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Class warfare in the sandbox?


No doubt about it — the federal NDP has moved childcare front and centre. 

Reaction to the party’s childcare proposal elicited a wide range of responses. The Twittersphere and traditional media exploded after Tom Mulcair’s press conference last week as fans and foes of a universal, affordable, national childcare system debated whether such a system is needed or wanted — and whose responsibility childcare is anyway? 

Perhaps most interesting was the backlash the proposal elicited with respect to the unfairness of allowing wealthier families to participate.

A trending rebuttal to Mulcair’s proposal to publicly fund the Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) system to make fees affordable for all — defined as “up to $15 a day” — has been that it’s not “progressive”, meaning here that well-off families shouldn’t be included. Rather than denying that low and maybe even middle income families need affordable childcare, critics have attacked an affordable universal system as a bad idea because it would allow little Rosedale-dwelling Jasper or Charlotte to get a “free ride” on the taxpayer’s dollar. Targeted childcare funding — whether to the needy only or less narrowly to modest and middle income Canadians—is promoted as a better way to go. 

For example, a recent debate on CBC radio asked “does Canada need a universal subsidized childcare program?” A right-wing analyst argued that the “top priority in this area should be access to high quality childcare for lower income families. The evidence for positive lifelong developmental effects from childcare participation is much stronger for low-income families than it is for middle income families."

Quite a few misconceptions underpin this point of view and important considerations are left out. First, research (mostly American) does show that good childcare benefits vulnerable children more. But it also shows that all children benefit from good childcare and that all can be adversely affected by bad childcare.  As well, most experts agree that it’s very difficult to identify which children will benefit more, so targeting inevitably means missing out on some — even many — children, as there are many more vulnerable middle class children in Canada, numerically, than there are poor.

Another important point is that there are many good reasons other than measurable “developmental effects” to value childcare. Among these is that parents need childcare so they can work, go to school, or for new immigrants, learn to speak English or French.

In another instance, economist Tammy Schirle argued in the Globe and Mail that “A universal daycare program is simply unnecessary”, asking “why would we redistribute tax dollars to high income families?” The piece equates spending money on a quality childcare program with sending a cash payment such as the Conservative’s regressive and inadequate $100 a month Universal Child Care Benefit to individual families.

For any parent who has been lucky enough to have kids in a great childcare centre, it’s easy to see what’s wrong with this line of reasoning. While I agree with Schirle that sending a $100 a month cheque to the mailboxes of high earner families seems wasteful and counter-productive, funding a high quality childcare centre — where children learn to share and cooperate, respect other people, make friends, etc. — can’t be produced by one individual family, even one who can afford the full fees.  Good childcare isn’t simply “redistributing tax dollars”—it’s a support to families, a community institution and a great place for children to be — no matter how much their parents earn.

Another, more general misconception is that there are a lot of young families out there who are wealthy enough to pay current fees. Keeping in mind that fees for a family with two young children can easily be $36,000 a year in Toronto, Vancouver or Ottawa, one would ask what annual income would make this “affordable”. Is the idea to keep out the 1% (or maybe the 2%) who can pay these kinds of fees — perhaps they should set up their own elite, privately funded childcare centres instead?  Isn’t it the Canadian way to include people from diverse groups and social classes in community institutions like public schools, community recreation facilities, public colleges and universities so all can learn to live, play and work together? Indeed, research shows that early childhood is the ideal time for beginning to learn to respect differences and diversity by engaging with and getting to know children and adults of all varieties.

Childcare as an inclusive community institution is great for families, as well as children. Childcare that’s responsive to the community can unite families from diverse origins through participation in common activities related to their children. This can demonstrate to adults and children that co-operation among social classes and ethnic groups is possible and valued.  Thus, the idea of good childcare as an agent of social change that fosters social inclusion is an important aspect of a vision of Canadian childcare in the future, and one that is already embraced by many quality childcare programs.   

My vision of universal childcare in 2020 — and the vision of many other advocates, parents and, increasingly, policy makers too—includes children whose parents earn much too little to pay current fees, those who earn enough to pay something, and those whose parents are high income earners. It's a vision of a new inclusive social program like Medicare or public education—part of what makes Canada the community it is today.

Martha Friendly is the Executive Director of the Childcare Resource and Research Unit. She will be speaking at Childcare2020, the first national childcare policy conference in a decade, being hosted in Winnipeg between November 13-15, 2014.

Photo: North Charleston. Used under a Creative Commons BY-SA-2.0 license.