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From worst to first: A call for better child care

A friend of mine is a hard working politician who knocks on people's doors, even when he's not out on the hustings, just to ask his constituents how life is going.

 

The complaint Peter Tabuns, MPP for Toronto-Danforth, hears frequently is the dearth of quality child care.

Michael Ignatieff is correct that the deficit should not be used as pretext for "[shutting] down discussion in this country about social justice", but when it comes to child care promises, the Liberals have been making this announcement for at least the past 17 years.

What the Liberals need to learn from the NDP

The Liberals' Red Book of 1993, drafted largely by Paul Martin, promised a national child care program.

During Jean Chrétien's government, child care was a moribund policy. But when Martin became Prime Minister, he promised $5 billion for a national child care program and would create 250,000 new spaces by 2009.

He further committed to making child care a permanent social program with another $6 billion in funding up to 2015. Ken Dryden, as Social Development Minister, toiled away on this file and finally had a national plan in place by November 2005.

Even though agreements with provinces were struck, the Martin Liberals erroneously thought that the program would be so well-entrenched, nothing could threaten it. They should have listened to the NDP, a party with extensive experience in creating social programs that many of us celebrate, such as health care and old age security. The Liberals would have been wise to pass a Child Care Act that would make child care, like health care, a national program in cooperation with the provinces and territories. The NDP have tried twice to pass a private member's bill, Early Learning and Child Care Act, that would lay the foundation for a national child care system.

We know what happened next: Harper won a minority and promptly killed the child care agreements, offering parents a meager $100 a month without creating one new child care space.

According to the Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada, about 27,000 spaces were created in 2006-2007, the smallest increase since 2001 and an increase made by provinces, not the federal government.

Canada: Last in providing quality child care

Numerous studies have found that good, quality child care offers significant societal benefits (for example, Mustard and McCain's The Early Years report or research by Nobel prize winner James Heckman), but Canada remains an embarrassing laggard in offering quality child care. In 2008, UNICEF found that "Canada has fallen farther and farther behind most other affluent countries, ranking - according to UNICEF's 10 benchmarks - at the very bottom." And according to the OECD, a 2006 report placed Canada last among 14 countries on spending on early learning and child care programs.

This despite the number of children who need care. Almost 70 per cent of mothers of children aged 0 to 2 are in the paid labour force, but licensed child care spaces are hard to come by.

We certainly have a problem, and while we underfund and under-resource and dither and break promises and leave vulnerable families without quality child care, big box for-profit child care is starting to muscle in.

How we can have quality child care

First, we have to be willing to raise taxes. If we want strong social services, if we desire that "discussion on social justice", we must be prepared to spend money. We simply cannot have Scandinavian social services on American taxes.

I realize that any time a politician muses about raising taxes, the media sounds a claxon, screams "red alert" (with an emphasis on "red"), puts out 72 point font headlines screaming about potential tax increases, and the conservative movement grins, steeples its fingers and is pleased everything is going according to plan.

Second, we must do a better job supporting mothers and fathers who take maternity and paternity leave. Many parents return to work not because they can't wait to get back to pushing paper, but because they can't afford not to work. The payment for maternity/paternity benefits in 2009 allowed for a maximum of $447 per week. That's just a little more than what I earned in my first summer job between first and second year university - and that was in 1994.

And maternity/paternity benefits (when combined with 15 weeks maternity) are paid out for 50 weeks. Unless you work for an organization that tops up your salary, that's a long time to be earning about $12 an hour.

In Sweden, not only are child care and early childhood education fees low (3% of family income to a maximum of CDN$193 per month for the first child; 2% of family income to a maximum of CDN$126 per month for the second child; CDN$64 per month max for the third child; $0 for fourth) parents are actually supported when they want to take paternity or maternity leave.

Sweden offers parental benefits for 480 days shared equally between both parents. The parental benefit gives 80 percent of one's sickness benefit qualifying annual income divided by 365. For example, if you earned SEK240,000 (Sweden Kronor) per year (CDN$35,000), your daily benefit would be SEK510 per day (CDN$74 per day). This works out to roughly CDN$2,220 per month. And if you're unemployed or self-employed, the sickness benefit qualifying income is adjusted to the consumer price index.

These parental benefits not only encourage parents to be with their children in those first two years, where building and nurturing emotional bonds are most critical, they also ensure that fathers can take an active role in the raising of their children.

Before I conclude...

However, I should say two things before I conclude: 1. Not everyone has to take advantage of benefits or child care or early childhood education; consider yourself fortunate to have those choices. 2. Not everyone can stay home with their kids. There are plenty of single parents, lower income earners, middle income earners who cannot get by on one salary. Many of these Canadians need quality childcare.

I'm not suggesting that Canada must copy every element of Sweden's child care programs, but we must lift ourselves from the miserable position compared to other nations.

The Liberals must collaborate with the NDP and establish and legislate a national child care system under legislation.

Until we put the dollars and policies in place, Canada will continue to fail its children and consequently imperil its future.

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