Friday, April 21, 2006

Posturing aside, there is no Conservative child care plan

VICTORIA - Stephen Harper is busily talking tough about the Conservatives' plan to send $1,200 per preschooler out to Canadians.
The money's going to be in the budget, Harper vows. If the opposition votes against it, we'll have another election.
It's Harper's right to spend your money this way. He campaigned on the promise.
But the opposition parties have no intention of waging a fight to stop the payments. What politician in his right mind would take a stand aimed at keeping parents from getting money?
Once Harper is through posturing, he needs to recognize that it's ridiculous to call the payments a child care plan.
The Conservatives want to send families $1,200 a year for every child under seven.
It's a weird notion. The idea that the government will take money from a low-income senior in Duncan and hand it to a millionaire parent in West Van makes no public policy sense.
Still, for many parents the money will make a useful difference. A single parent with two small children on welfare in B.C.receives up to $555 for rent, and another $573 a month for all other expenses. It's tough life, and children suffer. The extra $1,200 a year will make a real difference. (Income Assistance Minister Claude Richmond has promised the province won't claw back the money.)
But it's not a child care plan. It's not enough money to come close to allowing parents to pay for child care, which typically would be about $550 per month. And it will not stimulate entrepreneurs or non-profits to provide more spaces.
The Harper government says it will eventually unveil a plan to create child care spaces. Companies will be offered $20,000 per space in tax credits. The government says it will offer a total of $250 million in credits, enough to pay for 125,000 spaces.
But Ontario and Quebec have tried similar tax schemes, without success. Companies don't want the headaches of becoming responsible for a child care centre, even one run by a contractor. It's a complicated, regulated, demanding operation. Their focus is on their business.
Nothing Harper has talked about replaces the $5-billion federal-provincial child-care agreement negotiated by the Martin government.
That five-year deal provided the provinces with money to increase child care access. They could subsidize new centres, or come up with targeted assistance for parents or add child care to community schools. B.C. planned to increase parent subsidies and aid for child care providers with its share.
B.C. was to get about $120 million a year. Harper honoured this year's commitment, but told provinces to forget about seeing any more money under the program.
Child care is a real problem.
Parents can't find it, and many can't afford it even if they do. If they are fortunate, a friendly neighbour or relative can provide care. Otherwise the lack of child care becomes a serious barrier to employment.
Children who would benefit the most from quality care are often from families least able to afford it. They lose out on a chance for a fair start at life.
And the problems are yet another drag on productivity. People who could be working aren't, and companies suffer as employees book off to handle the latest child care crisis.
Sending $1,200 cheques out to parents isn't going to takes us closer to solving the real problem. It was politically effective, and is highly popular among parents campaigning for their right to subsidies even if they stay home to care for their own children.
But it's not going lead to better care, or more spaces, or real help with what is a serious crisis for many families.
The provinces haven't given up. They accept the fact that the $1,200 cheques are going out, but hope Harper can be persuaded to honour the federal-provincial child care deal.
It would be a wise decision.
Footnote: The child care debate has focused on costs. What's also needed is a serious consideration of benefits. What's gained if we can offer a three-year-old a safe, educational and stimulating social environment, especially a child who would otherwise start school at a significant disadvantage? For many children the cost would be an investment with lasting benefits.


Anonymous said...

I'd like to hear a truly compelling argument for a national child care program in the first place. We have enough problems providing health care and education without introducing another expensive entitlement. The Quebec experience with subsidized daycare hasn't exactly been inspiring: instead of helping working class parents who need two incomes to make ends meet, it instead subsidized child care for upper middle class families who don't need the help as much. At least the Conservative program is fair to parents who don't want to put their kids into an institutionalized setting, providing them with some benefit as well. In the end, though, who are we kidding? There's no such thing as a free lunch: we all pay the taxes to pay for this in the end, anyway.

Anonymous said...

The Conservative "child care plan" is really nothing more than a political kickback to the old hard core Reformers who've been agitating for government support of two parent families with stay-at-home mothers. These will be the people who will recieve most of the cash - although even they won't get the full $1200 - proving Harper plays fast and loose with the truth even with his supporters.

The irony is, these folks also like to whine about small government and complain about government interference. Of course, what they actually mean is they want the government to fund their 'lifestyle' (one of their favorite terms) by taxing everyone else.

As for why we should support a national child care program, well there may not be a compelling reason. After all, those who cannot afford child care might choose to never have children. But, then, that would mean the vast majority of Canadians wouldn't have children.

Alternatively, we could just leave all those children alone while their parent(s) try to support them. Given that most Canadians work longer for less benefit than they did 30 years ago perhaps this is the preferred plan. Or, maybe, like British Columbia the plan is to make it legal for children to work?

Personally, I think a society that is unwilling to invest in its children - indeed make it unreasonably expensive to have children, is committing demographic suicide. But I'm sure those who begrudge children decent care aren't worried about that since they'd prefer a country populated by the increasingly elderly.

deaner said...

"But it's not a child care plan. It's not enough money..."

Yeah - but the Liberal / NDP proposal is not "a child care plan," either - it's a "day care plan" - and we shouldn't confuse the two. A day care plan doesn't help anyone who works shifts, and needs their child cared-for when the day care is closed; it doesn't help someone who works unpredictable hours and so doesn't want to (or cannot) commit to a fixed care schedule; it doesn't help someone who is in a community too small to justify a day care operator setting up (or -shudder- the government setting one up); and it doesn't help someone who, for whatever reason, prefers an unlicensed day care provider - either an informal (friends or family) arrangement or an out-of-home daycare, typically run by another mum.

What the CPC plan will do is put more money (by about double) into the hands of parents than the Liberals were planning to put into the operation of their day care scheme. That money will be used for something as determined by the needs of each family involved. As critics have pointed out, while it is said to be directed to child care, it might be used for anything from piano lessons to beer and popcorn. They think that is a criticism, I think it is a benefit (like Microsoft UI operations - they're not bugs, they're features): each family will be able to determine their own priorites, and meet their own needs.

"The idea that the government will take money from a low-income senior in Duncan and hand it to a millionaire parent in West Van makes no public policy sense."

Perhaps not - but that is exactly the way the current Quebec program operates now, and it has been held up as the "model system" for the Liberal / NDP proposal. There is no reason to think that a national program would not also represent a subsidy to those who need it least, particularly since the resources would be so far less than required to provide a day care space to every child who is eligible for one. In these circumstances the normal method of rationing is to allocate spaces to those who are connected, or who have the time and resources to seek out alternative providers, place their name on multiple lists, fill out duplicate applications, arrange for transport to second-choice locations, and so on; disproportionately, those people are the "millionares in West Van" not the single mum in Comox.