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Filling daycares and emptying neighbourhoods

By  Andrea Mrozek
  • May 12, 2022

With all 10 provinces and three territories newly signed on to the federal system of early learning and child care, there have been a spate of better-late-than-never articles about how this program won’t work as advertised. In short, parents aren’t going to get the deal they were promised.

Yet even if (especially if?) a system is the nirvana of all systems, firing on all cylinders and efficiently delivering as promised, there are still trade offs. Economists use the term opportunity costs. In the case of the daycare system, giving these trade offs more serious consideration might have meant eschewing the system all told. 

Some of the trade-offs are more evident, largely based in the existing Canadian example of Quebec. One is that choices for parents will decrease. In choosing to subsidize licensed not-for-profits, other daycare providers will struggle to compete. Some may become licensed, but others will choose not to. Shuttered daycares means parents can find fewer spaces outside the system. For those that stay afloat, if they lose children to the subsidized system, they’ll need to raise their fees, not lower them, to make ends meet.

Less obvious trade-offs exist, too. Take the stresses families face. If families were not dual income waged work families before, and they become one courtesy of the system, then they’ve traded old stresses for new ones. Before there was the stress of making less money as one parent stays home or both parents work part-time. There was time, but less money. The stress of the dual income family is different: There’s money but no time in the ongoing grind of a hyper-scheduled life. You can claim one choice is better than the other, but there can be little doubt about that trade-off.

The necessity of keeping to a strict schedule speaks to a bigger trade-off. Institutionalizing attendance for 12-month-olds at daycare centres as a norm makes changes to our communities. Kids go to their centre, while parents go off to work leaving empty neighbourhoods behind.

This already happened on one level in Ontario when full-day kindergarten was brought in. There was once a local grassroots family program during the day in a community centre near our house in Ottawa. Parents could drop in with their kids of varying preschool ages for play and activities. When full-day kindergarten came into effect, the program folded. Some might argue that the community simply moved. But the community centre included children of many ages, and socializing for the parents, as contrasted with dropping kids off at a program and leaving. It’s not a one-for-one trade.

This likewise means less intergenerational interaction. We’ll see less of this when we are segregated by age in our various settings — toddlers in care, parents at work. If you want to consider the sort of activity that might exist were less uniform choices to be enforced, contrast your local park on Saturday morning with a weekday. You’re likely to see the difference between busy playing and graveyard empty. 

We bemoan the loneliness and isolation of modern life. But do we adequately consider the difficult contributing factors and whether government is neutral on those? We’ve never had fewer children in Canada in spite of rising parental benefits. It’s not likely this federal plan will move us into replacement fertility. Instead of providing care for families, programs such as these are actually pushing on a different metric, which is increasing GDP.

We are facing an era where there is increased pressure to do waged work and outsource care. We haven’t paused to ask whether this can be successful in the rest of Canada (it hasn’t been in Quebec). We certainly haven’t asked whether it is desirable. There’s some likelihood a successful federal daycare system weakens community around us. The only silver lining, then, is that this federal program isn’t likely to be terribly successful, which may diminish the negative effects as it fails to deliver what it promised.

(Mrozek is Senior Fellow with Cardus Family.)

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