UN daycare wake-up call

TheStar.com – Opinion/editorial – UN daycare wake-up call
December 12, 2008

Parents who rush to get on daycare waiting lists long before their children are even born won’t be surprised to hear that Canada ranks last among developed nations in providing this vital service.

We’ve long heard of mothers who want to work but can’t afford to get a job because the daycare bill would be higher than their paycheque. But the United Nations Children’s Fund report released yesterday is still a wake-up call about just how bad things really are here.

A comparison of 25 developed countries puts Canada, along with Ireland, at the bottom. Even the United States is ahead of us.

Canada met just one of 10 standards measuring affordability and quality of daycare and other early childhood services, such as parental leave and overall government spending. (The U.S. met three.)

We’re in an era when an increasing number of kids are being cared for outside the home – at younger ages – and when our knowledge has grown about how vital learning in the early years is to success later in life. Yet Canada doesn’t even have a national daycare strategy.

What we have is a Conservative government in Ottawa that believes $100-a-month cheques constitute “universal daycare.” Never mind that it’s taxable or that some parents can’t even find a daycare space on which to spend the money.

To a Toronto mother, accustomed to working full time but now only able to work the odd shift because she’s waiting for subsidized daycare, it’s simple. “With child care I could do so much more.”

This is what politicians in Ottawa and Queen’s Park have never quite managed to grasp. Insufficient and unaffordable daycare holds people back and that holds the economy back.

Given the current slowdown, this issue is more important than ever. Regulated daycare provides jobs for child-care workers and frees up family members to work (and pay taxes). Quality daycare also gives kids a strong foundation for starting school.

For every dollar invested in early childhood care and education, the return can be as high as $8, notes the UNICEF report. This is the kind of math the Conservative government needs to pay attention to as it looks for ways to stimulate the economy in the upcoming budget.

Canada’s appalling rating in this report shows federal action and funding on daycare is desperately needed. Normally, there would be little chance of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives listening. But with their current tenuous hold on government, there is always a chance they will take heed.

Let’s hope the opposition parties remember their pre-election promises to expand daycare when they talk to Harper about what he’ll have to put in his budget to earn their support.

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