Liberal child-care plan smacks of ticking boxes as opposed to meaningful reform

Posted on June 13, 2017 in Child & Family Policy Context – Full Comment
June 12, 2017.   JOHN IVISON

The mental image conjured up by the government’s deal with the provinces and territories on day-care was of a friend’s jet-ski that somehow managed to burst into flames and sink at the same time.

In this case, the odd juxtaposition is of a government that is, at the same time, spending too little and too much on child care.

Todd Korol / The Canadian Press, nat_stagingSocial Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos speaks to reporters at a Liberal cabinet retreat in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017. The Liberal government is set to sign a national child care deal with the provinces, but Quebec is staying out of the multilateral agreement.

To explain – Jean-Yves Duclos, the whip-smart Social Development Minister, has forged a deal with most of the provinces on a framework to create new child-care spaces across the country, coming close to fulfilling a dream of most prime ministers since Brian Mulroney first committed to the idea in 1984.

The feds have agreed to spend $7.5 billion over 11 years in a deal that hopes to create 40,000 new spaces. Details are scarce, since the bilateral agreements with the respective provinces and territories will follow later. Ministers from B.C. and Quebec were not present – the former because of the current political flux; the latter because…, well it’s Quebec.

We’ve been here before. Former Liberal minister Ken Dryden signed up the provinces to an even more lucrative deal in 2005, only to see the general election scupper his plan. Stephen Harper was clear from the outset he had no time for “institutionalized child care” and instead used the $5 billion earmarked by Paul Martin’s government to send $100 cheques to parents.

So this is a big deal. In opposition, the Trudeau Liberals promised to create “affordable, high quality, flexible and fully inclusive child care” – but not the universal model proposed by Dryden.

“A one-size-fits-all national program… is impractical and unfair”, the election platform said.

That has upset some child-care advocates, who favour a universal system and point out that the $500 million or so a year in the Duclos plan is far less than the $847 million (inflation adjusted) committed in the Dryden version.

As a Toronto Star editorial thundered: “Ottawa should be looking at spending billions, not millions, on early childhood education each year”.

Yet the reality is, the government is spending billions supporting families – possibly more billions than the country can afford on a sustained basis.

The reality is, the government is spending billions supporting families – possibly more billions than the country can afford on a sustained basis

Duclos made the point at his press conference, when he said government expenditure is twice as much as Martin’s government planned in 2005.

Ottawa currently spends $23 billion on family support through the Canada Child Benefit; a further $1.4 billion through the Canada Social Transfer to provinces and territories; and $1.1 billion through the Child Care Expense Deduction. Add the $500 million a year for the child care deal and you hit $26 billion.

The main driver is obviously the CCB – an incredibly generous package that offers families earning less than $30,000 up to $6,400 per child under six years of age.

The plan costs $5 billion more than the Tories’ Universal Child Care Benefit and doesn’t claw back any tax.

Bill Morneau, the Finance Minister, called it “the most significant social policy innovation in a generation”. It’s certainly the most significant contributor to the sea of red ink upon which this government is trying to stay afloat.

The cash-for-parents model has definite benefits, particularly in light of recent studies that suggest that universal daycare in Quebec has led to a decline in non-cognitive skills (things like self-discipline and emotional stability).

Parents have never been in a better financial position to decide for themselves what kind of child-care arrangement they prefer.

All of which sets up the question: since we’re already spending far more than at any time in Canadian history, why the need to spend even more in an area of provincial jurisdiction?

The answer is entirely political. The pre-election commitment was made to counter the NDP’s big idea – a $5 billion plan to create one million child-care spaces. Now, the Liberals are obliged to follow through on it, but have already blown through the cash needed to do it properly.

“This random hodge-podge of funding for child-care is more expensive than a universal system and isn’t good for children or parents,” said Jerry Dias, Unifor’s national president.

He said the $7 billion might look significant but is in fact not enough to make progress in this area.

There is demand for more affordable child-care spaces. Doug Currie, the Prince Edward Island Education Minister, said he estimates less than half 0-4-year-olds in his province have access to quality child-care.

But the provinces and territories already receive federal social transfers to help them with that.

They have reasons to be cheerful.

They will happily take Ottawa’s money to do what they were going to do anyway. They are not required to provide matching funding, which killed the idea in 1993, and there is limited federal oversight.

Ottawa’s position smacks of ticking off boxes. The Liberals won an election, in part, thanks to their pledge to provide “help that works for modern families”.

They have ended up spending too much on one program and not enough on the other – burning and sinking at the same time.

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