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

Dr. Lero would like to see something more substantial than good fortune looking out for the well-being of our children. “It shouldn’t be a matter of luck to find good-quality care in the early years. It should be a matter of strong public policy.”

Clearly, we’re not there yet. Just ask Danielle Donders, a mother of three from Manotick, Ont. She credits good fortune rather than a good child-care system for the belated happy ending to her family’s prolonged child-care woes.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t thank the fates for bringing this new home daycare provider to us. I finally found good care for my kids despite the system and not because of it. I have finally found trustworthy, affordable, excellent home care for Lucas after going through nine caregivers in nine years. We lost two to maternity leaves, one left us stranded by leaving a note in our mailbox in the middle of the night, we had to leave one because she was looking after nine kids at one point when the limit was five and one quit by sending me a text while she knew I was away on business and then the next week she had a change of heart.”

Apparently, luck even has a role to play in the Quebec child-care system, which parents in other provinces consider to be the closest thing to child-care nirvana. According to Montreal mother of two Sara Boivin-Chabot, Quebec has a private system, where you can pay $25 to $45 per day, as well as a public system, where rates are fixed at $7 per day. “Places in the public system are limited, and the system can’t meet the demand. The remaining kids go into the private system.” There, the quality of care ranges widely.

A Wise Investment

So what’s been holding Canada back from delivering on its outstanding promises on the child-care front? A lack of political will and two deep-rooted misconceptions about child care.

The first misconception is that child care should be a private rather than a public responsibility. Or, as some people like to put it rather bluntly, “You’re the one who decided to have children. Why should I have to pay to take care of them?”

The reason child care should be treated as a social responsibility (in the same way we treat education and health care) is that society as a whole has a strong vested interest in ensuring that children have access to quality care. As The Child Care Transition report states so eloquently, “Poor-quality early childhood education and care is not a product that can be returned, repaired, exchanged, or refunded. It may take years for the lack of quality to show its effects; the cause may never become apparent; and the consequences are likely to fall not only on the child but on society as a whole.” And, as University of Toronto economists Dr. Gordon Cleveland and Dr. Michael Krashinsky have noted, “because most parents can’t afford to purchase child care of high enough quality to deliver all the benefits society would like children to receive, public funding allows for a system that provides higher quality and greater public benefit.”

The second misconception is even more insidious: “Canada can’t afford another big social program right now.” (In other words, “sorry kids.”)

The thing is, kids have been waiting their turn for a social program of their own. They’ve been waiting forever, in fact. And as for our generation of parents? As University of British Columbia family policy researcher Dr. Paul Kershaw (the “Generation Squeeze” guru) has demonstrated so pointedly, our generation of parents hasn’t benefitted from the types of government policies that allowed our parents’ generation to thrive: government policies that ensured that post-secondary education was affordable and that the job market offered family-sustaining, full-time jobs—the kinds of jobs that made it possible to support a family and buy a house on a single income.

Sometimes the people who like to tell us that we can’t afford another social program are the very same people who are pressuring governments for more tax cuts. If that’s the case, they’re doing their best to turn this particular myth into a reality for future generations of parents and kids. “It all comes down to a choice—paying taxes,” says Martha Friendly, executive director of the Childcare Resource and Research Unit. “If you can convince people that it’s in their best interest to cut taxes, you’re never going to have social programs.”

What gets lost in all the rhetoric is that investing in child care and early learning is a no-lose proposition—for families and communities.

Economist Robert Fairholm has demonstrated that investing $1 million in child care creates at least 40 jobs—four times as many jobs as generated by $1 million in construction spending. Every dollar invested in child care in Canada increases the country’s economic output (the gross domestic product, or GDP) by $2.30. Investing in child care is also a powerful means of generating tax dollars, particularly at the federal government level. Earnings from increased employment generate 90 cents in tax revenues to federal and provincial governments for every child-care dollar invested. In other words, you don’t have to wait until a child is grown up for society to be paid back for investing in child care that benefits that child, his parents and his community. The payback is there right away.

And the economic dividends don’t end there. Economist Dr. Pierre Fortin found that the employment rate for women in Quebec increased by 3.8 percent (or 70,000 women) in 2008 as a result of the province’s investment in affordable child care. This translated into a 1.8 percent increase in the employment rate for the province and a 1.7 percent boost to Quebec’s GDP.

And as for the dividends we stand to reap as a result of investing in our children? Those are much more difficult to quantify, but given all that we have been learning about the impact of early learning on healthy development, these returns present the greatest opportunities of all.

Armine Yalnizyan, senior economist of The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, made this point in a speech to the Canadian Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada in September 2010: “We’re going to need all hands on deck in the coming years. Whether struggling with the needs of an aging population or finding replacements for all the workers who will be retiring in the coming years, the children of today face huge expectations to turn in star performances as tomorrow’s adults. Canadian society will depend on their strengths and ingenuity. Make sure they all get a solid start today, and reap the reward of expanded potential tomorrow.”

The Time is Now

What will it take to move the child-care agenda forward? The answer: parents becoming increasingly political.

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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.