FAQ: WHAT’S WRONG WITH FOR-PROFIT CHILD CARE?

What’s the position of the federal government on for-profit child care?
The fall economic statement and the federal budget made things pretty clear.  The Quebec model based on not-for-profit Early Childhood Centres (CPEs) is the model to follow. 

The 2021 Budget provides $30 Billion over 5 years for the building of a “Canada-wide, community-based system of quality child care.” (p. 101).  A community-based system means publicly-planned and publicly-regulated not-for-profit and public services. 

The budget compares this to public health care and the public school system: “Just as public school provides children with quality education in their neighbourhoods, the government’s goal is to ensure that all families have access to high-quality, affordable and flexible early learning and child care no matter where they live.” (p. 101).

In case those statements were not clear enough, the budget states that over the next five years, the federal government will work with provinces and territories “to support primarily not-for-profit sector child care providers to grow quality spaces across the country while ensuring that families in all licensed spaces benefit from more affordable child care.” (p. 103)

The position is not ideological; it is practical.  Child care systems dominated by not-for-profit and public providers operate differently than those dominated by commercial providers.  Just compare co-ordinated child care systems in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and New Zealand to wild-west markets for child care in England, Australia and the United States.  Or look at the recent experience during COVID in for-profit long-term care homes in Ontario.  In child care systems dominated by not-for-profit and public provision, low-income families are better served, the quality of services is higher and more reliable and the costs are lower.

Notice that the federal position does not say that for-profit child care will be abolished.  Only that it will not be supported to grow.  Many families have their children in for-profit services that will continue to get government funding.  However, going forward, the federal government insists that the growth will be not-for-profit or public and that new federal money will not support the expansion of private, for-profit centre-based services.  For-profit operators, and especially multinational corporate chains of child care services, will be vocal in their desire and willingness to build new services quickly.  If the Government is mesmerized by this siren song and relies on for-profit child care operators for expansion, it will largely lose control over the evolution of and quality of the early learning and child care system.

What is needed are producers of child care whose primary objective is the provision of quality experiences for children, producers who are willing to make constant quality improvement their watchword. These producers need to be financially transparent and open (because government will need to monitor costs and account for expenditures). These producers need to pay staff well according to established salary grids to ensure stability and quality of services.  Working conditions should include planning time and professional development.  These producers need to have as a key objective making early learning and child care into a public service at good quality and affordable for all.

If existing for-profit providers are willing to accept these types of conditions on their operation, they should be welcomed to continue operation, with operational funding.  However, new for-profit and corporate child care cannot be part of a new community-based system.  THE KEY PROVISION THAT ALL BILATERAL AGREEMENTS MUST HAVE IS THAT NO OPERATIONAL FUNDING SHOULD BE AVAILABLE TO NEW OR EXPANDED FOR-PROFIT PROVIDERS.

Remember, there will be substantial downward pressures on quality as the child care sector expands rapidly, even if it is dominated by not-for-profit and public providers. There will be many new staff with little experience, there will be shortages of trained staff, and there will be inadequate numbers of experienced educators to properly mentor new staff. In this circumstance, to rely on providers whose fundamental objectives do not align well with quality promotion would be a serious mistake.

  • What’s wrong with for-profit child care?

    In some other industries, the profit motive is a beautiful thing, IMHO.  Most of the goods and services we consume day-to-day are sold to us by private businesses, competing with each other to attract consumer dollars, each business striving to succeed in producing the most attractive useful product at the best price.  Some of these businesses may get out of hand with false advertising or delivery of shoddy goods, but government regulation may be able to control these negative behaviours and leave us with mostly positive results.
  • However, early learning and child care is a service where minor regulation of private profit-seeking businesses is not enough to deliver good results.   Early learning and child care is a sector that has much in common with education.  In general, education is much better when providers are public or not-for-profit.  Primary and secondary education are delivered in public schools for free.  Tertiary education is delivered by not-for-profit community colleges and universities for fees that are subsidized with public dollars.  
  • We think that a primary and secondary education system that is delivered by public institutions (schools) behaves differently than it would if it were dominated by private profit-seeking businesses competing for the consumer dollar.  We think that tertiary education delivered by profit-seeking businesses would be different and worse than when delivered by not-for-profit community colleges and universities.  There are issues of quality, there are issues of trust in the behaviour of the provider, there are issues of equity of delivery and access.  All of these make us prefer not-for-profit and public delivery of educational services.
  • The fundamental objective of for-profit institutions is to make profit for owners and shareholders. In child care, high profits come from hiring less qualified staff, paying low staff compensation, and raising fees.  In economic theory, markets are supposed to control this behaviour.  The “control” mechanism is supposed to be competition for consumers’ dollars, enforced by the willingness of parents to leave a low-quality high-fee child care facility and move their child to another one with better quality and lower fees.  But it is difficult for parents to accurately perceive and measure the quality that their children receive, so it is difficult for consumers to hold producers to account using market mechanisms. And most parents are hesitant to move their children away from known friends and caregivers into a new arrangement, unless things are really bad. 
  • Further, fees will soon be more or less the same everywhere at $10 a day, so the cost to parents will not be a big factor in parental decisions. There is overwhelming evidence from many countries that market mechanisms are completely inadequate to foster and promote good quality early learning and child care services.
  • Isn’t the preference for not-for-profit child care just ideological?

No, not really.  In fact, it is more true that the preference for for-profit child care is ideological.  What do I mean?  Well, the argument for for-profit child care is based on what we all learned in Economics 101; that the profit motive leads businesses to serve the public interest because they have to compete for consumer dollars.  But it is a fiction that consumers voting with their dollars will be controlling the price, quality and accessibility of child care going forward.  When parent fees drop to an average of $10 a day by 2025-26, over 80% of the funds for children of these ages will come from government.  Parents will be paying less than 20% of the full costs of providing care. 

No matter how you deliver the government assistance, that means that the parent is no longer the main consumer, controlling child care providers by voting with their dollars for better quality, more services or lower fees.  The main consumer, the main driver of what happens in the child care “market” will be the government, as it is in all levels of education.  So, it is, more or less, a purely ideological statement to say that competitive markets will make for-profit providers be more efficient, that they will serve parent needs better, that they will provide better quality care, that they will be more responsive to what parents and children need and want.

  • Doesn’t for-profit child care provide more “choice” for parents?
  • Not really.  The “choice” that parents want and need is choice of services that are more convenient for parents in terms of location and hours and better for children in terms of availability of special needs programming, variety in programming (such as outdoor-oriented programs), support for particular cultural and language learning etc.   Most of these programs are more expensive to offer than standard child care.  For-profit operators are less, rather than more, likely to offer them when fees are controlled.

It is a charade to suggest that “for-profit” is a type of choice that parents need.  Parents have diverse needs.  As we develop the early learning and child care system going forward, we all need to plan for the provision of a variety of services that serves the tapestry of parent and child needs.  The federal government has made clear its willingness to fund “flexible” and inclusive forms of child care.  This should be specified in the bilateral agreements that provinces/territories sign.

  • Is there any evidence that the quality of for-profit child care is worse?

Sure.  There is good academic evidence that for-profit provision tends to be of lower quality.  And noted Canadian economist Professor Pierre Fortin has summarized the quality results from two Quebec studies very nicely in this chart.

            This evidence is based on lengthy and detailed on-site quality evaluations using    accepted scales for the measurement of the factors important to children’s           development.  As the chart shows us, children in not-for-profit CPEs in Quebec have

            been receiving good or excellent quality child care.  Many children in for-profit full-fee    child care centres have been receiving child care of inadequate quality.  

  • But isn’t it true that public and not-for-profit enterprises are inefficient and for-profit providers can produce services at lower costs?

So far, there is little evidence of this.   The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives recently made over 9,000 phone calls to child care facilities across Canada, inquiring about the fees they charge to parents.  Their conclusion: “We found that for-profit centres generally charge more for preschool spaces than not-for-profit centres do. In 19 of the 25 cities for which we had data (76%) for-profit centres charged at least 10% more than not-for-profit centres. In the more extreme cases (Calgary, Richmond, Richmond Hill and Edmonton), for-profit centres’ preschool-age fees were 50% to 60% higher than their not-for-profit counterparts.” (pp. 20-21).  The chart below from that publication shows that, in 15 of the 25 cities, for-profits charge on average over 20% higher parent fees. 

It is worth noting that in Australia, with child care provision dominated by for-profit operators, the average cost of full-time care is over $27,000 a year for all ages of children.

  • But isn’t it true that for-profits can build spaces faster?  We do need lots more spaces.
    When it comes to growth, for-profit child care providers have structural advantages over not-for-profits.  Not-for-profits are frequently unwilling to go into debt, so unless there is a program of capital grants to pay for the costs of building new facilities or repurposing existing buildings, it is hard for not-for-profits to expand. And the mission of not-for-profits is to provide good quality care that children and families need, rather than to expand. 

    The mission of for-profit businesses is to make a profit, so expansion is a natural fit, particularly when the government is paying over 80% of the operating costs and providing a guaranteed demand for services.  Shareholders or banks are always willing to ante up when the government is willing to provide guaranteed funding for profit-making businesses.

But there are ways around these structural barriers faced by not-for-profits.  Not-for-profits need two main things if they are to build new capacity quickly.  First, is access to capital.  Some of this should come in the form of capital grants to not-for-profits or municipalities or school boards who are willing to move quickly.  Some of this can be in the form of low-interest loans.  Not-for-profits are allowed to borrow money, but most banks are unwilling to lend because of perceived high risk of default.  But governments can guarantee the loans, and, in general, there will be ample operating funding for child care centres to pay back the loans over time.

The second thing that not-for-profits need is a development champion – a development agency that specializes in handling all the details involved in building new capacity or renovating existing capacity.  This is familiar territory for co-operative housing or not-for-profit housing developments.  There are specialized agencies that handle the housing development and then turn the housing over to co-ops or not-for-profit housing agencies to manage and operate.

Neither of these barriers is particularly insurmountable, but they do require governments to facilitate surmounting them.  In many cases, public agencies such as municipalities, school boards, and community colleges can help a great deal in supporting not-for-profit and public developments.  And the federal government should be open to expansions of kindergarten integrated with before-and-after school care.  This is particularly true in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta that currently have only half-day kindergarten for 5-year-olds.

Ontario shows that rapid expansion of not-for-profit child care services is very possible.  The information is available in the annual Ontario statistical report on early learning and child care.  Over the last 10 years to 2019-20, centre spaces increased in Ontario by 198,600.  Fully 85% of the increase (168,900 spaces) was in not-for-profit child care.  There are now 462,800 centre spaces in Ontario.

  • On balance, what should we conclude about for-profit child care?

Some for-profit child care providers are good, some are bad.  This is not really a discussion about individual operators.  Particularly when small for-profit operations are run by persons knowledgeable about early childhood education, they can sometimes do quite a good job providing child care services. 

The real issue is “Should the early learning and child care systems that we are building in Canada be dominated by for-profit corporate child care operators?”   We know that if government policy is agnostic between for-profit and not-for-profit, and generous operating funding for over 80% of costs is made available to both, we will quickly have for-profits dominate new provision of services.  You can bet that for-profits will move fast when generous profit opportunities appear.  The federal and provincial/territorial governments when they are negotiating the bilateral funding agreements (which they are doing right now) have to explicitly decide to favour new not-for-profit and public providers for support.  That means that new or expanded for-profit operations should not be eligible for operating funding going forward.  The time to decide the future of the early learning and child care sector is now!

Gordon Cleveland
June 21, 2021

An Open Letter to Ken Boessenkool about the Child Care Expense Deduction (and other things)

I participated recently in the webinar at which you spoke, sponsored by the Toronto Star, First Policy Response, the Lawson Foundation and others.  The topic was “Delivering on the Commitment: A Canada-Wide Childcare Plan”.   

I often disagree with your policy positions in relation to child care, but I think it is important in any debate that we can agree on facts before opinion takes over.  So, if you will permit me, let me correct a couple of things that you said at that webinar. 

First, the Government of Ontario did not get rid of the Child Care Expense Deduction in Ontario.  It still exists.  They layered the child care expenses tax credit (sometimes called CARE) on top of the Child Care Expense Deduction.  These measures have the same base and the same limits, to make it easy for families, but they are distinct. I explain below that these measures actually have different purposes.

Second, the federal government’s new child care financing proposals announced in the 2021 Budget are not 50/50.  The term 50/50 was used once in the budget documents to suggest that by 2025-26 the federal government’s financial contribution to early learning and child care would have risen to equal the current expenditures of provinces and territories (including kindergarten expenditures in the provincial-territorial total).  However, there is no requirement for 50/50 cost-sharing of any of the $30 Billion over 5 years or $8.3 Billion going forward from 2025-26 onwards.  The design is, of course, deliberate.  The federal government wants to make it difficult for provinces to refuse to sign bilateral agreements and realizes that child care is in provincial jurisdiction.  So, it is offering money if provinces are willing to agree to commit to the affordability goals it has stated.  I will not be surprised if the federal government encourages provinces to also make investments when it is in bilateral discussions.  That would make things easier.  But there is no requirement for provincial/territorial contributions beyond maintaining their current levels of expenditure. 

Third, you treat the Child Care Expense Deduction as if it were designed to help families with child care costs.  If it was intended as financial support for child care costs, I would agree with you that it is very poorly designed – bigger tax breaks for the rich than the poor, based on the income of the lower earner, any type of paid child care is eligible, etc etc.  

But the Child Care Expense Deduction is a measure to create horizontal equity in the tax system; it is a tax measure, not a measure to reduce child care costs.  The Child Care Expense Deduction looks superficially similar to a refundable tax credit for child care expenses, but it is fundamentally different and should be treated differently.  Ever since 1972, the Child Care Expense Deduction has been a way of defining what income should be taxable and what income should not.  The Child Care Expense Deduction was a response to the analysis in the 1970 Royal Commission on the Status of Women which wrote: “… expenses for the care of children or other dependants are denied to a working mother as a legitimate deduction from her gross salary or wages. Under the present system, the wife who works outside and has one or more dependants who require care pays a tax on earnings out of which she has to pay for child-care. Since the couple must pay for child-care services out of net income, after payment of income tax, a working mother has to earn a substantial salary if her working outside is to be financially more profitable than the value of her services in the home.” (p. 292).   Two years after this report the Government of Canada established the Child Care Expense Deduction. The Child Care Expense Deduction affects the after-tax income of the family – it is an element of fair taxation of working parents.  And getting rid of it would mean potentially punitive taxation of mothers entering the work force. 

Do this thought experiment.  If child care for your young child costs $8,000 a year and you (as the lower earner in your family) are in a tax bracket with a marginal tax rate of 25%, how much are your child care costs?  You are going to say $6,000 a year ($8,000 – (.25 x $8,000)).  But the correct answer is $8,000.  All the Child Care Expense Deduction does is ensure that you pay your child care expenses (up to $8,000 per young child) in pre-tax dollars rather than after-tax dollars.  If you had to pay these child care expenses in after-tax dollars, you would have to earn about $10,667 dollars, pay 25% of this in income taxes, in order to have $8,000 to pay child care expenses.  The CCED treats child care (any kind of paid child care) as a necessary work expense, which is therefore deductible from income before levying tax rates on the income. 

Cheers,
Gordon

How Big Will the Expansion of Child Care Services Need to be in Ontario?

The federal budget puts forward very substantial amounts of money for early learning and child care – $30 Billion over 5 years, or more importantly $8.3 Billion of new federal money in perpetuity from 2025-26 onwards.  The federal template calls for a cut of 50% in parent fees by the end of 2022, and an average fee of $10 a day for children 0-5 years of age across Canada (outside Quebec) by 2025-26. 

How much more child care capacity will Ontario need?  It’s an important question.  Ontario will need to plan a very rapid expansion of capacity, but do it wisely so that the new child care capacity offers good quality services and is created where it is most needed.

The bottom-line conclusion from the rough calculation below is that when we lower parent fees dramatically in Ontario, we will have a very substantial number of children wanting to use licensed child care.  We are likely to need about 150,000 new spaces if parent fees are cut by 50% and we will need about 250,000 spaces if parent fees are reduced to $10 a day (similar to Quebec). 

TABLE 1
Children, Spaces, and Need for Child Care Capacity in Ontario

 # of children in ONCurrent # of spaces in centres and home child care ( 2019 -20 est.)Total # of licensed spaces needed to match Quebec take-up ratesEst. # of licensed spaces needed if fee cut by 50%Children in ON with mothers in labour force
Infant
(0-18
months)
201,90014,80070,30024,400 
Toddler
(18-30
months)
135,60051,00089,30084,200 
Preschool
(30 – 48
months)
278,900120,000203,500198,200 
Kindergarten
(48–72
months)
286,500111,900236,900184,800 
Total
for
0-5 years
902,900297,600600,000491,600 545,000*
Notes: Numbers are rounded to nearest 100.  Numbers for preschoolers have been corrected.
* Number of children 1-5 years with mothers in labour force is 466,100.  The number of children 0-5 years of age currently using any form of non-parental child care is about 475,000.

Table 1 gives the numbers.  It tells us how many children in each of the traditional age groupings (infant, toddler, preschool and kindergarten) there are in Ontario.  It tells us the estimated number of centre-based plus home child care spaces currently available[1]. It tells us how many spaces would be needed in each of these age groupings in Ontario if our child care take-up rates were the same as those in Quebec.  In the next column, we show a rough calculation of how many licensed spaces would be needed if parent fees are cut by 50% (this is supposed to happen by the end of 2022).  The final column shows us, for reference, how many children in Ontario currently have mothers in the labour force (and might therefore switch into licensed child care from some other arrangement).


We are likely to need about 200,000 new spaces if parent fees are cut by 50% and we will need about 300,000 spaces if parent fees are reduced to $10 a day.  This calculation ignores any increase in the use of school aged child care for children in Grade 1 and above (which we should expect).  It also ignores any decisions by parents to use infant care in order to get around waiting lists for services for older children.

If we take the rough estimates of demand when parent fees are cut by 50%, these imply that we will need nearly 10,000 more infant spaces, 33,000 more toddler spaces, 78,200 more preschool spaces and 73,000 additional kindergarten spaces by the end of 2022 to avoid facing shortages of child care supply.

The shortage of trained ECEs will be a very significant constraint on expansion as well.  Already there are substantial shortages of Registered Early Childhood Educators.  For a very rough calculation, we might assume (based on calculations in Appendix B of Affordable for All: Making Licensed Child Care Affordable in Ontario) that one new staff member will be needed for every four children in 0-5 year old licensed child care and, varying across ages, about half of these will need to be RECEs.  If this were true, Ontario would need about 18,750 new ECEs by the end of 2022 and a total of about 31,250 new ECEs by 2025-26.  And this does not account for additional centre supervisors needed.

These calculations have lots of potential policy implications.  One is that capital expansion has to proceed very quickly.  A second is that the expansion of the trained workforce cannot wait.  A third is that there will be excess demand at certain times, so we need to consider how waiting lists and other ways of managing this demand will work.  I will explore these and other implications soon.


[1] Currently available means 2019-20 which is before the pandemic.  Hopefully, most of these spaces will reopen after the pandemic, but this is uncertain.

Why Andrew Coyne is Wrong About Child Care Funding

Andrew Coyne knows very little about child care, but feels free to pontificate about it.  It’s a shame, because some people still listen to him and believe he has done his homework.  He hasn’t.  And so, he concludes that the federal government should help parents, especially low-income ones, by giving them a direct subsidy – money.  There are more than a few problems with his opinion piece in the Globe and Mail

Apparently, Andrew doesn’t realize that we already have a direct payment to parents, similar to the one he is calling for and geared to income, called the Canada Child Benefit.   If your family earns less than about $32,000 annually, you will receive $563.75 per month for each of your children under six years and $475.66 for each child 6-17 years of age.  The Canada Child Benefit is a partial solution to poverty, but it is not a child care policy.

Of course, the funding announced in the recent federal budget is designed for a different purpose – to dramatically improve the affordability and accessibility of early learning and child care services.  The plan is explicitly feminist; it is designed to remove barriers to the full participation of mothers in the economy and society.  That’s why it is designed to follow Quebec’s CPE example of low-fee licensed child care.  Andrew Coyne apparently doesn’t get this; he apparently doesn’t see gender as a relevant policy issue. 

Andrew Coyne applies a very old-fashioned economist lens to his thinking about child care. Those economists rely on what they learned in the first-year course, that it is always better to give someone money rather giving them a service.  But, giving money directly to families (as with Stephen Harper’s Universal Child Care Benefit), will tend to discourage mothers’ employment and reinforce current gender roles in families and in the workplace.  So, handing out money is not a good place to start.

On top of this, Andrew doesn’t know much about Quebec’s child care situation (or else he is simply cherry-picking his facts to fit his preconceptions). 

Andrew Coyne says that only 1/3rd of Quebec’s child care is subsidized.  

I encourage him to check the website of the Quebec Ministry of the Family; it has a lot of data available to correct his misperceptions.   In December 2019, nearly 80% of the child care spots for children 0-4 years of age were directly subsidized, at $8.35 per day (some in CPEs, some in family child care, some in subsidized for-profit child care).  About 55,000 children were in “unsubsidized” child care, but even here a provincial child care expenses tax credit covers a substantial portion of a family’s child care costs. 

Andrew Coyne says that Quebec’s child care system is far from universal.
Nearly 75% of Quebec’s children who are between one and four years of age are in early learning and child care services substantially paid for by the Quebec government, over 80% for 4-year-olds.  Andrew Coyne likes to say that Quebec’s child care system is not universal; this evidence suggests it is very close to universal. 

Andrew Coyne says there are huge waiting lists for child care
As economist Pierre Fortin reckons there is no longer a problem of excess demand for child care spots in Quebec.  There is no “shortage of spaces in aggregate”.  In fact, there are empty child care spaces amongst the for-profit full-fee child care centres whose parents will receive a tax credit.  Where there is excess demand is for spaces in the relatively high-quality CPE network.  So, there is a problem, but not the problem that Andrew Coyne identifies.  Parents are on long waiting lists for non-profit CPE spaces, because the quality there is so much better than in the wild-west for-profit centres that have been more recently established.  The federal government has learned the right lessons from this and will strongly favour funding going only to non-profit enterprises and family homes.

Andrew Coyne says that Quebec’s child care funding “disproportionately benefits the well-to-do”.
Coyne is not wrong here, but neither is he fair in his judgement.  We can compare the situation of low-income children in Quebec to those from high-income families – the bottom 20% to the top 20% of children.  When we do that, using Statistics Canada data from 2019, we find that 68% of children from low-income families in Quebec use licensed child care compared to nearly 78% of children from the highest-income quintile in Quebec.  I agree, this disproportionately benefits the well-to-do and we should structure the new bilateral agreements with provinces and territories to bend the stick the other way.  It’s important.

However, Andrew Coyne is cherry-picking here.  What he doesn’t examine is this same problem of “disproportionate benefit” in other provinces.  Take Ontario.  Despite the existence of child care subsidies targeted at low-income families, only 27% of children from the low-income quintile are using licensed child care.  But just about 50% of children in the top-income quintile use licensed child care.  So, this problem of disproportionate benefit for the well-to-do is bigger outside Quebec than in it.  “Universal” child care contributes to solving the problem of disproportionate benefit rather than making it worse.

Andrew Coyne says that Quebec child care appears to have negative effects on children and families
I agree with Andrew that the impact of child care on children’s development is an important one, but his assessment is not balanced.  Professor Pierre Fortin reads the literature differently.  As he says, “all published studies in the fields of psychology, psychiatry and medicine have given high marks to the CPE network, which is attended by 35 per cent of children in care. Their unanimous finding is that CPEs deliver positive cognitive, health and behavioural results on average, and are effective in reducing the vulnerability of children of all income classes.”  According to Fortin, the big problem is quality in the for-profit child care centres, and to some extent in family child care services.  This is where the negative effects are concentrated. 

The new bilateral agreements should therefore work on fostering high-quality child care in not-for-profit centres, or in publicly-operated facilities.

Andrew has his knickers in a twist about the money Quebec will receive from the federal government.  He is busy developing a conspiracy theory that the only reason that the federal government likes the Quebec CPE model of child care is so that it can funnel free money to Quebec!  This ridiculous claim is beneath him.  Andrew should talk to any person knowledgeable about child care policy before making this outlandish claim.  Admittedly, this federal funding will be beneficial for Quebec, and will, no doubt, help them improve quality in their existing child care system.  But anyone will tell you that the Quebec model, although it is not perfect, has many fans amongst those who know a lot about child care.

Gordon Cleveland
May 2nd, 2021

Another Poorly Conceived Child Care Proposal from C.D. Howe

I believe we need a child care system across Canada that is as dependable, beneficial for children and accessible as the public school system and nearly as affordable.  I think that is what the Finance Minister promised in the Fall Economic Statement when she said that “Quebec can show us the way on child care.”

Ken Boessenkool and Jennifer Robson offer a different perspective on how to build a child care system in a C.D. Howe Commentary entitled “Aggressive Incrementalism: Strengthening the Foundations of Canada’s Approach to Childcare”. They argue for an incremental approach – “building on what exists”.   This contrasts with what they call the “big bang approach” of universal childcare services at low or no cost to parents, fuelled by substantial federal financial contributions and leadership. 

What they offer is a strange mixture of refundable tax credits, increased operating and capital grants to licensed providers, and a permanent federal transfer of funds to the provinces and territories.   They don’t like principles-based child care funding agreements with provinces, but they, perplexingly, want this new permanent federal funding to be conditional on provincial efforts to expand licensed child care.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, this is a poorly thought-out, poorly informed set of recommendations for addressing the current child care crisis that families face. 

First of all, their proposals do not really build on what exists.  They want to dramatically transform the Child Care Expense Deduction into a refundable tax credit, which breaks with what has existed since the early 1970s.  And they want to break with bilateral agreements, which was the federal funding approach under Paul Martin and now under the Trudeau government.  

A “big bang” approach would, instead, keep the bilateral approach for funneling child care assistance to provinces and territories.  Those agreements would probably direct increased funds towards operating and wage enhancement grants that already exist (perhaps with new conditions).  And quite possibly, the existing Child Care Expense Deduction would be maintained.  So, Boessenkool and Robson’s proposals break from existing funding arrangements more than building on what exists, and possibly more than the “big bang” approach would do.

The biggest problem with the Boessenkool and Robson piece is that they scarcely seem to recognize the centrality of the affordability problem.  As they write, “Our focus here is … on incremental and structural reforms to increase the quantity and quality of childcare in Canada.” (p. 3).  They emphasize over and over the need for more spaces, but affordability gets a very light touch.  The problem is that without very dramatic moves to improve child care affordability, the majority of new spaces will stay empty.  Affordability and availability of child care are not separate problems; they have to be solved together. 

Boessenkool and Robson’s main instrument to improve affordability is a refundable tax credit for child care expenses.  This would replace the existing Child Care Expense Deduction.  They believe the Child Care Expense Deduction is regressive and patriarchal and should be replaced with this tax credit.  The truth is that they do not understand the Child Care Expense Deduction (CCED) at all.  It is not a child care funding mechanism; never was, never will be.  The CCED is part of the definition of income in the tax system.  For our tax system to be fair (horizontally equitable), we allow the lower earner in the family to deduct his or her (but mostly her) necessary costs of employment from the income she earns, before we apply tax rates to determine how much tax she should pay.  If we don’t do this, this lower earner in the family will face punitive tax treatment when she seeks employment.  Getting rid of the Child Care Expense Deduction would do more to reinforce the patriarchy than to smash it.

Boessenkool and Robson think that the tax credit will solve the affordability problem.  How much money will the refundable tax credit give you?   Well, to judge from Doug Ford’s child care tax credit in Ontario, it won’t give you much. 

Conservative politicians selling tax credits in the 2018 Ontario election announced that tax credits would cover up to 75% of a family’s child care costs.   In the cold light of day after the election, the Financial Accountability Office of Ontario (FAO) studied what the likely impact of the tax credit would be in Ontario.  The FAO estimated that only 300 families across Ontario, or one-tenth of one percent of all families claiming the tax credit, would be eligible for the maximum benefit – the 75% assistance promised.  And, although there was much talk during the election of $6,000 or $7,000 of financial assistance to Ontario families, the FAO estimated that the average family receiving a tax credit would get $1,300 worth of help.  So much for the wonder of tax credits to deal with the child care affordability problem, let alone issues of accessibility, quality, special needs, etc.   Of course, Quebec has experienced the other negative effects of using tax credits: dramatic expansion of for-profit child care of considerably lower average quality.

If you do the math, you will find that most Canadian families would be only a few hundred dollars per year better off with this tax credit, and many mothers would face higher tax rates.  What Boessenkool and Robson don’t get is that it will take a “big bang” to dramatically improve child care affordability.  And improving child care affordability is the key to solving the child care crisis that families face.

I am pleased that Boessenkool and Robson recognize the importance of providing direct operating grants and capital grants to child care providers.  However, they don’t seem to realize that operating grants are already a major funding mechanism in provinces and territories.  And, they seem to believe that, having solved the affordability problem with their tax credit, the purpose of these more generous grants to providers is to expand the number of child care spaces.  In fact, operating grants have two primary effects: first, to lower parent fees, and second, to increase staff compensation.  And therefore, these grants primarily impact affordability and quality of services.  The grants do not directly fund the expansion of spaces, although increased affordability means that the economics of space expansion will work out better.

Having misunderstood the purpose of these operating grants, Boessenkool and Robson then develop odd suggestions for the distribution of these grants – they should be based on the birthrate in a neighbourhood, or based on the existence of child care deserts, or they should be allocated by parents to their favoured child care provider.   Some of Boessenkool and Robson’s suggestions could be interpreted as a belief that there should be more planning in the child care system – that facilities should be grown most in the neighbourhoods that need them most.  Others, like the suggestion that these grants should take the form of a child care voucher, head in the opposite direction.  It is a confusing mish-mash.

Boessenkool and Robson suggest that the federal government should transfer child care funding to the provinces and territories in the form of a permanent block grant rather than through bilateral agreements with conditions for the expenditure of funds.  This seems unrealistic and undesirable at this stage.  It is unrealistic because solving affordability, accessibility and quality issues in child care will take Billions of dollars of annual funding.  The federal government will need reasonable assurance that this money is being spent to deliver affordability, accessibility and quality, rather than, for instance, to enrich private corporate interests in different jurisdictions.  Once a good and effective child care system is established across different jurisdictions, block grants could be a viable funding mechanism.

To state it succinctly, I think the primary federal government objective is that there comes to be, in each jurisdiction, a planned, coherent and diverse system of community-based high-quality early learning and child care services that are affordable and accessible to families.  The federal government needs to be respectful of provincial/territorial jurisdiction (which has important benefits).  But the federal government also needs to ensure that funding goes towards achieving this multi-faceted objective.

Gordon Cleveland

March 31, 2021