Andrea Mrozek: How do parents really feel about the government’s daycare options?

Survey data does not show overwhelming and unambiguous support for our current plan
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks to Brenda Gunn and her daughter Holly and other parents at the YMWCA daycare in Winnipeg, Friday, March  3, 2023. John Woods/The Canadian Press.

Staffing shortages and lack of access—none of these problems seems to have been solved by creating a $10-a-day daycare system. But those who’ve long called for such a system warn that none of those problems should cause us to question the value of such a system. As system advocates Carolyn Ferns and Alana Powell recently wrote:  

And a note to any politicians thinking of jumping on this crisis to make political hay and call for a return to the cheques-in-the-mail of the Stephen Harper era. You will find families want the $10-a-day child care system; it’s here to stay.

The federal Conservatives seem to have accepted that logic. They voted unanimously in favour of Bill C-35: An Act Respecting Early Learning and Child Care in Canada, to make the system “permanent.” Apparently, the Tories believed doing otherwise would hurt them electorally.

But would it really?

To what extent do families want this particular child care system? A review of recent polls reveals there isn’t a lot of substance behind that idea. In fact, there are few recent polls addressing child care at all and the one substantive poll focused expressly on child care is far from a slam-dunk endorsement of the current policy. For many Canadians, child care is simply not a priority, much as those of us concerned with quality child care might wish otherwise.

So where is public opinion on the child-care question? The most recent poll cited in defence of the current plan was conducted by Abacus Data in May 2023 based on hypothetical scenario about what Canadians believe a Poilievre-led Conservative government would (or would not) do on the file.

In this poll, 25 percent of those surveyed think a Conservative government should end the national daycare program and 36 percent think they should not. But four in ten Canadians (39 percent) are unsure—indicating a hypothetical Poilevre-led government “probably shouldn’t” end the program. Asked whether a Conservative government would end the national child care program, three in ten (33 percent) said they “don’t know.” There’s enough ambiguity in these responses to suggest the current plan doesn’t have a lot of salience or as much popularity as its proponents typically assume.

In September 2021, Nanos Research conducted various surveys prior to that year’s federal election. One survey in particular touched directly on child care policy options, contrasting the Liberal/NDP offer to create new $10-a-day daycare spaces with the Conservative offer of a refundable tax credit. Half of Canadians preferred the Liberal and NDP proposal for subsidized spaces and 40 percent preferred the Conservative proposal and 10 percent were unsure. Nik Nanos summed up the results in a Globe and Mail interview: “the Liberal proposal for subsidized child care is not an overwhelming political winner,” adding that “although Canadians are likely united on a child-care plan, there is no consensus on how to proceed.”

The third and final survey about child care in recent years speaks strongly to a lack of consensus on just how to proceed. It was commissioned by my think tank, Cardus, in conjunction with the Angus Reid Institute and released in March 2021.

Those who applaud the current $10-a-day plan were quick to point to one response from the survey showing a majority (70 percent) of Canadians support the building of a national system. However, this response is strongly tempered by support for opposing policies. Respondents were first asked: “Overall, do you support or oppose the idea of moving towards a national child care system in Canada?” and 70 percent said yes. But when they were asked about a list of other child care policy ideas, those surveyed were bullish on just about every option. Eight in ten (78 percent) supported creating a refundable federal tax credit. 84 percent supported expanding the child disability benefit. And six in ten supported increasing the Canada Child Benefit.

To make matters more complicated, survey respondents were then asked to select their top two child care policies of those previously given, which ranged from the $10-a-day system to tax credits. More than one third chose the tax credit compared to 31 percent who chose the current system.

After that, respondents were asked whether financial support should go to families or spaces, and there was a 50/50 split. Parents of children under six were more likely to say funding should go to families (53 percent) over spaces (47 percent).

Finally, when asked about what issues are pressing in Canada today, the poll shows the availability of affordable child care options for pre-schoolers isn’t a high priority. Fully 91 percent said that access to health care services is a high priority, but only 51 percent said the same about the availability of child care options. A range of issues were more important in Canadians’ minds—things like the quality of public school education or crime and public safety.

Historically, child care polling has shown Canadians prefer younger children to be cared for by parents or close to home. This result is echoed in the Angus Reid/Cardus poll, with 78 percent of all Canadians saying it is best for young kids to be home with a parent whenever possible. Some child care advocates dismiss such results as too idealistic. But what Canadians think is best does matter. And it could influence their sentiments about the necessity of any program, particularly when resources are scarce.

Rick August, an independent social policy analyst, notes there is an abyss between what Canadians think about child care and the policy we get. He asks

How can such dissonance exist, and be sustained, between parents’ perspectives and the dominant policy perspective of the licensed child care industry? The answer appears to lie in bias, rooted in a hardened ideology, among those with substantial influence over child care policy.

Overcoming that bias is possible, though increasingly difficult. So as new surveys become necessary, here are some thoughts. Every survey needs to adopt a neutral posture. We need to ask about Canadians’ ideals and desires for child care because we ought not to drift too far from the dreams we have for our families. Simultaneously, practical reality matters. So, any new survey ought to ask specifics about the current plan. It would be interesting to know who can access the cheaper spaces by income level and other demographic information. Finally, even the current federal government is now searching for government cutbacks in certain areas. If Canadians applaud so many different child care policies, as it seems we do, it would be good to contrast those with questions about other social entitlements competing for dollars and whether child-care policy should take precedence in a world of fiscal tradeoffs.

Looking at these surveys, it is wrong to assume a strong majority of Canadians, or even of Canadian parents, are really motivated by the Trudeau government’s child-care plan. For Canadians, the word “system” might be more elastic than some advocates and politicians think. This gives a lot of latitude for considering what truly quality child care policy should be.

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