Looking to the future: A coalition says cheaper daycare is in the best interests of both government and citizens

Katherine Dedyna, Times Colonist

Child care in B.C. could cost parents just $10 a day if an ambitious proposal by the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of B.C. ever gets the green light from the province.

Currently, there is a huge shortage of high-quality licensed spaces, and what spaces there are can cost up to $1,200 per month. Adding to the plight is the fact that skilled childcare workers are often paid low wages and a great number of elementary schools lack before-or after-school care programs, says coalition spokeswoman Sharon Gregson.

“Because governments have failed to adequately plan for and invest in childcare, the crisis gets worse each year,” the report warns.

But Gregson feels “more positive” than she has in years given that Premier Christy Clark has personal experience with childcare as a single mother and is committed to a Family First agenda.

Gregson expects that agenda to include childcare issues, given that 70 per cent of B.C. mothers with children under 12 are in the labour force, but only 20 per cent of B.C. children have access to licensed childcare spaces.

“The rest are in informal, unregulated and unmonitored care,” Gregson says.

She’s heartened that Clark encouraged the relevant cabinet ministers to make themselves available to coalition board members, who have already met with Children and Family Development Minister Mary McNeil, and will meet with Education Minister George Abbott on July 19.

“I think it’s very promising,” says Gregson, a Vancouver school trustee.

To tackle infant childcare, which is the most expensive, the plan advocates extending paid parental leave to 18 months. New benefits would be a maximum of 80 per cent of parents’ income up to $60,000 a year, with a minimum benefit of $22,880 annually.

Early childcare educators would work alongside teachers to provide full-day, full-year care, earning an average wage of $25 an hour with benefits if they have a bachelor of education degree.

Currently, childcare comes under family development along with child protection issues, but the coalition is recommending that school boards get funding from the Education Ministry and be responsible for planning, delivering and overseeing childcare, Gregson says.

Meanwhile, University of Quebec economist Pierre Fortin recently presented figures at the Ontario Institute for Child Studies that Quebec’s $7-a-day childcare program, now 12 years old, more than pays for itself in enrolling about half the province’s children under age five.

Quebec recouped $1.05 for every dollar it invests and Ottawa also benefits by 44 cents due to the working mothers’ income, investment and corporate taxes, Fortin found.

“For us, this is not new information,” Gregson says. But it bolsters findings from the Human Early Learning Partnership at the University of B.C. and provides more impetus for a B.C. plan, she adds.

HELP recommends that parents pay $10 a day for full days, $7 for part days and no fee for families with household incomes under $40,000.

Right now, Gregson says only very low-income families can access daycare subsidies and an Angus Reid poll in 2009 revealed that 89 per cent of B.C. parents surveyed found the cost of childcare unacceptably high.

UBC political scientist Paul Kershaw, whose focus is Canadian family policy, says the $10 daily childcare fee would technically cost the province $1.5 billion annually.

But it would be partly offset by more than $500 million in taxes paid from an estimated 17,000 more working mothers, and further by the taxation and increased spending power of 23,000 early-child educators being paid $25 an hour. Moreover, businesses would save $300 million by not having to recruit and retrain those 17,000 working parents, he adds.

Any expansion of child care would be in the public sector, but existing providers would be contracted as long as they complied with the reduced fees, increased wages and met public funding standards.

“The beauty of our proposal is whether it’s licensed family or group care, not-for-profit or for profit, if they’re willing to meet the accountability measures for public funds, they continue to operate.”

The B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils has endorsed the proposal.

It is called A Community Plan for a Public System of Integrated Early Care and Learning in B.C., and was formulated in conjunction with the Early Childhood Educators of B.C. as a way to combine “the best of childcare and the best of public education.”

Two of three B.C. women currently qualify for paid parental leave, but the birth rate continues to fall, notes Lynell Anderson, a senior researcher and accountant with HELP. Earlier this year, Statistics Canada noted that B.C. has the lowest birth rate in Canada, at 1.5 children per woman, despite a large aboriginal population, which has the highest birth rate.

What is needed is a way to balance caring and earning, Anderson says. Under the proposal, there would be more mothers returning to work and paying taxes and less work-life conflict.

A 2007 Carleton University analysis of 31,000 Canadians found 25 per cent had fewer children due to work demands, and a further 28 per cent delayed or did not start a family because they could not balance work and child-rearing demands.

B.C. continues to lead Canada in terms of child poverty.

Nearly one in three Victoria kindergarten students start school with both learning and social deficits, which could be predictors of anything from failure to graduate to poor health and jail time, compared to one in four children nationally, HELP research has found.

According to UNICEF, Canada has the weakest family policy regarding support for young children in the developed world, ranking last among 25 nations.

Canada has a history of supporting social policies whose time has come – for instance successfully tackling the once prevalent poverty of senior citizens.

“I think we can make families with young children a priority as well,” Anderson says.

B.C.’s young couples have seen the only decline in real income in Canada since the mid 1970s despite more working women, Kershaw says. Real household income fell to $66,000 from $72,000, while accommodation costs have gone up in B.C. by 149 per cent compared to 76 per cent Canada-wide.

“[This] generation is getting a bad deal, and it’s time we started talking about that,” he says.