CANADA

GROWN-UPS’ CHOICE

OTTAWA’S DECISION TO ABANDON ITS DAY CARE PROGRAM MAY BE A CASE OF FISCAL RESTRAINT FORCING ITS HAND

GLEN ALLEN March 16 1992
CANADA

GROWN-UPS’ CHOICE

OTTAWA’S DECISION TO ABANDON ITS DAY CARE PROGRAM MAY BE A CASE OF FISCAL RESTRAINT FORCING ITS HAND

GLEN ALLEN March 16 1992

GROWN-UPS’ CHOICE

CANADA

OTTAWA’S DECISION TO ABANDON ITS DAY CARE PROGRAM MAY BE A CASE OF FISCAL RESTRAINT FORCING ITS HAND

They are the innocent victims of poverty: children who are abused and neglected, homeless and hungry, many selling their bodies and turning to drugs and crime in a recession-racked economy. The scope of the problem is underscored by a recent Statistics Canada study showing that more than one million Canadian children—one in six—now lives in poverty. For months, the Conservative government’s internal polls and other national surveys had indicated that Canadians wanted action on the issue of child poverty. Ottawa responded on Feb. 25, when Finance Minister Donald Mazankowski announced in his budget that the government would attack the problem by restructuring its existing child benefit programs—ensuring that funds are directed to the most needy children. But the new program comes at a steep price. According to Health and Welfare Minister Benoît Bouchard, the Mulroney government has abandoned its longstanding undertaking to provide at least $2 billion for a national, universally accessible day care program. Bouchard claims that the government could have opted to aid children in distress or fund day care—but not both. Said the minister: “I had to make a choice.”

But that choice may have more to do with the government’s cash-strapped financial situation than matters of principle. Under the Tory plan, beginning next January, family allowance benefits—Canada’s oldest universal social program—will be abolished and replaced by a monthly tax-free payment to needy parents. As a result, low-income working families will receive a maximum of $500 a year more than under the existing system; according to Mazankowski, the program will cost an additional $400 million next year. Many child-welfare workers applauded the increased attention to poor families, but the government’s move away from its commitment to day care left

stunned advocates questioning Ottawa’s priorities. Barbara Kilbride, executive director of the Ottawa-based Canadian Day Care Advocacy Association, says that Bouchard’s trade-off was unacceptable. She adds that at least one million more day care spaces are needed in addition to the 320,000 existing ones in licensed facilities. Complains Kilbride: “It’s as if a child comes to you with smallpox and a broken arm and we say, ‘We’ll cure the smallpox, but we’ll just leave the arm.’ ”

Bouchard’s announcement marked the end of almost eight years of Tory flirtation with day care. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney first raised the hopes of advocates during the 1984 election campaign when he undertook to set up a day care task force. The Tories subsequently proposed a $5.4-billion day care program, but

the legislation lapsed with the 1988 election call—and the Tories, citing the need to control government spending, did not revive it after winning their second mandate. Still, as recently as September, Bouchard declared that “the commitment about children is still there.” Says Mary Clancy, the Liberal critic for women’s issues: “Once the government found out what a national day care program would cost, the decision was made to retrench. They’ve just been waiting for the least worst time to tell us.” Indeed, the Tories spent months laying the groundwork for Bouchard’s announcement. In an apparent effort to minimize the anticipated public backlash against Ottawa’s decision to scrap its day care promise, the government commissioned a survey in August by Torontobased Decima Research, the Tory party’s fa-

vored polling company. The 1,200 Canadians who were interviewed for the survey were asked to rank six child-related issues in order of importance. The result: day care finished last behind, in order of priority, physical and sexual abuse of children, child poverty, children’s health, the needs of disabled children and living conditions of native children. Respondents were also asked if the government should fulfil its day care promise or address other children’s problems—no other choices were offered.

Only 25 per cent said that they preferred the day care option.

To the Tories, the message seemed simple: Canadians would likely accept the government’s decision to abandon its day care commitment if it was presented to them as part of an overall effort to help children in distress. The idea of publicly linking the two issues was further refined in a series of six governmentsponsored focus groups conducted in October by Ottawa-based Anderson Strategic Research. According to the research company’s report, “Most of those interviewed expressed a great deal of concern about the physical and sexual abuse of children. The problems of living in poverty were second. When stacked up against the other issues, child care was one of the lowest priorities.”

Still, some critics question the validity of the Tory surveys. For one thing, they point out

that the Decima poll limited questions about government spending priorities to children’s issues—without identifying other areas of government funding that might be viewed as less important than day care. Said Sue Wolstenholme, director of seven Halifax-area day care centres: “They didn’t ask if we should reduce spending on defence or spend less on reducing the deficit. What they asked was, should they spend less on day care or child abuse—that was the choice.” In the eyes of many, that was no choice at all. Notes NDP child-care critic Dawn Black: “Who would not respond by saying children at risk would come first? They have manipulated the poll in a way that will ensure the outcome they wanted.”

Black also took aim at the government’s new program to help poorer children, saying that the funds would be insignificant. She added that the Tory plan was “a move back in time—a Victorian principle of targeting the worthy needy.” Other critics also questioned the efficacy of the government’s new course. Claudette Bradshaw, who runs a day care program and food bank for low-income families in Moncton, N.B., noted that a monthly cash payment to parents in no way guarantees that children will benefit. “You’re still going to have abusers who aren’t going to pass on that money to their children,” she said.

But the government is clearly committed to its new program. In a speech at a Vancouver conference about children a week before Mazankowski tabled his budget, Bouchard declared: “In this land of plenty there are nearly one million young Canadians living in poverty. That isn’t acceptable to Canadians. That isn’t acceptable to my government.” And since then, Bouchard has repeatedly undertaken to launch an “action plan” to “re-profile existing resources and allocate significant new ones” towards child welfare within weeks. That plan will go beyond the budgetary measures, says Sarah Robertson, a special assistant to Bouchard. But, she added, the new package will not include any measures to enhance day care facilities.

That development will likely dishearten day care organizers and workers, who have waited eight years for the Tories to fulfil their campaign pledge. Said Halifax’s Wolstenholme: “For us, no change is bad news for both day care centres and parents in Nova Scotia.” Wolstenholme acknowledged that there is a growing need to help children at risk. But she asked: “Why are they pitting the needs of child care against abused children?” For her part, the Liberals’ Clancy accused the Conservatives of shortsightedness. “Of course children are subject to horrors,” she said. “But the government treats them each in its own separate little slot. They don’t see how the whole thing is interconnected. People still have children and they still have no place to put them.” Clearly, the government’s strategy of giving with one hand while holding back with the other will not lay to rest the demands for improvements on the day care front.

GLEN ALLEN in Ottawa