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A new year and new myths about child care abound. CNS photo/Theresa Laurence

Mind the gap that doesn’t exist

  • January 12, 2024

Like the first baby born after midnight in the new year, the second day in 2024 marked the arrival of the first Globe and Mail editorial about child care.

“Ottawa and the provinces need to address a growing child care gap,” read the headline. If the $30 billion allocated to child care over five years in federal budget 2021 did one thing, it ensured child care would get even more attention. As it should.

Public money flowing to daycare is nothing new. It’s been happening for decades. But the even higher dollar amount and the label of a system are, or ought to be, cause for greater scrutiny. So here we are, entering 2024 with old arguments about the new child care plan. 

The Globe editorial highlights both strengths and weaknesses of the new system: parents are paying less for child care within the system while the very same child care is less accessible. But there are other problems with both the editorial and the system it describes.

The first problem is that the Globe espouses a very narrow definition of child care. A “growing gap” in child care is only true if you only consider one kind of care — licensed spaces in centres. Very few authors writing about child care acknowledge the full ecosystem of care, which includes a bigger range, from family to unlicensed day homes.

Even if we consider only non-parental care, a growing gap does not mean parents cannot find child care. Indeed, many different surveys point to parents not favouring licensed, centre-based spaces. Thus, the “gap” in licensed centres may exist because of a lack of demand.

In limiting the consideration of child care to professional care in licensed centres, the solutions then focus on greater pay for child care workers. But one issue with raising wages for early childhood educators is that it almost certainly means pulling in workers from other parallel industries, like long-term care, which are also short staffed. It’s not immediately clear where all the (even extremely well paid) daycare staff will come from.

Another is that child care work isn’t exclusively about money.

“The wage argument is an old school mentality, a legacy demand that has lost some of its relevance with the current workforce that really wants flexibility,” Robert Southam, who owns a child care centre in British Columbia, tells me.

Southam has little problem staffing his centres. Instead of looking for the right, official credentials he seeks people whose outlook fits with his ethos. This kind of flexibility is currently being outlawed as requirements for child care worker credentials grow in time and cost.

Finally, the Globe editorial cites a recent study from the University of British Columbia, which, so they report, shows “low-income single mothers who had access to daycare that was $10 a day or less reported significant improvements in their mental, physical and financial health.”

What that study actually showed is so very few low-income single mothers have access to the $10 a day daycare that when the study authors did “varied, sustained and significant recruitment efforts, (they) were unable to identify a sufficient number of lone mothers.” Thus the study features only 17 low income mothers with access to the cheaper daycare.

Statistics Canada tells us the proportion of income spent on child care, even for single-mother families, was 6.6 per cent in 2021. For couple families, it was 5.6 per cent in the same year. This doesn’t jive with the image of child care as a second mortgage. Are we spending billions on what was a manageable financial burden for many families?

Southam, in offering flexibility, is giving his staff time in lieu of pay. Of course, some people simply need cash. But there are costs to child care systems, costs to cheaper child care and costs to wage grids. Unintended consequences. It’s these we rarely discuss.

Instead, the Globe calls the goal of greatly expanding child care laudable. Okay, except the system is apparently achieving the opposite. The new system has caused great unrest in the sector.

The way to rectify this is a course correction in the provincial agreements — one that recognizes all care of children as child care and diverts money to parents. It will likely take the passing of another New Year’s or two — and further tracking of who can and cannot access the licensed spaces — to see articles clamouring for this kind of change.

(Andrea Mrozek is Senior Fellow with Cardus Family.) 

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