Canada

What should child-care support look like in the federal budget? Experts weigh in

OTTAWA —
With the federal budget set to be delivered April 19, many parents may be curious what promised child-care support from the Liberal government could look. CTVNews.ca spoke with some experts about what they hope to see.

Armine Yalnizyan, economist and Atkinson Foundation Fellow on the Future of Workers, says Ottawa should build off of the existing bilateral agreements the federal government has in place with the provinces and territories, allowing more funding to flow from the top-down to support change, not the status quo.

“We are at the proverbial fork in the road, where you could pour money into a marketplace, you can add money and stir, and what you get and is more of what we’ve got, which is market failure. Or, you could add money and actually build quality access and affordability,” she said in an interview with CTVNews.ca.

“If you want to actually improve the quality and the quantity, you do need conditions set on how that money gets spent.”

Yalnizyan is advocating for a national child-care plan to provide a level of consistency across the country that right now resembles a patchwork quilt of approaches and models.

In a September memo to key Liberal cabinet ministers, Yalnizyan and her colleagues wrote: “A federal plan needs to ensure enough money to stabilize capacity in early learning and childcare, and tie transfers to two key outcomes: reducing user costs and improving the quality and quantity of care, which includes ensuring decent work for childcare workers.”

As it stands today, provinces and territories oversee the specific rollout of the programs and direct funding to applicable operators. Besides Quebec, most child-care services are paid for by parents through a variety of avenues, some regulated, some unregulated. Only about 27 per cent of Canada’s children under 12 years old have access to regulated spaces.

“Most parents have to rely on unregulated care because there’s no regulated care that they can afford that’s nearby. So what does unregulated care look like? Huge amounts of turnover. It’s usually some mom that’s offering care or some grandma that is offering care down the street. It’s not bad care, don’t get me wrong, but to build up more of that is craziness on stilts,” said Yalnizyan.

Current federal spending on child care expires near the end of the decade but the Liberals are proposing to keep the money flowing, starting with $870 million a year in 2028.

All experts agree, more is needed and now more than ever as the country plans its exit strategy out of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has shuttered child-care facilities and forced parents, often women, to leave their jobs.

The Liberal government has acknowledged this too, stating during the release of their fall economic statement in November 2020 that the “she-cession” of the last year will only be reversed with access to affordable child care.

“I say this both as a working mother and as a minister of finance: Canada will not be truly competitive until all Canadian women have access to the affordable child care we need to support our participation in our country’s workforce,” Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said at the time, adding that more women left the workforce during the pandemic to take care of their children and many haven’t returned.

The statement pledged $20 million to develop a federal child-care and early learning secretariat; another $15 million to sustain the existing Indigenous secretariat; an additional $420 million in the 2021-22 year to attract and retain early childhood educators; and $75 million over the same time period to improve the quality and accessibility of Indigenous child-care programs.

The authors of a new C.D. Howe report argue that instead of implementing a pan-Canadian system, an “aggressive incrementalism” approach would be more attainable, as it embraces the reality of Canada’s federation.

They recommend replacing the existing Child Care Expense Deduction with “a more generous, progressive and more frequently paid refundable tax credit;” pushing provinces to boost child-care spaces by increasing operating grants for licensed providers; and consolidating federal funding into one permanent transfer to provinces, with very limited conditions.

“Instead of saying how can we blow this whole thing up and give the level of government that’s never done anything in child care all these new responsibilities, why don’t we ask the governments that are already doing stuff to just do a better job of what they’re doing? That seems to me to be more likely to produce a positive result,” said economist Ken Boessenkool, also a former senior policy adviser to prime minister Stephen Harper, in an interview with CTVNews.ca.

Boessenkool said if the government feels inclined to be more involved, they should “pick a lane” and that lane should focus on expanding the number of licensed child-care spaces across the country.

“Why would a government based in Ottawa know better what to do in Victoria, than a government based in Victoria,” he said, adding that the report has garnered a great deal of interest across the political spectrum.

Both agree that the pandemic has created an opportunity for change and the spring budget is the first step in outlining what that could look like.

“The window has never been more open for us to finally get it done,” said Yalnizyan.

With a file from The Canadian Press.




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