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Ginny Roth: When it comes to marriage and babies, we can’t just mind our own business

Commentary

Amid Canada’s newly open immigration debate, a key component remains largely unspoken. Sometimes though, the subtext breaks through. Last week the president of a large, publicly funded Ontario college defended his institution’s financial reliance on international students by pointing to Canada’s “baby deficit.” A couple of weeks ago, Statistics Canada reported that Canada’s birth rate had dropped to its lowest point since the government started collecting the data in the 1920s. Despite the earth-shattering, existential nature of this news, media coverage reported the bare facts before quickly moving on, while analysis remained the niche interest of a handful of Canadian think tanks, authors, and cranky columnists.

One of the reasons natalists struggle to capture Canadian time and attention is the difficult, personal nature of the problem. Our low birth rate is a culture issue, which means there’s no easy public policy solution. Another under-discussed factor, though, is that it suffers from a none-of-your-business untouchability. 

Perhaps most importantly, since the advent of the birth control pill, when and whether or not to have children has since become just one personal choice in a series of choices—from dating to marriage to career path to family formation—which we have come to think of as exempt from social norms or collective preference. We’ve arrived at a place of social neutrality on important life choices, even though we know they have a measurable impact on the likelihood of people living happy lives.

Despite our squeamishness about discussing marriage and babies at a public policy level, our plummeting birth rate is already having impacts on post-secondary education, health care, and housing affordability. And we don’t need to look far for an early peek at the dark picture our birth rate trend portends.

Of course, Canadians used to be able to take marriage and family formation for granted. Marrying young was the dominant norm and its inherent purpose was a first step toward building a family. This life path was so dominant that as society changed—as people became more secular, women more career-oriented, and child-rearing more complicated and expensive—society chafed at the constraints of the old norms. Freedom began to trump duty, and happiness and meaning were seen to be derived from personal, inward fulfillment. After the sexual revolution, it was perfectly acceptable to choose to get married and have children, but it was understood the state and society ought to be increasingly neutral on the matter.

But as leaders proclaimed that the state had no place in the bedrooms of the nation, many (with perhaps the exception of the one who famously said those exact words) didn’t practice what they preached. In fact, marriage became a luxury good. While marriage rates dropped across the board, they dropped significantly more among low-income Canadians. Today, not only are wealthier Canadians more likely to be married, but they’re also likelier to have more kids.

Worse than the hands-off neutrality of the upper middle class is the increasing disdain for stable, bourgeois family formation by the snobby cultural elite. The creeping dominance of a postmodern worldview in academia, journalism, and even parts of medicine has replaced neutrality around marriage and family formation with active hostility. Treatises deconstructing marriage as oppression, books about miserable women throwing off the yoke of repressive husbands and demanding children, and long-form articles about the joys of non-monogamy and polycules dominate our social landscape. It’s rare to see thought leaders promoting marriage, and those who do are critiqued for platforming privilege. 

Despite—or perhaps because of—these loud anti-family voices, there are some positive signs that the rare defenders of marriage and family should feel emboldened. Brad Wilcox, one of the loudest voices for family formation in North America, has a new book, Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization, where he takes up the case for marriage, head-on. And not just any kind of marriage, but the kind of lifelong, stable, family-formation-oriented commitment that romantic comedies with soulmate themes tend to mislead about. The type of marriage for which a prenup would be a moot point.

If Wilcox’s podcast tour is any indication, his book is drumming up more intellectual interest than you might think. And it’s not just in right-wing circles. In an effort to boost birth rates, left-of-centre French President Emmanuel Macron recently rolled out a number of policy initiatives designed to increase family formation, and, in making the announcement, actually articulated a desire on the part of the state to see more babies born in France, breaking the liberal individualism personal choice taboo. 

The Niazi family pose in their home in Oakville, Ont., on Monday, August 6, 2018. Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press.

Other mainstream American thinkers are trying to understand why young people are increasingly lonely and mentally ill, inevitably finding that people are spending a lot less time together than they used to. They’re part of a growing consensus that acknowledges that less time spent hanging out, less time spent having sex, and less marriage is clearly intimately (pardon the pun) connected to our dropping birth rate.

Feeling squeamish yet? Well, get over it. To confront the problems caused by low birth rates, we must talk frankly about childbearing, marriage, and even dating. Elite thinkers, public policy experts, and political leaders must get comfortable promoting marriage and increased birth rates as common social goods without worrying whether or not doing so implies they’re the right choices for every person in every instance.

Promoting the power of the success sequence doesn’t detract from the achievements of a happy person raised by a single mom, encouraging healthy dating habits doesn’t have to be discriminatory or even heteronormative, and educating women to understand they can have more children if they start earlier doesn’t condemn them to a life spent barefoot in the kitchen.

Shifting social and cultural trends—first to neutrality, then to outright hostility toward families—is what got us into this mess. People with loud voices and big audiences (Taylor Swift, are you reading this?) committed to shifting them once again are the ones who will get us out of it. 

Matt Spoke: Conservatives should end $10-per-day child care

Commentary

It’s been well over a year now since Trudeau’s child-care policy has taken effect in most provinces across the country. Naturally each province, through negotiations with the federal government, has approached its implementation of the program slightly differently.

The program promised three definitive outcomes: quality (a subjective measure, but one worth unpacking), accessibility (i.e. more spaces), and affordability (i.e. less expensive spaces).

Quality

To start with the most nuanced, let’s consider quality. In order to measure the quality of a program, one first needs to understand the policy objective that the program aims to accomplish. 

In reality, there are two quite different schools of thought when it comes to this area of policy. Simply put, you might call the first “child care” and the second “early childhood education.” In most of the country, these terms have become seemingly synonymous. In fact, we refer to licensed staff at child-care centres as “early childhood educators.”

So what’s the difference? Well, as the name implies, child care is for the purpose of having someone care for your child so that you might go to work. You might think of this similarly to hiring a babysitter while you’re out at night. A responsible adult needs to be present to ensure your child (or children) is safe. Put differently, the beneficiary of child care is not the child, but rather the parent.

Whereas early childhood education is for the purpose of educating our children. Decades of research support the idea that a strong foundation in early childhood education is one of the biggest determinants of future success. In this context, the beneficiary of early childhood education is clearly the child.

Although it’s plausible to combine child care with early childhood education, it’s important to clarify which outcome a set of policies intends to solve for. Are we designing a system to provide what amounts to institutionalised babysitting for parents, or are we designing a system that educates our kids and sets them up for long-term success?

Where does the Trudeau government’s plan land on this question? Has it designed a policy of child care or of early childhood education?

One doesn’t have to look much further than a regular media appearance of the prime minister or the finance minister to hear them cite the increase in women’s participation in the workforce as the primary measure of success of their child-care policy. The problem, as discussed above, is that this policy goal can be at odds with one focused on child outcomes. The experience from Quebec for instance certainly signals a tension here.

Accessibility

This measure of success is quite easy to measure. Have the number of available spaces at child-care centres increased or decreased as a percentage of the relevant population of children? A slightly more nuanced analysis would also consider the geographic distribution of those available spaces and whether they are in fact accessible to all socioeconomic groups equally. On the latter point, Rahim Mohamed covered this in a great piece last year for The Hub.

The more superficial measure of accessibility should be quite easy to measure, although any recent and relevant national statistics are lacking. So instead, we can look at recent anecdotal headlines to get a sense of where the sentiment of operators in the industry is on the question of accessibility.

CBC News in Toronto recently covered a 100-year-old child-care centre with 175 spaces announcing its closure, citing the provincial subsidy program as the primary cause. Similarly in Alberta, “rolling closures” of child-care centres are expected across the province. In Saskatchewan (as in other provinces), the province is falling well behind its commitments of opening sufficient new spaces. 

All in all, across the country the consistent story is that waitlists are increasing, staff shortages are getting more severe, and child-care centres are not able to make ends meet within the prescribed formulas of their respective provinces. 

On accessibility, it’s hard to argue for anything but a failing grade.

Affordability

This term is often significantly misunderstood. Whether in the context of groceries, housing, or child care, it’s important to think of affordability as a relative measure. Put differently, a $10 gallon of milk can be extremely unaffordable to a low-income family on a tight budget, but not make a real dent in the budget of an upper middle-class household. 

What’s perplexing about this policy is its emphasis on $10 per day as an arbitrary measure of affordability, rather than considering the means of the family benefiting from the program. 

Are there families paying less for child care today than before the program existed? Yes.

Are families with the greatest need disproportionately benefiting from the program? No, and in fact early data is suggesting the opposite: higher-income families are disproportionately benefiting from the subsidy.

Children’s backpacks and shoes are seen at a daycare in Langley, B.C. on May 29, 2018. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press.

Anecdotally and statistically, we’re seeing evidence across the country of higher-income families (who historically have been able to afford market-rate child care within their budgets) get to the front of the line for access to the subsidy ahead of lower-income families who might not have put their children in child care historically.

Whether you agree with the designed intent of the policy or not, it’s hard to argue that the metric of affordability has been met. On the one hand, families who don’t need the subsidy (or at least not the full value of it) are benefiting more than they should, and on the other hand, many families who could benefit are still stuck on waitlists or can’t find child care that meets the unique demands of their schedules (e.g. nurses working night shifts, retail workers with unpredictable schedules, etc.).

On system-wide affordability, I give the program a failing grade. 

Conservatives need to scrap this program

I’ll leave the political calculus of this opinion to others, but I’ll highlight that Andrea Mrozek lays out a pretty compelling case that this issue is not as one-sided among Canadians as you might think.

Whether under the leadership of a Poilievre-led federal government or simply when it comes time for a renegotiation with the provinces, conservative leaders at both levels of government need to push back against this misguided policy that is showing early and worrying signs of failure.

Our objective as conservatives should be twofold: firstly, a policy that promotes parental choice and flexibility, and secondly, a policy that prioritizes the well-being and development of children within early childhood. 

Taken together, this would undoubtedly lead to a generous system of tax credits directed to families with young children (adjusted for income), coupled with regulatory reform agenda to open up a competitive industry of early childhood education options that’s ultimately ranked based on the quality of programming.

To conservative provincial ministers responsible for early childhood education, the challenge is yours to solve.