The second theme in today’s publication by IRPP (see earlier blog post for the first) is what needs to happen now to make sure that $10 a day child care works out for families and children. There’s a tsunami of additional demand for child care on the horizon as child care fees plummet and we’re not ready for it. Many provinces have not placed much emphasis on expansion of not-for-profit child care spaces and haven’t provided the funding or tools necessary to make it happen.
… I make the following recommendations to federal and provincial governments:
Rapidly expand not-for-profit and public child care facilities. Provincial and territorial governments should provide substantial capital grants or loan guarantees to not-for-profit operators to accelerate a planned and coordinated expansion. Large jurisdictions should enable specialized development agencies to design, plan and build not-for-profit centres, and should encourage the delivery of more child care services by municipalities, colleges and school boards.
Increase the wages of early childhood educators. With little improvement in pay for child care educators in over 30 years, wages have to rise substantially to recruit and retain enough qualified early childhood educators to meet demand and maintain or improve staff-child ratios.
Be prepared to inject more funding. No one has yet addressed whether $9 Billion a year is enough money to provide universal $10 a day child care in all jurisdictions, especially those where child care fees have been particularly high for years (e.g., B.C., Alberta, and Ontario). It probably isn’t. A cost-shared federal-provincial supplementary financing program in high-fee jurisdictions would make good fiscal and social sense, as governments get a substantial revenue boost from the increased labour force participation of mothers.
Close gaps in maternity and parental benefits. There is a stark difference in the coverage and generosity of maternity and parental benefits between Quebec, which has its own program, and the rest of Canada, which relies on federal Employment Insurance. The federal government should address these gaps as part of planned Employment Insurance reforms. It should follow through on the Liberals’ 2019 election platform promise to ensure that parent who do not qualify for paid leave through EI receive income benefits during the first year of their child’s life.
There 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 care
The 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.
Kindergarten 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 workforce
Labour 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 fees
Child 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.
In 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 families
Funding 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 operators
Direct 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 deduction
The 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 benefits
Parental 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 wages
Child 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 benefits
Federal 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.
How should we judge whether the new Ontario child care agreement with the federal government is a good one? There are many things to look for; I’ve written about this before. Yet, if I boil it down, the key concern is how quickly Ontario is able and willing to expand services – moving towards a quality universal system of child care for preschool children.
There are two issues here. First, does Ontario have an ambitious plan to expand not-for-profit licensed capacity? We know that Ontario will eventually need between 200,000 and 300,000 additional child care spaces. We also know that even with no additional funding from the Ontario government, there is enough federal money to expand by at least 100,000 spaces in the new four-year agreement. Without dramatic expansion NOW there will be shortages and long waiting lists. Without substantial expansion, lower income families will be pushed to the back of the line and employment barriers for mothers will still be high. Ontario’s target should be at least 150,000 spaces over the term of the agreement. Anything less will be a big problem.
The second issue is really the first issue (in priority). Expansion cannot happen without more trained early childhood educators. An early childhood educator must have a two-year college diploma and related practicum experience. All jurisdictions across Canada are short of fully qualified educators already and we will need a minimum of 20,000 more in Ontario for capacity to expand. It will not be possible to expand the supply of trained educators and maintain quality services without improving salaries and benefits substantially. Does the new Ontario agreement have substantial up-front money flowing to increase staff compensation? If not, you know the government is not really serious about moving towards universal affordable high-quality care.
There are two things we know will be in the Ontario agreement, because they form the federal government’s bottom line. There will be a cut in licensed child care fees to 50% by the end of December 2022. And Ontario will agree that fees will be down to an average of $10 a day by the end of 2025-26. But is there a plan to deal with the very large increase in demand this will create? Is there capital money in grants and loans? Is there up-front money to help municipalities and non-profit providers jump into the development process now? Ontario’s Action Plan should answer this. If it doesn’t, Ontario has been wasting the year they waited to sign the agreement.
It’s about time that Ontario signed up and started working on affordability, availability, quality, and inclusivity. Better late than never. But I am concerned that Ontario is only worried about pinching pennies and has not done the work to plan for transforming Ontario’s child care system to meet parents’ needs.
The Institute for Gender and the Economy recently sponsored a workshop on Care Work in the Recovery Economy. I did a short presentation with slides looking at Alberta’s new child care policies – following on the funding agreement with the federal government. Do the new policies get us to $10 a day? Are low-income families still disadvantaged with the burden of child care costs? I thought you might like to see the slides and draw conclusions.
But she’s wrong. There is enough money on the table to take giant steps towards making child care both affordable and accessible in the next five years. After all, right now Ontario only spends about $2 billion per year on licensed child care. By 2025-26, the federal government will be providing over $3 billion of additional funds for Ontario to spend on child care. That more than doubles Ontario’s child care spending. Come on, Ontario! Sharpen your pencils! Can’t you figure an intelligent way to spend an extra $3 billion per year making child care more accessible and affordable for Ontario families?
Yes, it will be tough. Child care is expensive in Ontario, so cutting fees in half and then getting them down to $10 a day will be expensive. I estimate that it will cost just over $1 billion per year to cut current fees by half for existing child care spaces. And I estimate that the net cost of lowering fees on existing spaces to $10 a day will be just over $1.5 Billion. I’ve shared these calculations with Armine. That’s a lot of money, but over the next five years, offering existing child care spaces at $10 a day will eat up only about one-half of the cumulative total of $10.2 Billion that Ontario will get from the federal government over that time. That leaves half of the federal money to devote to expansion and to lowering the fees on new spaces down to $10 a day. And to increasing staff compensation so that new qualified staff can be recruited and existing staff will stay in the sector. And to all of the other aspects of building an affordable, accessible, high-quality system of child care in Ontario.
In fact, Doug Ford has a pretty poor record when it comes to supporting good-quality affordable early learning and child care. When he came into office back in 2018, he immediately cancelled Kathleen Wynne’s decision to proceed with providing free child care to preschool-age children. That would have cost about $1.6 Billion of provincial money. In its place, he devised the Ontario Child Care Tax Credit to provide a sprinkling of expenditure relief for the use of any type of child care. That provided very little support for families and did nothing to build a child care system. And then Ford and his ministers made plans to weaken full-day kindergarten but backed off at the last minute when they read the polls about how popular full-day kindergarten is. So, I don’t trust Doug Ford’s motives in delaying signing a child care agreement – he is not my child care knight in shining armour.
The federal government is offering provincial/territorial and Indigenous governments enough money to go a long way towards building an affordable, accessible Canada-wide child care system. Families need it; children need it – it’s time for Doug Ford to stop playing games and sign up for child care.