Conservatives’ child-care plan a disappointment for the workforce (Guest commentary)

A strong child-care plan that meets the need of working parents is essential — and this isn’t it

The Conservatives rode to a minority victory with fewer seats than any recent party in the same situation. Given their need for opposition support, you might think they would avoid controversial issues. Apparently not.

The Conservatives, according to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, are planning to make good on their election promise to give parents $1,200 per child under age six, a purported “Choice in Child Care” policy. Though it’s facing opposition from some provinces, the Conservative plan is to discontinue multi-year child-care agreements, reached with all 10 provinces by the Liberal government, to create 375,000 licensed child-care spaces.

The Conservative replacement — a $10,000 per-space subsidy plan that they say would generate 125,000 new spaces — has not panned out in other jurisdictions. According to Martha Friendly, a child-care policy researcher at the University of Toronto, a program introduced by Ontario’s former Conservative government to encourage businesses to provide child care yielded no spaces at all. New Brunswick and Saskatchewan had similar programs with dismal results.

A strong child-care plan that meets the needs of working parents is essential for Canadian employers. As it stands, too many parents are stressed out because adequate child care is unavailable — work-life balance suffers, the focus on work suffers and ultimately the bottom line suffers.

The “Choice in Child Care” policy is wrong for three reasons in particular. First, it provides equality, defined as sameness for all parents. Second, it doesn’t provide enough money to meaningfully defray child-care costs. Third, it provides different benefits to different types of families in the same circumstances and does poorly by low- and middle-income earners.

Equality doesn’t equal sameness

So what’s wrong with treating all families the same? Simply, all families are not the same. Families with less money need more help. Parents who want or need to work outside their home, or who are pursuing education or training to improve their own lot and that of their families’, need reliable child care and that can be very expensive. Using public money to subsidize the well-to-do because they have young children is not a wise use of tax dollars.

The benefit is inadequate

Characterizing a $1,200 benefit as giving parents “choice in child care” is laughable. Let’s call the child-care payment what it really is: the baby bonus reinstated. Even if parents actually netted all $1,200 per young child, it would not make an appreciable dent in actual child-care costs. It would pay for a few hours of babysitting. The benefit works out to $23 per week before tax. Receipt of the benefit would also result in reductions in other income-tested benefits.

Benefit favours one-earner and higher-earning families

As Ken Battle of the Caledon Institute, an Ottawa-based social policy think-tank, has definitively demonstrated, the $1,200 child-care benefit favours one-earner families and higher-earning families.

Take a family in Ontario with a $36,000 income. The following is the net benefit to each family after deductions for income tax and other income-tested benefits; the examples below assume each family has two children, one under the age of six:

•two-earner couple — $388;

•one-earner couple — $650; and

•single parent — $481.

With an income of $100,000, the net benefits are:

•two-earner couple — $778;

•one-earner couple — $1,032; and

•single parent — $655.

Only the poorest families on welfare, with little or no income, would get the full $1,200 and only if the provinces and territories exempted the Child Care Allowance from the calculation of income for determining social assistance, something that would have to be negotiated and is not guaranteed.

In the fantasy land where the architects of the Conservative child-care policy reside, public money would be used to subsidize those who choose and can afford to stay at home with young children (an honourable choice that many parents make) at the expense of those who choose to or have to work both inside their homes and in the labour force. Those who do both jobs would be subsidizing those who do one, or, indeed, if they can afford it, hire nannies and housekeepers to ease the burden.

Canadians deserve a child-care policy that increases the availability, reliability and affordability of quality child care. The Conservative policy does none of these things and does not deserve support. In fact, it would be a scandal to see it implemented.

Lynne Sullivan is president of Lynne Sullivan & Associates Inc., a consulting firm specializing in diversity and employment equity. She can be reached at (416) 306-2243 or [email protected].

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