Kids and daycare worker at the Dante school daycare on Tuesday March 17, 2020. Photo by Pierre Obendrauf /Montreal Gazette

Barbara Kay: One-size-fits-all solutions won’t work for childcare, especially after the pandemic

Parental mindsets have shifted during this extraordinary year. The idea of a national daycare plan should be relegated to the back burner until the new normal reveals its contours

COVID-19 has changed the habits of those in the work force, but parents of very young children have been especially hard hit. Prior to the pandemic, many parents were using childcare services for reasons of work and study. But a national survey of childcare facilities in April-May 2020 found that 70 per cent of centres reported they had laid off some or all of their staff. In Ontario and Quebec, care centres went down to five per cent capacity.

Thus, it is probably as inopportune a time for the government to roll out a national childcare plan as it would be to embark on a national office-building campaign. We don’t yet know what is transient and what may be permanent in COVID-19 effects. The last thing we need — metaphorically speaking — is a childcare behemoth if some Canadian families end up finding a donkey is what they actually need, while others are happy sharing a sheepdog with neighbours. One-size-fits-all solutions, especially for Canadian families, whose childcare needs and desires range across a wide spectrum, should be viewed with suspicion, and this file should be relegated to the back burner until the new normal reveals its contours.

A timely and helpful report from the Angus Reid Institute in association with the Cardus think-tank, titled “Child Care in Canada: Little consensus over best approach to assist parents of little children,” updates the issue of childcare in Canada for children under age six in a two-pronged investigation to discover: what childcare options Canadian parents are choosing, and why; and which kinds of funding Canadians favour. The survey used a randomized sample of 1,203 Canadian adults, of whom 663 had at least one child under age six.

Just over half of Canadian parents with children under six use outside care: home-based (39 per cent) or centre-based (60 per cent), either part or full time (30 hours a week). Location — being close to work, school or home — is a top priority for about half of care-using parents. Reputation and cost come next, with “program characteristics” ranking as a first priority for only 23 per cent. (Translation: convenient, safe babysitting with peer socializing and fun activity trumps “education” for most parents.)

Overall, parents using care report very high satisfaction with their arrangement, with a margin of 19-1 reporting “fine/okay” or “works very well/no desire to seek an alternative,” the most satisfied parents being those using full-time and centre care.

Of the 47 per cent who choose home parenting, about a third are home on parental leave, another third because that is where they want to be. Of the rest, reasons range from the pandemic keeping them at home anyway (24 per cent) to outside care being too expensive (27 per cent) to “no other alternative” (12 per cent).

Notably, a Statistics Canada national survey last June of 32,000 Canadian parents of children aged 0-14 indicated that almost a quarter of participants said their children would not return to childcare when centres reopen — half because of health concerns, half for other reasons, including having found other satisfactory arrangements. The Angus Reid/Cardus survey found that 28 per cent of those forced by COVID centre closings to find new arrangements are still using them, “revealing a longer-term impact of the pandemic on childcare availability.” That’s a significant number, more than a quarter of the childcare demographic.

Here’s a more significant finding. Of those who are at home for any reason, a full 84 per cent professed a wish to stay home full-time until their children were in grade school. Another clue that parental mindsets have shifted during this extraordinary year is that of those parents working outside the home using care centres, more than half — 53 per cent — expressed a desire to be at home: some out of guilt for time away from their children, others envious of full-time parenting friends.

Support for a national system is high, overall, at 72 per cent. It is strongest in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada, with opposition clustered in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Female support outweighs male, especially ages 18-34 (89 per cent to 69 per cent). The vast majority of Liberal (85 per cent) and NDP voters (90 per cent) support it, while those who voted for the Conservative party in the past election are divided (49 per cent to 51 per cent).

But what kind of system? Direct-to-families or direct-to-providers? The report says people express the most support for policies that favour parental freedom: direct tax benefits or those offering financial support to families. But the federal government’s plan is reportedly to follow the “Quebec model,” already in place for several years, according to which the provincial government subsidizes childcare services for children under five years, with parents paying a flat fee of less than $10 a day to the provider.

The Quebec model is rigid. Many parents need only two or three days supplemental care a week, but are forced to sign up for the full 30 hours. A certain number of high-income, non-working people game the system (anecdotally, I can attest to this): They put their kids in cheap daycare for convenience, not necessity.

Like many conservatives, I’m for local solutions and consumer choice. A government plan will require a huge, expensive bureaucracy to run it. It will be over-regulated, requiring hitherto undemanded levels of professionalism that will in turn drive up pay rates, and deprive moderately educated people who enjoy taking care of kids in their homes of their modest but fulfilling careers.

Daycare unions will do what teachers’ unions do on a regular basis, namely focus on what is good for their members at the expense of their clients, as the Quebec daycare union representing 10,000 workers did with a general strike last September. Costs will spiral continually upward. Indeed, a July Policy Options report on the necessity for a national childcare plan observes that achieving this goal will incur “spending by $2 billion each year beginning with $2 billion in 2021-22 (to $4 billion in 2022-23, $6 billion in 2023-24, and so on.)”

These numbers are unlikely to deter our present what’s-a-billion government. But they should deter a conservative opposition. CPC Leader Erin O’Toole has yet to provide a policy update since becoming leader, even though in his campaign he promised to increase the amount families could claim under the Child Care Expense Deduction, and temporarily convert it into a refundable tax credit. This is a good issue for you, Mr. O’Toole. Let’s hear from you.

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