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What if we replaced child care deserts with universal child care?

Kids could access great early learning and socialization opportunities; parents could stop "working to pay for child care"—it’s a win-win.
A child's scooter sits empty on the lawn.

Trish Hennessy

Every day we see evidence that policymakers’ decisions could be different if they looked at the world through upstream thinking, i.e., the conditions that people need in order to thrive.

Take child poverty, which is really family poverty. On Universal Children’s Day, Campaign 2000 released its annual snapshot of child poverty in Canada. The upshot: 1.4 million children live in poor families.

The proportion of child poverty varies depending on where you live. The child poverty rate is highest in Nunavut and lowest in Yukon Territory.

The federal government has committed to reduce poverty by 20 per cent by 2020 and by 50 per cent by 2030. These are important commitments, but Campaign 2000 estimates that there would still be at least 700,000 children living in poverty in 2030.

Campaign 2000 is calling for much bolder action, urging the federal government to set more ambitious poverty reduction targets and timelines: namely, it’s calling for a plan to reduce cut poverty in half in the next five years.

There are severe costs to delaying action on ending poverty. The evidence shows poorer children have less access to early childhood development opportunities, face greater nutritional challenges, and the lack of resources can follow them throughout their life cycle.

The World Health Organization (WHO) concludes that “poverty is the single largest determinant of health, and ill health is an obstacle to social and economic development. Poorer people live shorter lives and have poorer health than affluent people.”

Importantly, Campaign 2000 also calling attention to what it calls “the missing piece in Canada’s anti-poverty agenda: universal child care.”

While the evidence shows the importance of greater learning and socialization opportunities in the early years, it also shows that Canada is home to extremely high child care fees—which is a barrier to low- and middle-income families. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) documents how some families pay child care fees the size of a monthly mortgage payment.

Some families simply don’t have child care options: the CCPA estimates 776,000 children (44 per cent of all non-school-aged children) live in what it calls child care deserts—a notion similar to food deserts, where some communities lack access to licensed child care spaces.

Families are most likely to have access to licensed child care spaces in Charlottetown, P.E.I. and Quebec—the CCPA says those cities have an average coverage rate of 70 per cent or better.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Saskatoon, Brampton, and Kitchener offer the least amount of options: the CCPA says there is only one licensed child care space for every four to five children in those communities. The CCPA says: “In fact, every postal code in Saskatoon is a child care desert.”

“If parents are to escape poverty through workforce participation or education … access to high-quality child care is essential.” – Campaign 2000

There is promising news. For instance, B.C. has begun piloting a $10 a day child care program, which reduces the cost from thousands of dollars to $200 a month for about 2,500 child care spaces.

For many families, that would be a game-changer.

It gives children a better head start. It also gives low-income families a head start: instead of working to pay for child care, they will have more income to spend on other social determinants of health, such as nutritious food for their family.

Back in 1999, the now-defunct National Council of Welfare put the importance of child care this way in its Preschool Children: Promises to Keep report: “Many social programs support families, but child care is the backbone of them all.”

What if Canada replaced its child care desert with an adequately funded national, universal, public child care program that is both high quality and affordable?

Mothers of young children would take up paying work, contributing to the family’s economic bottom line while ensuring their children have access to great socialization opportunities.

Economist Pierre Fortin on Quebec’s affordable child care program and its effect on labour force participation:

“The unanimity of conclusions from multiple independent sources using two major longitudinal surveys conducted by Statistics Canada (1994-2008) constitutes compelling evidence that a significant share of the increase in Quebec mothers’ labour force participation since 1997 can indeed be attributed to the low-fee universal childcare system.

“We estimated that in 2008 there were some 70,000 (3.8%) more Quebec mothers in employment than there would have been without the childcare reform, accounting for about 60% of the increase in the employment rate of Quebec women 20-44 years from 1997-2008.”

Here’s the kicker: Fortin’s research shows the Quebec child care system pays for itself. Yes. Here’s what he says:

“On the net revenue side, three consequences followed the introduction of the new childcare program: (1) less fiscal expenditures: users of low-fee childcare were cut out of the provincial refundable tax credit, and the low child care fee implied a smaller cost of the Child Care Expenses Deduction for the federal government;

“(2) more tax revenue: 70,000 more mothers at work and the $5.1 billion increase in GDP generated more personal and corporate income taxes, payroll taxes, consumption taxes, local taxes and government enterprise revenue;

“(3) less transfers: more mothers at work and higher family incomes meant fewer social assistance recipients and lower child benefits.”

That’s upstream thinking at its best.

Learn more

From Ryan Meili’s book, A Healthy Society: 12 factors make the biggest difference in people’s health: income status, education, social support networks, employment and working conditions, early childhood development, physical environment, personal health practices and coping skills, biological and genetic factors, health services, gender, culture, mass media technology.

Trish Hennessy is a senior communications strategist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the director of Think Upstream


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