Opinion: Fund tots, not more child-care spots

Peter Jon Mitchell: Child-care policy needs to be flexible and allow parents to make the best decisions for their family

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Child care will be a main item on the menu when Parliament resumes on Sept. 23. It has simmered on the back burner for years but is now bubbling at full boil as Canada focuses on economic recovery. Some advocates have seized the moment to promote a pricey national universal child-care system while the federal spending taps are still wide open. But there are better ways to serve families. The federal government should start by committing to three key principles: a focus on child well-being, a recognition of families’ diverse care needs and fair access to funding.

Prioritizing the well-being of children is the place to start. Who could object? Though “child-centred” does sound like a cliché, the fact is that economics, not the welfare of children, is the driving force behind the recent push for child care. The provinces are under great pressure to ensure the child-care and education sectors are back at full capacity this fall so employed parents can return to work. Mothers’ labour force participation is the priority, amid reports women were disproportionately affected by the economic shutdown. Of course, economics has been the primary motivator for federal child-care funding for some time now. The idea has been to create incentives for more women to enter paid labour for more hours and thus boost gross domestic product — whether or not their doing so also boosts national well-being.

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Getting Canadians, including women, back to work is important but the first consideration of child-care policy should be children’s well-being. It doesn’t feature prominently in the push for a Quebec-style child-care system, however. Yes, some kids thrive in this kind of care, but it isn’t the best fit for all or maybe even most children. Nearly two decades of peer-reviewed research on Quebec’s daycare system has found that while there is some benefit for at-risk children, the system is associated with increased aggression and decreased motor and social skills among children generally. Studies have also found correlations between the program and inconsistent and hostile parenting. The supposed economic benefits of a national, universal child-care system are in some ways alluring — even if they come with a hefty price tag all Canadians will have to bear. But such a system won’t serve all children well.

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The federal government also needs to recognize the diverse care needs of families. Many parents are returning to on-site work, but for others the pandemic will permanently shift how and where they work. Could we see more interest in smaller care settings or, for that matter, in-home care? The rush to return the child-care sector to full capacity assumes a pre-pandemic status quo. Just as many families are moving away from standard cable or satellite TV packages in favour of on-demand streaming, parents may seek more diverse care options to meet their needs.

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Statistics Canada data from 2019 show that about 60 per cent of children under six years of age were in non-parental care, whether daycare centres, pre-schools, relatives, in-home care or home-based daycares in a provider’s residence, among other options. Parents choose the form of care they do for a variety of reasons, including location, price, hours and reliability of operation and the characteristics of the caregiver. A universal system does promise low fees for parents but is much less flexible in providing care options.

Finally, the federal government should ensure fair access to funding. Instead of moving toward a Quebec-style universal system, it should put money directly into the hands of parents, who can then choose the care that works best for their families. In short, fund tots not more spots. Child care is one policy among a spectrum of programs, including tax credits, leave policies and cash benefits, that have been developed piecemeal over time. The pandemic offers an opportunity to move toward a more cohesive family policy to meet the diverse and changing needs of Canadian families.

The future of work is shifting. Rather than pursuing a one-size-fits-all system, child-care policy needs to be flexible and allow parents to make the best decisions for their family. The federal government can start by negotiating multilateral funding agreements that give the provinces the flexibility to support parents directly in determining the care they need. Supporting our children begins with helping their families.

Financial Post

Peter Jon Mitchell is family program director at the think-tank Cardus.

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