Boessenkool and Roth: The key to childcare is choice and flexibility

A publicly-managed universal childcare system would transform our society for the worse
Two young boys play at a daycare in Vancouver. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

A fresh childcare debate is emerging in Canada as attention starts to turn to post-pandemic economic recovery and as one of the most prominent voices in the debate has expressed it, “no recovery without a she-covery. No she-covery without childcare.”  

The key difference in this debate is between those who would maximize flexibility for working parents and those who would build an entirely new one-size-fits-all institution for the care of children. 

For us, government support for families with children must maximize choice and flexibility. New cash payments and tax benefits for families introduced under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and expanded under the current Liberal government exemplifies this approach. It recognizes the inherent value society places on children — kids are not boats, after all — but gives parents flexibility by recognizing and supporting that societal value in the form of cash for parents, not programs from government. 

While we don’t doubt that those on the other side of the childcare debate share this end goal, their approach often loses sight of it, distracted as it is by another objective: a brand new normative government entitlement. A recent paper by Senator Rosemary Moodie and New Brunswick Lieutenant Governor Margaret McCain summarizes this objective as follows: 

“First, strong early childhood education should be a non-mandatory entitlement starting at two years of age and therefore properly recognizing the first tier of education — a tier just as important as primary, secondary and post-secondary education. This would complement enhanced parental leave benefits to more families. It should be the norm, whether or not parents are working, and be protected from economic downturns,” the paper reads.

The oxymoronic “non-mandatory entitlement” is an interesting turn of phrase belied in other places where the authors call for a program that is “universal and therefore accessible to all children,” which gets at what the authors are really interested in and prompted one of us to summarize that the study as follows

“So here we have a call to institutionalize all children at age two, whether or not parents of those children are working or not working and whether or not the parents of those children are very rich or very poor.  Just so we’re clear.”

Our view, in contrast, is that policy that enables parents to work must not restrict their choices.

Our approach to childcare means maximizing choice and flexibility when two parents (or one in the case of single parents) are engaged in work or school outside of the home. It can be done primarily through tax or cash payments to parents who require care so they can choose the care best for their children.

In practical terms, this means parents could choose from a variety of arrangements including everything from regulated, institutional care to support from a grandparent or neighbour. This approach recognizes the value society places on parents of children being engaged in work or school outside of the home but gives parents flexibility to arrange family care in the way that works best for them.

The size and specifics of this subsidy should be a matter of public debate, but at the core of our support for public investment in childcare is the view that public policy should recognize the additional cost of working or going to school. Put another way, if you work you should not be disincentivized to have children and if you have children, you should not be disincentivized to work.  

Childcare policy should also seek to correct for two other market failures. First, a signalling failure regarding the quality of care. A strong childcare policy should ensure that when parents take the leap of faith required to leave their children with someone else for the day, they can have some assurance and expectation of quality of care. But in a dynamic childcare market, providers will always have more information than purchasers of care. For this reason, governments should play a role regulating the quality of care. The level and degree of regulation should be a matter of public debate, balanced by the need for the flexibility for parents choosing care.  

Second, the market may fail to produce enough childcare spaces to meet the demands of new parents. Available spaces will be heavily influenced by the level of tax or cash support for childcare because more generous support will make more money available to build spaces. It will also be influenced by the degree of regulation because a more stringent regulatory regime will increase the cost per space.

Even with very generous tax or cash support and modest regulation, the market may not produce adequate spaces. Good childcare policy must prioritize accessibility, but a scarcity of spaces does not necessitate a universal, institutional approach. Filling this gap can be achieved by targeting public subsidy for spaces, the size and scope (operating vs capital) of which should be a matter of public debate. 

This trifecta of policy tools — support for parents, regulation and funding spaces — describes Canada’s current system of childcare. And this system provides a great deal of policy flexibility. You could have modest tax support coupled with light regulation and modest subsidies for new spaces.

This could produce a system of public support for a broad mix of types of care, from private to non-profit to public to personal care by family or friends. Or you could have $7 per day care by heavily subsidizing both parents and spaces coupled with a very stringent regulatory regime on the quality of care.  

Those on the other side of this debate have one singular goal, an end in and of itself, detached from the policy aims of assisting with the cost of childcare so parents can go to work or school. They want to create an entirely new public institution, like our primary and secondary schools, into which children above the age of two will go. Moodie and McCain’s concluding sentence really says it all: “Universal, high-quality early learning and childcare that is a publicly funded and publicly managed entitlement will transform our society.” 

Unfortunately, a publicly-funded, publicly-managed universal childcare institution for children under two would transform our society for the worse. It would unravel the choices parents currently have about the type and style of care they prefer for their children when they go to work or school, care that we agree should receive public support, just not the kind of support that would institutionalize children at the age of two. 

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