Who would benefit from a universal child care program?

As announced in the April 19 federal budget the Liberals will try, once again, to implement universal child care across Canada.

image: HuffPost Canada

They have been promising it for decades but never delivered. In 2005, Prime Minister Paul Martin’s minority government pledged to start a program worth $5 billion over five years. Never happened.

This time, Ottawa is pledging $27.2-billion over five years. The catch is that the provinces, having jurisdiction over child care, must cooperate.  If they do, that would make them partners in a 50/50 sharing arrangement.

The difference between then and now is COVID-19. The Liberals, determined not to waste a pandemic, are back into big government and on a spending spree.

A strong federal government contrasts both Liberal and Conservative governments of the last three decades when balanced budgets in vogue. In his budget speech in 1995, then Finance Minister Paul Martin said:

“We are acting on a new vision of the role of government in the economy. In many cases that means smaller government. In all cases it means smarter government.”

The new Finance Minister, Chrystia Freeland, isn’t much worried about the size of government. In her budget speech, she said the COV ID-19 pandemic has “brutally exposed” something women have known for a long time: “Without child care, parents – usually mothers – can’t work.”

A universal child care program across Canada would be modeled on Quebec’s. The goal would be to bring child care down to about $10 a day.

It worked in Quebec. Before the child care program was put in place, Quebecois women’s participation in the workplace was below that of the rest of Canada. Now it’s above the rest.

So, who would benefit from a universal child care program? Not younger women aged 15 to 24. Relatively few women in that age group are mothers. Their participation in the workforce has been hit by woes of the retail sector. Child care wouldn’t be a big factor in getting them back to work.

Participation in the workforce for older women in the 25 to 54 age group wouldn’t be affected. Participation rates for them have recovered, and are even slightly higher than before the pandemic hit.

Those most affected are parents, mainly mothers, who when the pandemic hit were forced to work from home at reduced hours and to care for children not in daycare or in school.

Statistics don’t capture the stress of parents still working but juggling the care of children who are at home and learning online.

As Quebec’s experience has demonstrated, a universal child care program can pay for itself over time in two ways. It would put people to work, not only in the child care sector but by allowing previously unemployed parents to enter the workforce. Those workers will now be paying taxes that contribute to the cost.

Also, Canada can pull out of the massive debt just as we did after World War II by “growing out of debt.” As the economy grows, the debt burden relative to the GDP shrinks.

Bold government initiatives define what it means to be Canadian. When we describe the differences between ourselves and Americans, Canadians proudly point to our universal health care.

Universal child care could also be a defining feature of what it means to be Canadian –compassionate and concerned about the good of others.

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