For seven years, the $100 cheques have been in the mail every month for parents of Canadian children under six. Fifteen billion dollars later (and counting), what does Canada have to show for the Universal Child Care Benefit program?
Not a lot. Which should surprise no one. That is precisely what the program promised when it was rolled out by the newly elected Conservative government in 2006 as an answer to the Liberal national child-care program that was decried by more than one Tory as a scheme to force parents to have someone else raise their kids.
The Universal Child Care Benefit program, on the other hand, was presented as giving Canadian parents, those who rely on child care and those who don’t, some choice and some financial help — although the $850 to $950 (after tax) annual benefit does not come close to covering child-care costs for most.
At a time when Canada sits at the bottom of the rankings compared to other wealthy countries for early-childhood education participation, and when child-poverty rates are worsening, according to the Conference Board of Canada, the Universal Child Care Benefit is looking more and more like an expensive and leaky tap.
It is time to turn it off and redirect the money, as well as tax credits aimed at parents, to where it can do more good for children — or at least some good, which would be a start.
Not that parents don’t have legitimate uses for the cheques they receive monthly during the early years of their children’s lives. It is costly to have children, and society needs people to keep doing so and even have more.
If an additional $4,500 or so helps convince some Canadian parents to have children, or more children, that is a good thing.
But it does little to address the fact that Canada needs to do better when it comes to supporting children and giving them a good start in life. And that means targeting child-care dollars to those most in need in a way that gets the most results. Does it make sense to shell out universal child-care benefits equally to those in a province where daycare costs $7 a day (Quebec) or to those whose children attend full-day kindergarten (Ontario) and to those who pay more than $50 a day for care while they work?
In its desire to set an ideological tone that supports families that raise their children at home, the federal government created a feel-good program that has little else to offer. And $15 billion — so far — is a steep price tag for those deliverables.
As a first step, politicians should dial down the ideology when it comes to child care. No one is forcing anyone to have their children raised by other people, as Human Resources Minister Diane Finley and others have suggested. The fact is that most Canadian families use child care of some kind. According to a 2008 Statistics Canada report, 67 per cent of Canadian parents of young children said they use child care on a regular basis. Five years later, that number has likely gone up. Not only do those parents want good-quality, affordable care, but the country’s future demands it.
That doesn’t necessarily mean a national daycare program of the kind envisioned by Paul Martin’s Liberal government.
Instead of a universal program that makes sure everyone gets some small financial benefit, there should be a refocus on measurable results: One way to do that is to follow Ontario’s example and begin building access to early-childhood education on to the school system. It is easier to extend the school system down from four-year-olds to three-year-olds, say, than it would be to build a national daycare system from the bottom up.
And as Maclean’s columnist John Geddes has suggested, it would make more sense for the federal government to extend parental benefits than build a national child-care system for infants. That would leave a child-care gap of about two years in most provinces, which could be filled by adding early-childhood education on to elementary schools, as has been suggested in Ontario, or with improved child-care spaces, especially for children of low-income families.
Canada can do better than a little money toward diapers, daycare fees and babysitters.
© Copyright 2013