Why does government child-care policy often have little to do with children?

NationalPost.com – Opinion: Whenever you hear of the latest version of daycare/family policy, you may choose to ask yourself what it’s really about
July 27, 2018.   Andrea Mrozek, National Post

It’s amazing how often the word “child” gets overlooked in the phrase “child-care policy.”

We often lay it on thick that policy X or Y is “for the children.” Because they are the future. And we should teach them well and let them lead the way. (You know the song, and I digress.)

Astoundingly, however, what’s best for children is often not the focal point of why we change or implement child-care policy. Scratch just below the surface and you’ll find several reasons why child-care policy is put in place. None of them has to do with helping your family.

Scratch just below the surface and you’ll find several reasons why child-care policy is put in place

First, there’s “child-care policy” that’s aimed at increasing labour-force participation. The governor of the Bank of Canada, Stephen Poloz, played that hand in a May 2018 speech, when he said a “more significant source of economic potential is higher labour-force participation by women.” He noted that Quebec increased labour-force participation “particularly by lowering the cost of child care and extending parental-leave provisions.” This argument is oft-repeated, most recently by Financial Post business columnist Kevin Carmichael. “The debate whether Canada should be subsidizing daycare is over,” Carmichael declared this week.

Why is it over? He cites the stagnant labour-force participation rates of women in Ontario, without a government daycare system and the growth in Quebec, which has one.

Economic growth is not the only goal we see masquerading as child-care policy. Some also see child care as a tool to increase fertility rates. Fertility concerns are genuine. With the exception of Israel, no developed country is reaching replacement fertility levels of 2.1. It’s hard to maintain generous social welfare benefits of any kind, be it health care, palliative care, or child care without enough children growing into future taxpayers.

That concern comes through in a July 2018 Statistics Canada report about fertility rates and labour-force participation among women in Quebec and Ontario. It found that Quebec women have a higher fertility rate (1.59) than Ontario women (1.46). To what can we attribute this difference? The report suggests “Scandinavian-inspired family policies” in Quebec have made motherhood and paid work “more compatible” than in Ontario. In other words, Quebec has a government daycare system, which increases fertility. This is a correlation at best. And when we examine the Canadian landscape writ-large, even that may not hold. After all, why then does Alberta have an even higher fertility rate of 1.69, without a “universal” child-care system? (And for the record, there is no one “Scandinavian” family policy.)

Government policy as a lever to increase women’s fertility provides a segue into discussing feminist reasons for child-care policy. Feminists don’t generally seem to mind that women have children. However, many do seem to mind if those mothers don’t work for pay. And many older-school feminists believe women won’t have equal opportunities without “a child-care system.” Some might then go on to say that women choose not to have children at all without access to child care, hence the link to fertility reasons for child-care policy. Used here, child-care policy once again isn’t actually about kids. It’s about advancing feminist ideals.

At this point it is important to point out that, of course, there are many different ways to do child-care policy well. One could improve licensing and regulation so that independent or home daycares can thrive and entrepreneurs can grow. Some nations offer subsidies to families so they can afford a variety of options. Some have vouchers. Others use taxation measures to decrease families’ tax bills, recognizing the value of the family institution. Some do it all — offering state daycare and generous benefits — though one wonders how sustainable that truly is.

It often boils down to an appeal for the most expensive and ineffective option on the list: Quebec-style daycare

But when we discuss “child-care policy” in Canada right now, it often boils down to an appeal for the most expensive and ineffective option on the list: Quebec-style daycare. (Hilariously, even with shortages and wait lists in the province, the system is still widely touted as “universal.”) The simple fact that there is so often a push for this particular form of child-care policy reveals yet another non-child-related reason to enact child-care policy: to grow government, particularly the education ministries that would benefit, at a time when more and more parents are opting out of the public school system.

Whenever you hear of the latest version of child-care/family policy, you may choose to ask yourself what it’s really about. It may be to help families. It may even be to help children. However, more often than not, there are entirely different goals in mind.

— Andrea Mrozek is family program director at think-tank Cardus


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