Why Our Economic Future Depends on a National Child-Care Program

“The crisis will continue until we make child care an essential service,” says Kerry McCuaig, Atkinson Policy Fellow, Early Childhood Policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto.

While child care is technically a provincial or territorial responsibility, the federal government needs to provide the necessary funding and direction to prevent Canada from being stuck with a hodgepodge of child-care systems that vary in standards depending on where you live.

That hasn’t happened yet because “tactics designed to make you feel guilty that you had children or that you have to go to work have been very effective at silencing the child-care discussion in this country,” says McCuaig.

“We need to be more open about the degree to which the stress and strain has been suffered privately,” says University of Manitoba sociology professor Dr. Susan Prentice, referring to the myriad ways in which child-care issues contribute to the work-family juggle. We also need to steer clear of the blame game—the tendency to blame ourselves for not being able to find the perfect child-care solution in an imperfect child-care world. “These problems are systemic problems. And you don’t solve systemic problems with private solutions.”

That certainly doesn’t stop us from trying, however. After all, what choice do we have?

Take Dana Sinclair of Caledon, Ont., for example. She’s about to extend her year-long maternity leave for an extra three months, without pay. The problem? Her maternity leave ends in a month, but her 12-month-old won’t have a child-care space until he reaches 15 months of age. The centre where he and his older brother are enrolled doesn’t accept children any younger than that. (Sinclair’s experience is typical. There’s a growing shortage of licensed spaces for infants between 12 and 18 months—indirect fallout from Ontario’s ongoing transition to full-day Kindergarten.) While Sinclair is grateful that her employer is flexible about her need for more time off, she’s stressed by the financial implications: “I’ve decided to be more broke and to stay off work for the extra months” is how she describes her situation. No, she’s not happy.

And then there’s Natalie Hallett of St. John’s, Nfld. She admits that she’s taken “the ostrich approach” to dealing with her child-care situation. Having recently discovered that there’s a two-year waiting list for a space in the centre where she had intended to register her 11-month-old son Thomas, she’s trying not to think about her situation at all. (The centre doesn’t accept children until they are 25 months of age, so she mistakenly believed time was still on her side.) She also just discovered that her home child-care provider of choice isn’t going to be available until at least three months after she needs her. So it’s back to the drawing board for Hallett, once she pulls her head out of the sand.

A Painful Search

Starting a child-care search means doing battle with the application process and trying to make sense of the waiting lists—public enemy number one of the child-care-seeking parent.

Vancouver first-time mother Holly Munn won’t be returning to work for almost a year, but she already has her two-month-old son’s name on the waiting lists for seven child-care centres (including one centre with five different locations).

Her impressions so far? “It’s a really laborious process.” There’s no central registration system that allows you to apply to all the centres in your area at once, listing your preferred choices in order, and each application requires different types of information. The criteria for each list is different, with some centres giving priority to families who live in a particular neighbourhood, parents who work in a certain building or children who have a sibling in care at a particular centre. That makes it difficult to determine what your ranking on a list actually means—or to guesstimate your odds of ending up with a spot when you need one. (Munn is hedging her bets by asking grandparents to be on call for a short time, if necessary. Her partner is saving up his vacation time as well.)

Some parents describe the process of applying for child care as completely arbitrary. Getting a space can be determined more by who you know, calling on the right day or wooing the child-care administrator with home-baked cookies than by objective criteria—or at least that’s how it can feel.

And as if that weren’t bad enough, some centres require that you pay a fee as part of the application process, something that can leave you feeling like you’ve just handed over a wad of cash to play a round of child-care roulette.

Of course, some parents don’t even bother to go through the process of applying for licensed child care. They know they can’t afford it. Or, if they do apply in the hope that they will become eligible for a subsidy around the same time that they become eligible for a space, they risk being forced to turn down the space, something that is only a little less painful than having to turn down a subsidy because no space exists. Depending on where you live, the two lists—space and subsidy—may operate independently of one another. Having your number come up on one is no guarantee that you’ll have any luck on the other.

It’s worth pointing out that child-care subsidies aren’t the financial cure-alls that many people assume them to be. A subsidy may only contribute a few hundred dollars toward a space that costs $1,500 month; paying their portion of the child-care bill may require parents to wipe out what little savings they have. And, of course, many families who would really benefit from receiving a child-care subsidy never receive those badly needed dollars, simply because there aren’t enough dollars to go around. As of August 2011, there were more than 20,000 children in Toronto alone waiting for a child-care subsidy.

If child-care fees become too expensive, centres are left with empty spaces. Over time, that can force them to close even though there may be a desperate need for quality, affordable care in their communities. This can have particularly devastating consequences for smaller communities where there may only be a single licensed child-care facility and where child care plays a key economic role. A community without child-care services quickly loses its economic competitiveness and becomes less attractive to potential residents and businesses. It’s lose-lose all around.

Luck of the Draw

Luck tends to be a recurrent theme when people start talking child care.

Dr. Donna S. Lero, the Jarislowsky Chair, Families and Work at the Centre for Families, Work and Well-Being at the University of Guelph, in Guelph, Ont., remembers Edward F. Zigler, the first director of the Office of Child Development and Chief of the U.S. Children’s Bureau, once describing family child care as “a cosmic crapshoot for America’s parents.” That was a quarter-century ago, back in 1987.

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3 responses to “Why Our Economic Future Depends on a National Child-Care Program”

  1. In British Columbia we have a solution to the child care crisis families currently face because it is not acceptable to have fees at $1915/month or waiting lists that are years long.

    The solution is the Community Plan for a Public System of Integrated Early Care & Learning. This is the Plan that will cap fees at $10/day, build new spaces for those who families who want and need child care, and raise staff training and wages to $25/hour.

    Now we need to elect politicians in May 2013 who will implement the Plan. Go to http://www.cccabc.bc.ca to endorse the Plan.

  2. Jennifer says:

    This is an excellent article. I am in the midst of figuring out our childcare costs for next year and debating whether it’s worth it for me to work. With two kids in daycare, our childcare costs will be exorbitant. We are lucky enough to have spots in a quality, non-for-profit daycare, but I question whether we can afford it. At $2700/month for two kids, few people could.

    I’m going to write my MP, MPP and councillor as the article suggests because the childcare situation in this country is unacceptible.