- The promotion of $10-a-day child care as economic policy illustrates the problem with Canadian family policy, which is that we don’t have one. Tweet This
- In most cases, public policy should maximize flexibility that allows families to make decisions best suited for the family. Tweet This
- Public policy can remove some barriers to achieving stable family life, but the state cannot replicate the unique function of family. Tweet This
On a recent trip to Ottawa, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shared the stage with Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland during the Liberal Party of Canada’s annual convention. Clinton praised the Canadian government’s policy agenda, including the introduction of a $10 a-day national child care program. Freeland first introduced the five-year, $30 billion (CAD) national child care program as part of the 2021 Federal budget, declaring, “There is agreement, across the political spectrum, that early learning and child care is the national economic policy we need now.” Months before the federal budget speech, numerous news and opinion articles declared that Canada was in a pandemic-induced ‘she-cession,”— a term that found its way into the federal budget. There would be no economic recovery, particularly for women, we were told, without national child care. To quote the other Clinton’s 1992 campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
The promotion of $10-a-day child care as economic policy illustrates the problem with Canadian family policy, which is that we don’t have one. Yes, we have substantial direct cash benefits to parents, generous parental leave, and plenty of funded services. Yet we still lack any coherent strategy for encouraging strong, stable family life. As University of Windsor political scientist Lydia Miljan writes:
Generally speaking, family policy in Canada may be characterized as an uncoordinated hodgepodge of policies, based on assumptions that are not always clearly recognized or even consistent, and delivered by an assortment of institutions including not only agencies of all three levels of government but also privately-run organizations like provincial Children’s Aid Societies, Big Brothers Big Sisters, family planning clinics, and so on.1
A new Cardus report, Envisioning a Federal Family-Formation Policy Framework for Canada, argues for a clear-eyed vision for Canadian family policy. Canadians value family life, but for complex reasons are partnering and marrying later and having fewer children than they say they would like. While all stages of family life are important, Canada needs to pay attention to the transition into partnership and marriage, and to having children. The federal government is only one actor among state and civil society institutions that can help families. Even as one of the most distant actors from daily family life, by reforming current programs and pursuing innovative policy options, the federal government can increase opportunity for family formation by removing barriers.
The hodgepodge collection of policies affecting families are often directed toward individual family members rather than respecting that families make decisions as a unit. For example, an expressed intent behind national child care is to increase the number of mothers in the workforce, while paternity leave in Quebec is intended to nudge fathers toward a larger share of caregiving. These may be laudable policy objectives, but families make these decisions as a unit, not as individuals. Families are social institutions that form their members, and they act in the collective interest of those members. Individuals negotiate their interests within families, but do so with consideration for the family as a unit.
The tension around the role of the state in intra-family decisions-making is most noticeable in how the state directs public policy towards children. Political scientist Jane Jenson and her co-author Caroline Beauvais describe two paradigms for Canadian public policy. The family responsibility paradigm identifies families as the primary authority in determining the well-being of children. Policy approaches under this paradigm maximize flexibility for family decision-making. Direct government involvement is reserved for situations where children’s well-being is in danger. The second model is the investing in children paradigm, focused on early intervention through services that come around children and their families. Parents are important, but the paradigm emphasizes the expertise of state and civil-society actors.
The preferred approach at Cardus is to empower families as the primary caregiving community around children, with the authority and obligation to ensure the well-being of children. Institutions can best help children by working in partnership with children’s caregivers. In most cases, public policy should maximize flexibility that allows families to make decisions best suited for the family.
The Cardus report outlines principles for public policy engagement with families. The state has an interest in stable families and must consider families as whole, functioning units. Government should prioritize flexible approaches that respect the diverse backgrounds, values, needs, and desires of families. Public policy can remove some barriers to achieving stable family life, but the state cannot replicate the unique function of family.
Our framework also identifies specific federal policies for reform and areas in need of innovation. The first step is to improve data-collection and distribution. Policymakers need data and information to make good policy. The next step is to remove barriers to family formation and focus on families with young children.
Growing the economy is a reasonable objective but a poor motivation for crafting child care policy. Instead, the federal government must take a coherent approach to family policy, offering the flexibility parents need to make the best decisions for their families.
Peter Jon Mitchell is the Family Program Director at the think tank Cardus, and author of the report Envisioning a Federal Family-Formation Policy Framework for Canada.
1. Lydia Miljan, Public Policy in Canada: An Introduction, 7th edition (Oxford University Press, 2017), 237.