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Child poverty and the case for national child care


With a national child care program back on the front burner, it’s time we talk about the links between child care and child poverty. 

Here’s the bottom line: affordable and reliable child care in Canada could help lift 300,000 children under six, and their low and modest income families, out of poverty.

Today, very few such families have access to regulated, high-quality and affordable child care. Instead, these families compete for regulated daycare spaces accessible to only about one in five children under six years old, most of which come with costs beyond their reach.

And space availability alone doesn’t mean that child care is accessible. To be truly accessible, fees must be affordable. In most provinces, parents pay more for child care than they do for university. In Quebec, however, political leaders chose a different policy path that has resulted in fees as low as $152 per month for care of children of all ages.

That low-income families are poorly served across Canada does not bode well for reducing child poverty. Since 2001, the percentage of children subsidized for care has generally been static or falling. All provinces and territories except Quebec provide fee subsidies for low and modest income families, but these frequently fail to make child care financially accessible even to those eligible parents. 

Ontario’s subsidy rationing, for example, results in long waiting lists while in some provinces even very low income families are expected to pay hefty surcharges – as much as $500 per month – above the rate the subsidies cover.

While we know that the lack of affordable child care presents a major barrier to parents seeking to escape from poverty, this fact is conspicuously absent from our national dialogue. Instead, our pundits are more worried about whether advantaged families will benefit too much from the NDP’s proposal to publicly fund an Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) system of services, one with affordable fees of no more than $15 per day.

In 1989, the House of Commons unanimously resolved to end child poverty in Canada by the year 2000, a resolution tabled by Ed Broadbent. At Campaign 2000, a broad cross-Canada coalition, we monitor progress on that resolution. 

Needless to say, Canada has failed to meet its commitment.  

So as we prepare to mark 25 years since all MPs vowed to end child poverty, more than one in three low-income children in Canada has a parent who works full-time throughout the year but still can’t rise out of poverty. For most of these families, affordable, high quality, reliable child care remains elusive. Low income parents  – many employed in temporary and precarious work with unpredictable work schedules – desperately want and need ECEC services they can count on.

Campaign 2000 has long advocated for universal child care as a key component of a broader plan to end child and family poverty. An ECEC program has the potential to enhance children’s well-being, healthy development and lifelong learning; support parents in education, training and employment; help to build strong, inclusive communities; help to provide inclusive environments for children with disabilities; strengthen women’s equality and definitely prevent and reduce child poverty. 

Campaign 2000 partners are on the front lines of family support, health care and early childhood education services, affordable housing developments, food banks, schools and faith communities. These partners know that the best way to meet the childcare needs of struggling families is to meet the needs of all families. 

If Canada’s goal is to keep families out of poverty and to build toward economic independence – as Campaign 2000 thinks it should be - we can learn much from the other industrialized countries that have kept child poverty low or non-existent. Recent UNICEF statistics show that the seven countries with the lowest child poverty rates (less than 7%) in the OECD have almost all developed robust systems of early childhood education and care services. 

These countries fund ECEC services intended for all families – low, modest income or advantaged  that wish to use them, with the goal of supporting parents who raise their children while pursuing paid work, training or further education. 

European commentators tout this approach as effective, particularly in fostering social inclusion. Canada would do well to emulate these well-established poverty prevention and eradication programs, including widely available ECEC services in Iceland, Finland, Norway, Slovenia and Denmark.

The evidence is clear: it’s time to make good on the promise the end child poverty. And adopting a national child care program is a critical step to achieving that.

Laurel Rothman works at Family Service Toronto where she is the National Coordinator of Campaign 2000: End Child Poverty in Canada. Laurel will be taking part in Childcare2020, the first national child care policy conference in a decade, being hosted in Winnipeg between November 13-15, 2014. 

Photo: Neednotgreed. Used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-2.0 licencse.