Canada

For the Children

Jean Chrétien’s Liberals put the focus on Canada’s kids as they move family matters to the top of their legislative agenda

John Geddes October 25 1999
Canada

For the Children

Jean Chrétien’s Liberals put the focus on Canada’s kids as they move family matters to the top of their legislative agenda

John Geddes October 25 1999

For the Children

Canada

John Geddes

When it comes to family matters, the private and the political can never be neatly separated. So when Prime Minister Jean Chrétien made his pitch in last week's speech from the throne to put children at the top of his agenda—and perhaps at the forefront of his bid for a legacy beyond budget-balancing—policy debate soon gave way to personal reflections. Reform Leader Preston Manning, in an emotional speech in the House, spoke at length about his family, paying tribute to his homemaker wife, Sandra, and went on to urge the Liberals not to “focus on government programs that attempt to substitute for families.” In an interview with Macleans, Human Resources Development Minister Jane

Stewart, the mother of two teenagers who has lead responsibility for the new childrens agenda, came at it from another perspective. “Its not June and Ward Cleaver anymore,” she said, referring to the archetypal TV family of the ’50s. “Two parents are working most of the time.”

Stewarts emphasis on helping two-income families flows from her own experience as a harried working mom years ago. “I took my baby out to somebody’s apartment, I had somebody come into our condo townhouse, I used day care—I used it all,” she said. “It was very tough. There really was no perfect solution.” And there are limits to how much the federal government can do now to ease the stresses

Jean Chrétien’s Liberals put the focus on Canada’s kids as they move family matters to the top of their legislative agenda

Stewart remembers so vividly. Much of the responsibility falls to the provinces, with their jurisdiction over education and health. But Chrétien was able to announce one bold measure entirely under Ottawa’s control: employment insurance maternity and parental benefits, worth up to $413 a week, will be stretched to a full year from the current six months. The cost: $1.25 billion a year. “Nothing is more important,” Chrétien declared, “than for parents to be able to spend the maximum amount of time with newborn children in the critical early months of a child’s life.”

Doubling the period during which new parents can collect El benefits was a widely praised move. But even this step generated its share of controversy. To qualify, a parent must have worked at least 35 hours a week in the 20 weeks before leaving a job to take care of a new baby. That requirement is much tougher than the rules in place before the Liberals reformed the El system in 1996. As a result, the Canadian Labour Congress estimates, about 12,000 women a year who would previously have qualified are left with no maternity benefits. “I’m certainly not against extending the time,” said Katherine Scott, a senior policy associate with the Canadian Council on Social Development. “But the critical problem right now is that only a minority of families have access to El benefits.”

Government officials said they expect to look at easing eligibility rules along with stretching the benefits period. In a second firm commitment, Chrétien announced that Ottawa will make a “significant investment” in its tax break for low-income families by July 1, 2001. Two previous federal cash injections into the so-called National Child Benefit were worth $850 million each. Under the program, Ottawa offers a tax credit to low-income families, and the provinces reduce their social assistance payments by the same amount. In return, the provinces agree to reinvest those savings in improved social services. Typically, a two-child family with $20,000 in income gets $3,750 under the program, a benefit that is phased out when income reaches $29,590. A Finance official said the department will study whether to hike the benefit’s value to families earning under $30,000, or to extend it to households with higher incomes.

That decision will be made as part of the much broader deliberations over how much income tax relief to offer in the year 2000 federal budget, expected in late February or early March. While the throne speech promised to lower the tax burden on families, it contained no details. Finance Minister Paul Martin quickly weighed in against those who interpreted the greater clarity the speech provided in listing spending areas—from children, to research and development, to infrastructure—as evidence that cutting taxes has slipped to a lower priority. “You deal with taxes in budgets,” Martin said flatly. “This was not a budget.”

But room for tax relief may be getting cramped. Some economists project that Ottawa will have about $10 billion of “fiscal dividend” to divvy up in the next fiscal year, of which $3 billion is expected to be set aside for debt repayment and

perhaps $1 billion as a hedge against the unexpected. That would leave $6 billion to be split among a long list of spending items and tax reductions. And even modest-sounding tax measures can cost plenty: shaving the middle income tax bracket—the 26 per cent rate now levied on income from $29,590 to $59,180—by just one percentage point would cost Ottawa $1.1 billion per year.

Pressure for tax cuts is entangled with children’s policy issues. Manning served notice in his response to the throne speech that the Reform party intends to hammer away on its familiar message that tax reduction is the best thing government can do for children. A big tax break might even give some two-earner families enough cash for one parent to stay home, he suggested, reducing demand for day care. “Am I missing something,” Manning asked, “or would it not be simpler to leave the dollars in their pockets, stop the unfair taxation of single-income families, and see just how many new child care spaces that creates?”

His pointed reference to single-income families signalled the Reform party’s plan to rekindle a controversy that raged last spring. Reform MPs put the government on the defen-

sive by asking about the disparity between what two-earner and single-earner families pay in taxes. The government’s own estimates show a typical one-earner family of four with an income of $50,000 paying a federal tax bill of $6,464, while a two-earner family of four pays just $3,160. The main reason for the gap: families in which both parents work can claim a child care expense deduction of up to $7,000 for children under age 7 and $4,000 for children 7 to 16. There is no similar tax break for families with a stayat-home parent.

Government sources say senior Finance officials lean against trying to devise some new tax benefit aimed at one-earner families. But Martin may have some sympathy with the idea. He met in late August with Beverley Smith, a Calgary high-school teacher who, after staying home to raise four children, became a populist critic of policies she argues discriminate against all mothers who make that choice. “I get the impression he is dealing with some real conflicts, because his wife was at home with his kids,” Smith said of her conversation with Martin, whose wife, Sheila, stayed out of the workforce to raise their three sons, now all grown.

Politicians and family-policy advocates of all stripes are

quick to stress that they don’t aim to favour one way of raising kids over another. What kind of upbringing works best, though, remains an emotioncharged question. Last week, Statistics Canada released a major study that found children who were enrolled in “early childhood programs and day care centres” tend to perform better in kindergarten and Grade 1 than kids who “stay at home with a parent” during the preschool years. The study was quickly touted by some as a dramatic endorsement of day care—but in interviews its authors cautioned against that sweeping conclusion. Their report lumps together children in fulltime day care with kids whose stay-athome parent—usually their mother— takes them out to nursery schools, play groups, moms-and-tots programs, and other early-childhood educational programs. Only children raised at home by parents who pursued none of those outside activities were shown to lag in the early school years.

Still, the report was fodder for Liberals pressing for an ambitious set of early-childhood aims. Toronto MP John Godfrey, an outspoken advocate of a children’s policy to rival the creation of universal health care a generation ago, cited it as more evidence that a concerted effort to stimulate children in the first few years of life is long overdue. Godfrey proposes community centres, partly funded by Ottawa, that would offer a range of activities—from full-time day care and part-time programs to courses for new parents. Setting up such centres, though, would require a landmark deal with the provinces. The throne speech set a December, 2000, deadline for forging a National Children’s Agenda shared by Ottawa and the provinces. But federal officials said those discussions, launched in late 1997, have not moved much beyond setting out broad principles for co-operation—and they could not name even one concrete program idea the two levels of government seem ready to combine forces on. It seems the children’s strategy born last week could be in for a difficult first year. G3