Child care has quickly emerged as a top election issue. It’s a topic the major parties are portraying as not just an affordability problem for young families but also a key puzzle that needs to be solved to return female workforce participation to pre-pandemic levels.
But critics say both the Liberals’ and the Conservatives’ plans may do little to help cash-strapped families to aid the economic recovery because they fail to address another child-care problem that has only gotten worse since the onset of the health emergency: a chronic shortage of child-care spots.
On Monday, day two of the campaign, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole offered up his own vision to slash costs for parents: a refundable tax credit that would cover up to 75 per cent of the cost of child care for lower-income families.
“This will increase the support that lower income families receive by thousands of dollars per year and provide more assistance to almost all families,” reads the Conservative’s policy platform.
The tax credit is the Conservatives’ response to the Liberal plan for a universal $10-a-day child-care system, a promise Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau reiterated on the campaign trail on Tuesday.
Both pledges may sound tantalizing to families facing mortgage-sized monthly daycare fees. But one expert warns under both plans, parents will likely still run up against the familiar problem of long waiting lists or simply the utter lack of any licensed child-care option.
“Before the pandemic, we only had about 28 per cent of families who were in the workforce who had a child in licensed child care,” says Kerry McCuaig, a fellow at the Atkinson Centre for Society and Child Development at the University of Toronto.
But since the onset of the health emergency, child-care capacity has been further reduced by between 25 and 35 per cent in major cities like Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal, she adds.
Some child-care centres have closed amid prolonged shutdowns, and the sector has also seen an exodus of staff, according to McCuaig.
“It really is disingenuous to say to families, ‘Oh, we’re going to make your child care cheaper,’ whether it’s $10 a day or whether it’s going to be in the form of a tax credit, if there is no child care out there,” she says.
While the Conservatives’ proposed tax credit is meant to cut costs, it would do nothing to beef up a woefully insufficient child-care infrastructure, McCuaig says.
At the same time, McCuaig is highly skeptical of the Liberals’ approach to relying on the non-profit sector to add child-care capacity.
“The expectation that we’re going to have volunteers develop a critical infrastructure of child-care spaces is … let’s just say it hasn’t worked so far and it hasn’t worked so far anywhere,” McCuaig told Global News.
A recent analysis by the left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) also flagged the potential for severe child-care shortages under the Liberals’ plan.
“In order to reduce fees and avoid rapid growth of waiting lists, many more spaces must be built to accommodate increased demand,” wrote CCPA senior economist David Macdonald. “But those spaces need capital money to get going and Early Childhood Educators (ECEs) to staff them and a planned strategy to ensure that expansion occurs when and where it’s needed.”
The Liberals are pledging to cut average child-care fees for regulated centres in half by the end of 2022 and achieve fees of $10 a day on average within the next five years. The Liberal government has so far signed bilateral five-year agreements with eight provinces and territories: British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Yukon.
The federal government has also signed an asymmetric agreement with Quebec that will deliver nearly $6 billion worth of federal dollars over five years meant to help strengthen the province’s universal child-care system and improve working conditions for educators.
With the Liberals’ plan, parents in some cities could save more than $10,000 annually per child by 2022 and nearly $20,000 per child by 2026, according to the CCPA analysis.
To fund the system, the Liberals have promised $30 billion from federal coffers over the next five years, with a minimum annual investment of $9.2 billion after that.
The Conservatives say their tax credit would translate into savings for all families with an annual income under $150,000. A household making $30,000 a year, for example, would receive up to $6,000. A family with an income of $50,000 would get up to $5,200, according to the party’s platform. The tax credit would be paid out throughout the year so families wouldn’t have to pay out of pocket and receive the funds at a later date, the Conservatives also said.
Costing for the party’s tax break, as for the rest of their policy pledges, will come later in the campaign.
The New Democratic Party has pledged it would take “immediate action” to provide relief to non-profit child-care centres that are in danger of closing permanently because of the pandemic. The party has also promised a relief fund to reopen the spaces that shuttered during COVID-19.
The New Democrats have said they’d also build a universal, $10-a-day child-care system as well as add enough capacity to eliminate months-long waiting lists.
The Green Party and the Bloc Québécois did not respond to requests to provide details on their vision for child care by deadline.