Comparing Then and Now: Child Care and Child and Family Benefits

Here’s a quick summary of some key conclusions from my new study published by IRPP today – Early Learning and Child Care in Canada: Where Have We Come From, Where Are We Going?



Child care spacesPositiveThere were a lot more licensed child care spaces in 2019 than there were in 1986 — 7 times as many — serving a fairly stable number of children.
Children in centre carePositiveThe popularity and acceptance of licensed centre-based child care has increased dramatically. Back in the early 1980s, only about 10% of preschool children of employed mothers used centre care, 40% were in informal paid care and about 50% were cared for by family members. In 2019, about half of preschool children of employed parents were in centre care, 20% in paid family child care and 30% cared for by family members.
Full-day kindergartenPositiveKindergarten in public schools has moved from mostly half-days during the school year for 5-year-olds to being widely available for full schooldays to 4- and 5-year-olds.
Mothers in the workforcePositiveLabour force participation of mothers has increased substantially since 1986. For instance, in 1986 the labour force participation rate for mothers with the youngest child 3 to 5 years of age was 62%. Now, it is 78%. This is still below rates in Quebec or for mothers with older children.
Child care feesNegativeChild care fees have risen substantially over the period from the mid-1980s. In fact, using preschool fees as the marker and adjusting for inflation, typical child care centre fees are over $3,000 more expensive in Ontario, Alberta and Nova Scotia, and more than $2,000 more expensive in British Columbia and New Brunswick. Quebec and Manitoba have been notable exceptions.
Staff-child ratiosMixedIn most provinces and territories, legislated staff-child ratios for centre care have not changed very much since 1986. Quebec’s staff-child ratios for children younger than 3 years are the worst across jurisdictions. The only province or territory to have gotten pretty consistently worse in staff-child ratios from 1986 to 2019 is Alberta.
Funding for low-income familiesMixedFunding of child care services across Canada has changed dramatically over the years. Back in 1986, the main federal funding instrument was the Canada Assistance Plan, which funded child care subsidies. All provinces and territories had child care subsidy payment systems targeting lower-income families and children. More than half of all child care funding came in the form of subsidies — often much more than half. Nowadays, Quebec no longer has a child care subsidy program of this type. In other provinces and territories, child care subsidies now comprise about 40% of total funding. However, there were approximately twice as many children receiving low-income child care subsidies in 2019 as in 1986 (176,738 compared to approximately 82,000)
Funding for operatorsPositiveDirect operational funding to licensed/regulated child care services — to lower fees, to raise wages, to improve quality — was in 2019 a very substantial proportion of all funding. It was nearly 100% of Quebec’s funding, and 50% on average in other provinces and territories.
Child care expenses deductionPositiveThe Child Care Expenses Deduction allows earners to deduct work-related child care expenses from income before taxes are assessed. In 1986, the claimable limit was $2,000 per child. Now, limits are $8,000 annually for children 0 to 6 and $5,000 annually for children 7 to 15 years.
Maternity and parental benefitsPositiveParental benefits have changed very dramatically since 1986. There were no legislated parental benefits at that time, only 15 weeks of maternity benefits under Unemployment Insurance. Now, Quebec and the rest of Canada have different maternity and parental benefit schemes, offering different levels of income replacement and different amounts of benefits reserved for the non-birthing parent. The total length of benefits — maternity, parental, paternity — can exceed a year, and can now include self-employed parents.
Child care educator wagesMixedChild care staff were poorly paid in 1986 and they are still poorly paid. Data on child care workers’ compensation are sketchy, but the evidence suggests that child care wages have improved and that wage enhancement grants in various provinces and territories have had some effect. But the picture is uneven. In some of Canada’s largest provinces, where the bulk of child care educators are located, and compared with the average hourly earnings of other workers, the movement in wages over time has been small.
Federal child benefitsPositiveFederal child benefits are, without doubt, larger than they were in 1986. These benefits provide between $5,000 and $7,000 per child (depending on age) to families with low incomes and some amount of child benefits to nearly all families. These benefits have had an impact on child poverty and are a very significant boost to income for families with very low incomes.