And while the Conservative Party likes to promote the freedom to choose the best care (as opposed to a “one-size-fits-all” system), demand-side solutions can reinforce inequitable access for many vulnerable populations and are not suitable alternatives to a comprehensive non-profit system of reliable and safe public childcare.
If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic and the plight of our elderly in long-term care, it’s that for-profit providers should not be charged with looking after society’s most vulnerable. Throughout the COVID crisis, dividends to shareholders were prioritized over quality care, while governments cut budgets instead of providing safe working conditions and wages for care providers.
These same issues are common among for-profit childcare providers in Canada, which often hire less qualified staff and increase children-to-staff ratios to reduce labour costs. There is substantial evidence showing that for-profit providers tend to supply lower quality care to children compared to non-profit and public options.
These concerns came into morbid focus when four Ontario children died in unlicensed daycares in a seven-month period over 2013 and 2014. The deaths prompted a report from the province’s ombudsman, along with the passing of the Child Care and Early Years Act, which increased the enforcement of standards within unlicensed care.
Patching over this dangerous gray area will require a plan that directs federal support to the expansion of public and non-profit childcare providers that are subject to routine inspections and regulations.
Raw deal for workers and the economy
O’Toole’s proposed tax rebate would also do nothing to improve the wages and conditions of childcare workers who are notoriously underpaid and overworked. On average, childcare workers earn less than half of the national income, or $24,100 annually. What’s more, according to Statistics Canada, employment among childcare workers was 21 percent lower in February 2021 than it was before the pandemic in February 2020.
Additionally, O’Toole’s tax rebate would likely perpetuate the exploitation of childcare workers by funnelling cash to for-profit providers who are more likely to increase fees while offering low wages.
Looked at another way, the tax credit scheme promoted by the Conservatives doesn’t address the barriers preventing women from joining the workforce. Consider Québec, for example. Its subsidized childcare system, introduced in 1997, helped more than 70,000 women participate in the workforce while injecting an additional $5.2 billion into the provincial economy, boosting the province’s Gross Domestic Product by 1.7 percent. Québec’s system demonstrates that for every $1.00 invested in childcare, $1.75 is returned to the economy.
Other benefits of a universal childcare system can be harder to quantify in dollar terms but would clearly have an economic benefit. Quality childcare has been shown to lower child mortality, reduce crime rates, cut down on poverty and social inequality, and reduce substance abuse and mental illness. This is why some projections have even suggested that for every $1 spent on childcare, the economy receives $6 in economic benefits in the long-term.
Who is a tax rebate really good for?
Considering that a universal childcare program would benefit parents, kids, workers, and the economy over and above anything that could be provided through a tax rebate scheme, why did the Conservatives abandon the $10-a-day program in their platform? Whose future is the party trying to ‘secure’?
Indeed, in the words of Toronto Star columnist Heather Scoffield, “if you’re a government-in-waiting whose entire election platform depends on turbo-boosting economic growth, a tax credit is akin to shooting yourself in the foot.”
When attempting to determine the logic behind this policy decision, it’s useful to consider the childcare rebate as part of the Conservative’s broader pro-market ideology. This worldview demands the creation of a certain kind of market that imposes few regulations on the way corporations operate and what they are allowed to commodify.
While no viable federal party has been able to disentangle itself from the influence of capital, the Conservative Party distinguishes itself as the handmaiden of corporate interests through its unrelenting commitment to privatizing public assets and deregulating public services.
O’Toole’s childcare strategy marks a continuation of this legacy: it contains no plan to bring more women into the workforce, create new daycare spaces, or provide more equitable pay to childcare workers. And while there’s little doubt providing more cash to parents would help with affordability, the Conservatives’ planned tax rebate gets nowhere close to reducing the accessibility gap, particularly in underserved communities or cities with a high cost of living like Toronto.
Today, childcare is likely the largest household expenditure for the average Canadian family. Access to affordable and safe childcare is critical, and long overdue. This federal election, Canadians need a credible plan—and the Conservatives don’t have one.
Kaitlin Peters is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at York University. She can be reached here.