COLUMN

Budgeting for Canadian babies

Dian Cohen March 30 1987
COLUMN

Budgeting for Canadian babies

Dian Cohen March 30 1987

Budgeting for Canadian babies

COLUMN

Dian Cohen

The day care clock is steadily ticking away for the federal and provincial governments. The deadline for an agreement on a national child care plan between the federal and provincial ministers of health is June 30, 1987. By then, the federal minister, Jake Epp, will have had the report from the special parliamentary committee on child care in hand for three months. But it is doubtful that he will find easy answers in the report—due out at the end of March—or anywhere else, for that matter.

Day care is one of those issues that causes a lot of problems for a lot of people. There are now more than 1.8 million Canadian children under the age of 13 whose parents work outside the home. Of that number, 800,000 are preschoolers. Licensed day care facilities—those registered and monitored regularly by their provincial governments—can offer space for only 220,000 children. That means that more than 1.5 million children are being cared for— either full time or outside of school hours—by neighbors, relatives or other private help who are often paid in cash or barter arrangements that fall outside the official economy.

Strain on the limited child care available in Canada has been compounded by the dramatic increase in the number of single-parent families—usually the result of divorce. About 85 per cent of all such families are headed by women— and government statistics show that only one out of every two of those women will likely make enough money to keep her family above the poverty line. Many of those mothers, trapped in the grind of poverty, are unable to afford child care that would allow them to retrain and obtain a good job. Even parents who are relatively well off have problems finding good-quality child care. The best facilities are expensive and have long waiting lists. And even in many sought-after centres members of the staff are paid little and turnover is high—a threat to both the continuity of care and, some allege, the quality.

At the same time, the concept of “universal” day care has as yet been defined only in the barest terms by policymakers. It is envisaged as a system by which the government, directly or indirectly, would provide working Canadian parents of every income bracket with the means to obtain adequate public day care for their children. The federal Task

Force on Child Care, which completed its report in March, 1986, put the joint federal and provincial expenditure for a universal system of day care centres at an initial $4.5 billion for the first year. The task force also estimated that by the year 2001 universal day care would cost the governments $11.6 billion a year. Even diehard day care advocates acknowledge that such an amount must, almost inevitably, come from cutbacks somewhere else.

But despite the policy minefield ahead, Canadian men and women have shown that they feel strongly about day care for Canadian children. A poll conducted last January by Southam News showed that, of the respondents, 66 per cent of the women and 60 per cent of the men said that the government should provide some funding for day care. Of those respondents under the age of 34—those whose day care needs are the greatest—a full 79 per cent fa-

Many fear that if day care becomes a competitive business with profit as the bottom linef the quality will decline

vored government-funded day care. Couple that with Brian Mulroney’s 1984 campaign commitment to government funding for a national day care system—a promise that he reiterated last November—and you have a political hot potato that is not going to cool off.

The pressure on governments to institute a universal day care program may never be greater than in the next few years, when the baby boomers will reach the height of their childbearing years. But the idea of creating any federal policy right now that resembles the costly universal child allowance and pension payments entrenched in our system in the wealthy 1950s and 1960s is not likely to gain acceptance in business and government circles. Massive public support for universal day care may, however, outweigh considerations like the ballooning national debt.

Among the grey areas there is one practical day care question under pointed debate, in view of the limited dollars available. Should day care centres be opened up to commercial entrepreneurs who will run the service as a profitable business, or should day

care remain nonprofit and governmentfunded? Many advocates of universal day care are opposed to the concept of commercial centres, claiming that when there is market competition and profit is the bottom line, the quality of day care will decline. Certain government and business people, however, argue that giving the private sector a stake in the industry, with the government regulating minimum standards, would ensure the establishment of more centres over a shorter time.

Whatever the final setup, one question remains: where will the money come from? The provinces and the federal government now spend more than $500 million a year on day care. Should they be spending more? Should the government give operating grants to day care centres or subsidize parents directly and let them choose the kind of care they want their children to have? Each question opens up a host of considerations. For one, no day care system that is universal in its approach will fill the needs of every parent. While many people are happy to have the standard day care centre, open from 8 in the morning to 5:30 in the evening, others need more flexible hours, overnight care or the possibility of variable attendance.

Indeed, as politicians learn that not all of those who need day care are a typical nine-to-five family, the least regulated option may be the best one: direct funding for parents to use for their children’s care as they see fit, whether it be to offset the expenses of a nanny, to pay the day care centre of their choice or to subsidize the mother who chooses to stay home with her child. One option: the creation of a registered maternity benefits plan, much like a registered retirement savings plan, which would allow tax-free saving to pay for the expense of having a baby and to compensate parents who stay at home for their children’s preschool years.

It is clear, however, that women are not going to withdraw en masse from the workforce. It is also clear that Canada needs its children desperately and needs them in the best possible health and state of mind. Given those things, we need to find the most flexible, costeffective and rational ways to give our children the best possible quality care. It is not going to be easy—but Epp and the other bureaucrats taking the lead in the decision-making must realize that it is too important to be ignored.

Dian Cohen is a Montreal-based economics writer.