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Opinion: Let’s make it easier for families that want to have one parent stay home

Commentary

It wasn’t that long ago that a majority of Canadian children had a stay-at-home parent. It was just 1976. Prime Minister Trudeau was nearly five. His father was still in office.

Yet today that number has fallen to a mere 18 percent. There are many reasons for this massive shift in social norms, including of course expanded professional opportunities for women and the rising costs of housing, university, and so on.

This development is widely heralded as an example of social progress and a boon to the economy as female labour force participation has come to match men’s. But what’s sometimes overlooked is the increasing cultural pressure on parents — and specifically mothers — to get back in the workforce. In effect, we have moved from a society that pressures mothers to stay home to a society that pressures them to go back to work, whether they want to or not.

This pressure is particularly notable when it comes from self-styled progressive voices, who generally frame the importance of mothers getting back to work as necessary to help boost the economy — a talking point highlighted again and again by supporters of the federal government’s subsidized child care program. 

There’s something paradoxical happening here: progressives who are generally dismissive of concerns about economic efficiency suddenly become hard-core economic utilitarians when it comes to women getting back into the workforce.

It’s important to emphasize the changing social expectations from the 1970s and 1980s are generally positive. The expectation that “women’s place is in the home” and their “proper role” was to be full-time parents wrongly deprived women of choice and autonomy — and in many cases left them financially dependent on partners, forcing them to endure family arrangements that were sometimes unhappy or even abusive. 

But it is fair to ask whether the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Many women now feel pressured to “do it all.” The expectation, particularly in professional circles, is to juggle both a career and family, and face a barrage of messaging implying they are “letting down the team” if they don’t abide by this modern progressive mantra. This is both inappropriate insofar as government messaging should not be contributing this pressure, and also insulting to stay-at-home parents by implying that their contribution to society is only measured by their contribution to GDP.

Surely the goal of government policy should not be to dictate to Canadian families what their work-life arrangements should be, but rather to empower all parents to make the choices they want — and there’s a myriad of options beyond the false binary between staying-at-home and working 9-to-5. For example, the ideal scenario for some — indeed many — families may be to enlist help from their extended family for childcare.

While the mutual benefits of grandparent time are largely unquestioned, it remains unfashionable to point out the benefits associated with stay-at-home parenting, including improved education and health outcomes. Such evidence further underscores the flaws of a government policy that discourage parents from opting to stay at home with their children. 

So what could governments do to make it more viable for families that want to have one parent stay home do so? Cost of living overall is at the top of the list and is the main reason Canadians are not having as many children as they want to

Lowering taxes is the most obvious place to start because taxes are the single biggest cost faced by the average Canadian family (which typically spends more on taxes than necessities like clothes or food). The more taxes erode the take-home income of a single earner, the less practical it is for parents to make the choice to stay at home. The government could remove other policies that penalize families who have one parent who stays home, including revisiting the Trudeau government’s decision to cancel income splitting for families with children. 

The government could also move away from a narrow focus on daycare, which does not assist families who don’t wish us to pursue that particular model. For example, some parents choose to stay home simply because they’d prefer a child-care option with someone they know like a neighbour or family member. Others cannot make practical use of it because of shift work or other atypical workplace arrangements.

Modern Canadian families need more flexibility and nuance to childcare policy than the government’s current one-size-fits-all approach. The government must find a better solution that works for a wider range of families, whether they want two working parents or one stay-at-home parent. Indeed, unless the government pays more attention to this preference, stay-at-home parenting will become a luxury option available only to the richest — if it already hasn’t.

The liberation of women from having to bear almost the entire burden of raising children and families is one of the most important social developments of the past half-century. But giving women more choice means little if they feel pressured as to what the “right” choice should be. Stay-at-home parenting is a social good that isn’t captured in GDP but that doesn’t make it unvaluable. Government policies need to reflect that.

Aaron Wudrick is the Director of the Domestic Policy Program at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Jasmine Moulton holds an MBA from the Rotman School of Management and is a businesswoman turned stay-at-home mom.

Sean Speer: Don’t learn the wrong lesson from the U.K. government’s tax cut reversal

Commentary

Writing about the British government’s recent tax and spending package is a risky undertaking. The political fallout is still fast evolving including sharp criticism from influential Conservative MP Michael Gove that the proposed reductions to the top personal income tax rate were “a display of the wrong values” and the government’s subsequent retreat from its controversial proposal.

There’s plenty of reasons to criticize the government’s plan. Its failure to offset the deep tax reductions for corporations and individuals with accompanying spending cuts would have ballooned the annual deficit and massively increased the country’s public debt. Estimates from the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies were that Britain’s debt-to-GDP ratio would grow as a result from just over 80 percent to nearly 95 percent by 2026-27.

There’s also the clumsy and ineffectual communications that the prime minister herself has conceded. It’s not obvious based on the government’s presentation that these particular tax reductions were optimal or that the costs in the form of greater government borrowing, eventual spending reductions or even alternative policy choices (including public investments in science and technology) were worth the short- and long-run economic benefits.

Yet if the government’s plan deserves a defence, it’s against the weak and wrong-headed argument that its tax cuts are intrinsically bad because they aren’t progressive. The International Monetary Fund’s warning that the government’s corporate and high-income tax cuts “will likely increase inequality” is representative of this lazy line of argument.

It reflects a new and unproductive tendency to score every policy choice against the goal of equity — as if the only credible purpose of state action ought to be advancing equality. According to this increasingly dominant thinking, it’s no longer enough for the overall system of tax and transfers to be progressive. Now every single policy itself must be so-called “equity enhancing.”

While equity is a key rationale for government policymaking, it’s far from the sole one. Economic efficiency, which broadly refers to the optimal allocation of resources in a market economy, is also an important policy objective. But one would be forgiven for not knowing that lately. Policy considerations about efficiency (or imperfect yet popularized descriptions like economic competitiveness) have come to be subordinated in the political process over the past several years.

A good example is the huge gulf between the tax-cutting policies of the Chretien government at the start of this century and the tax-hiking policies of the current Trudeau government. The former’s 2000 Fall Economic Statement set out a series of pro-efficiency tax cuts, including lowering personal income taxes, corporate taxes, and capital gains taxes, that amounted to the “largest tax cut in Canadian history.” While it was part of a larger set of tax and spending initiatives that were broadly progressive, the Chretien government wasn’t afraid to make the case that tax policy ought to “provide incentives, not impediments” to achieve the goals of investment, entrepreneurship, and wealth creation.

The Trudeau government, by contrast, came to office arguing in favour of higher tax rates on high-income earners and has since applied an equity lens to virtually all of its policymaking. The Chretien government’s case for positive-sum growth has seemingly been replaced with a zero-sum focus on redistribution.

It’s not even precisely correct to say that the new emphasis is on equity. It’s a particular form of equity which narrowly concerns itself with the distribution of taxes and spending across income groups. It’s not really concerned, for instance, with horizontal equity which reflects the goal that households with similar abilities to pay ought to ultimately pay similar levels of taxation. The Trudeau government scrapped its predecessor’s income splitting policy that sought to equalize the tax treatment of households with children on the simple grounds that it was a “tax break for the wealthy.”

It’s difficult to discern precisely when our politics became equity obsessed. Attention to these issues seems to have taken off in the context of the 2007-08 recession and Barack Obama’s insurgent candidacy in the Democratic Party’s presidential primary. Since then, however, it’s evolved from a useful corrective to the rise of economic inequality in the 1990s and early 2000s into an overarching political economy framework that dominates Western policymaking and our overall political debates.

The Truss government’s highly-imperfect and clumsily-executed tax cuts were a brief challenge to this prevailing orthodoxy. They represented a rightful recognition that the Western governments’ overfocus on demand-side redistribution has failed to deliver higher rates of economic growth and that a recalibration to a more supply-side agenda is required to boost growth and dynamism in an era of economic stagnation. The proper mix of supply-side policies as well as how best to pay for them in a constrained fiscal environment is where our policy and political attention ought to be dedicated.

This column started as a principled defence of some of the underlying thinking behind the Truss government’s ambitious supply-side agenda. It’s ended as something of an obituary for its now partly defunct plan. Hopefully the lesson for policymakers in Canada and elsewhere isn’t that the U.K. government’s basic insight about the need for a renewed focus on growth and dynamism was itself dead wrong.

Policymaking must of course concern itself with the goal of equity. But equity without efficiency is hardly better than efficiency without equity. It’s ultimately a recipe for long-run stagnation and zero-sum polarization. We need to restore a healthier balance to our policy and politics.