Time for B.C. to invest in $10 a day child care; Families squeezed between unaffordable housing and exorbitant child care

By Sharon Gregson and Stephanie Smith, Special to The Vancouver Sun

Last week’s Throne Speech promised to address B.C.’s child-care system, which is failing families, workers, and businesses. Minor tweaks to the existing system will simply perpetuate the current systems’ failures. It’s time for politicians to commit to a universal, accessible and publicly funded $10/day child-care system.

Young B.C. families are squeezed between unaffordable housing and exorbitant child care. In Vancouver, fees average $14,000 a year for a two-year-old, but can reach as high as $23,000. Long waitlists grow daily, while licensed child-care spaces are available for only one in every five children. Meanwhile, low wages for early childhood educators (ECEs) create recruitment and retention problems, and half of all trained ECEs are not working in the sector.

Under the $10/day child-care plan, child-care fees would be capped at $10 a day, with no user fees for families earning under $40,000 a year. The number of licensed child-care spaces would increase, and boards of education would be responsible for funding, developing and governing early care and learning, much like the school system. The plan would also improve wages and training for ECEs.

Last weekend, over 3,000 families marked B.C.’s first Family Day by urging the government to commit to $10/day child care, signing postcards advocating for high-quality, affordable, accessible publicly funded early care and learning. Municipalities from Powell River to Dawson Creek, boards of education from Vancouver to the Kootenays, and the BCGEU and other labour unions and many other groups have endorsed the $10/day child-care plan.

The Burnaby and Surrey Boards of Trade have also called on the government to commit to the plan. Business support is not surprising: work-life conflicts among employees with preschool age children cost B.C. businesses $600-million annually in employee turnover, absenteeism, and health care premiums. B.C. also has the lowest level of workforce participation in Canada for mothers with children over age 3.

Critics trivialize universal child care as taxpayer-funded babysitting. In fact, early learning creates lifelong value. TD Bank Chief Economist Craig Alexander recently noted that early care and learning has a ripple effect, leading to better job prospects, higher earnings and reduced risk of poverty. For low-income families or single parents, the ability to work while children are young can mean the difference between living on social assistance and working for a better life for their families.

“The biggest bang you get for your government dollar in terms of investment is investment in education in young individuals,” Alexander noted. Investing in early learning increases our economic competitiveness over the long term, but we fail to fund early learning like we do the school system: $8,300 funding per child in B.C. schools every year, but only $380 for early learning.

Victoria can commit to the vision of building an affordable quality child-care system, and act upon several low-cost initial implementation steps straightaway. First, move early care and learning into B.C.’s Ministry of Education. Second, immediately reduce parent fees to $10/day in every existing licensed infant and toddler space in B.C. at a cost of $88 million, according to government data. Simply tweaking existing low-income subsidy rates or eligibility levels for the poorest families will not make child care more affordable or create additional spaces.

Third, Victoria must lobby the federal government to ensure that all provinces can invest in child care. There is room: the OECD says Canada ranks last on early childhood spending among developed countries, lagging behind in average spending by $3 to $4 billion a year.

Given the sad state of B.C.’s child-care system, it will take five to 10 years to provide enough child-care spaces and train the ECEs needed to offer quality early care and learning to B.C. families. We can gradually build up and invest in the system until it’s complete, at an estimated cost of $1.5 billion annually according to UBC researchers. TD Bank says the investment is significant but worthwhile: it pays for itself over time through job creation, better health and social outcomes, increased tax revenues and enhanced economic competitiveness. Cost-benefit analyses show that child care provides a return of $1.50 to nearly $3 for every tax dollar invested, and has a bigger job multiplier effect than any other sector, generating more employment per dollar of activity.

B.C.’s politicians need to commit to the vision of $10/day child care today.

Sharon Gregson is spokesperson for the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of B.C. and a Director of Collingwood Neighbourhood House. Stephanie Smith is Treasurer of the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union and an ECE with 30 years experience.