- We need to consider and introduce equitable solutions for child care that serve the bulk of families instead of the few. Tweet This
- Keeping our children in small settings, close to home, where they can “shelter in place” with a trusted “village” of their parents’ choosing may be the best way going forward. Tweet This
- Government child care systems are not necessary for women’s economic freedom, do not have good outcomes for kids, and do not provide the kind of care most parents prefer. Tweet This
Recently, both Canadian and U.S. experts have advocated for a government-run day care system in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The idea is that “free” (taxpayer-funded) child care spaces would keep the economy humming by inducing more parents—largely mothers—into the workforce. Advocates for this idea begin by framing child care currently as “chaos,” while presenting the chances of finding a space as a crapshoot. They cite how critical child care spaces are to the economy. And they bring up the Canadian province of Quebec, where the government introduced a system in 1997 as a wonderful example.
How true is this?
A collaborative paper signed by a group of parents, educators, childcare workers, think tankers, academics and activists in 2019, A Positive Vision for Childcare Policy Across Canada, refutes all of these points. The co-signatories have diverse views on child care; however, they agree on one thing: “universal” day care introduces far more problems than it solves.
This being the case, pandemic or not, we need to instead consider and introduce equitable solutions for child care that serve the bulk of families instead of the few.
Chaos and Shortages
One possible source of the idea of “child care chaos” is a narrow and brittle definition of child care as licensed, government-funded spaces and nothing else. Our paper defines child care as the care of a child, no matter who does it. Thus, parents, family, home day cares, nannies, and yes, centers, are all doing child care.
Interestingly, in Canada, research shows it isn’t as hard as we are led to believe to find care for children. According to Statistics Canada, only 3% of Canadian parents said they aren’t using child care because of waiting lists or space shortages. Currently, the only province with a system is Quebec. Other research shows a large surplus of spaces in particular markets, not shortages.
Furthermore, governments tend to create a kind of child care space that parents don’t prefer. In a 2015 paper by an independent social policy analyst, assessed several polls asking what Canadians want in childcare policy. As part of his findings he writes,
Canadian parents are strongly oriented towards a ‘home and family’ approach to child care for pre-school children. This contrasts sharply with the narrative that defines child care needs in terms of licensed child care spaces.
Is Canada Behind, But Quebec Ahead?
The OECD ranks Canada as last on child care spending. This has nothing to do with quality of care for children. Furthermore, the OECD, by their own admission, cannot count the billions the federal government directs to the provinces for child care via the Canada Social Transfer.
This is why the OECD praises Quebec. Certainly, examining only spending, Quebec is outperforming everyone else by a country mile; the cost of their system has risen at least 700% since its inception. Astoundingly, with that high price tag peer-reviewed research uniformly shows the quality is low and the outcomes for kids are poor.
The billions in federal spending to curb the current economic crisis will result in expansive deficits, while economic dislocation will affect government revenues for a long time to come. This makes the creation of a national day care system, let alone a quality one, financially impossible.
There’s the 2005 study by economists Michael Baker, Jonathan Gruber, and Kevin Milligan that found “children were worse off in the years following the introduction of the universal child care program.” They continue:
We studied a wide range of measures of child well-being, from anxiety and hyperactivity to social and motor skills. For almost every measure, we find that the increased use of child care was associated with a decrease in their well-being relative to other children.
A different study also in 2005 evaluated the quality of care in Quebec to be at “minimal quality.” On cognitive outcomes, a 2011 a paper by economists Pierre Lefebvre, Philip Merrigan, and Francis Roy-Desrosiers showed Quebec’s system does not improve learning outcomes. “Our evidence does not reveal positive effects of the policy on cognitive development for both 4- and 5-year olds,” the authors write.
In an award-winning study, economist Stephen Lehrer set out to refute the earlier research. Instead, he reports,
The main result we found was that Baker, Gruber and Milligan’s work is 100 percent correct. It’s robust. If anything, in our own work, including a paper that came out in Canadian Public Policy and won ‘best paper award’ for that year, it actually finds the effects get larger over time, on average.
Baker, Gruber and Milligan’s latest research shows the negative outcomes for Quebec children extend into adulthood. They wrote in 2019:
We find that the negative effects on non-cognitive outcomes persisted to school ages, and also that cohorts with increased child care access had worse health, lower life satisfaction, and higher crime rates later in life.
The Quebec child care system compels us to ask tough questions. What evidence do we have that implementing universal child care systems would have different outcomes outside Quebec? Is the trade-off of struggling kids worth getting more mothers into the workforce?
Research tells us that universal child care systems increased mothers’ participation in the labor force in Quebec. However, women’s labor force participation in the rest of Canada right now is higher than Quebec’s was before the advent of their system. How much higher can it be coaxed upwards? If a national day care system were the prerequisite for getting women (and keeping them) working, we wouldn’t already have such a large portion of working mothers in Canada.
The billions in federal spending to curb the current economic crisis will result in expansive deficits, while economic dislocation will affect government revenues for a long time to come. This makes the creation of a national day care system, let alone a quality one, financially impossible. Few would disagree that without enough money, any child care system will be subpar. The care of our littlest citizens is, by its nature, expensive and there is little that can (or should) be done to achieve “economies of scale.”
Whether in Canada or the United States, there are other options available to legislatures interested in helping parents. Federally these include:
- A neutral funding framework
- More flexible parental leave policy
- Freedom for provinces/states to act, instead of federal mandates
- Lower taxes for parents
- Returning to the definition of child care as the care of a child no matter who does it.
State/Provincial recommendations might include:
- Funding following the child, not spaces
- Reducing inefficiencies in finding child care and improving data-gathering of child care providers to help parents
- Examining safety oversight frameworks
- Streamlining licensing as well as the reporting process for independent child care inspectors.
In the United States, not everyone concerned about child care is advocating for an expansion of the public school system to create so-called universal day care. Some think bolstering the Child Care Development Block Grant would help. This approach amounts to increasing a targeted subsidy for those who need it most.
Under pandemic conditions, keeping our children in small settings, close to home, where they can “shelter in place” with a trusted “village” of their parents’ choosing is important. It may also be the best way going forward.
When we finally emerge from isolation and return to a new normal, let’s hope the new normal includes government neutrality on funding child care. After all, government child care systems are not necessary for women’s economic freedom, do not have good outcomes for kids, and do not provide the kind of care most parents prefer. Remember: child care is the care of a child, no matter who does it.
Andrea Mrozek is on maternity leave from her role as Program Director of Cardus Family.