The daycare debate -

The daycare debate

A death at an illegal daycare has revived calls for universal child care. But that’s not most parents’ first choice

A bare minimum of care

Terry Davidson/Toronto Sun/QMI Agency

When a two-year-old girl was found dead last week in an illegal daycare in Vaughan, Ont., it was easy to see where the battle lines would fall. On one side: traditionalists who viewed the incident as the outcome of warped values placing work ahead of family—a society where children languish in inadequate care as parents chase the almighty dollar. On the other: proponents of national subsidized daycare, who believe an affordable, universal program is the only way to ensure families have access to adequate care.

About the only point of agreement was that the status quo can’t hold. While the cause of the child’s death wasn’t immediately known, the home in question was by all accounts a child-care sweatshop, daytime home to 27 children in a province where the legal limit for unlicensed daycares is five. Three complaints had been lodged about overcrowding at the two-storey brick house over the last nine months, and provincial inspectors had followed up on one, ordering the owner to comply with regulations. Yet the families kept coming—willing, it seemed, to ignore jam-packed conditions in return for care they could afford.

It’s been seven years since the Liberals’ plan for a national, universal daycare program fell victim to a change in government, and still child care remains one of the country’s great, unresolved issues. The plan, spearheaded by then-social development minister Ken Dryden, was less “one-size-fits-all” than “every-province-choose-its-size,” and there’s no telling if it would have prevented last week’s tragedy. But its passing has been lamented by those who see it as collateral damage in the culture wars, noting Stephen Harper’s Conservatives rescinded the $5-billion federal funding commitment with great zeal—a mere five hours after being sworn in.

There’s more than partisan gamesmanship keeping it from coming back. Canadians appear deeply conflicted about the issue on an individual level—to the point they aren’t sure exactly what kind of daycare they want. While surveys routinely show a majority of working parents would take advantage of a universal program were it available, a recent poll commissioned by the conservative Institute of Marriage and Family Canada suggests 76 per cent of Canadians believe it is best that children under six be home with a parent. Another poll, conducted in 2004, found daycare centres to be a distant fifth choice as a child-care option among Canadians, behind a parent; a grandparent; a relative or a day home. The latter survey was commissioned by the Vanier Institute of the Family, a non-partisan think tank.

Dryden brushed aside these contradictions with tin-eared mockery, likening working parents who wish they could care for their kids to weight-watchers who “would like ice cream once a week and chocolate twice a day.” But new parents are genuinely perplexed. Pamela Chan, a 39-year-old mother of two in Toronto, wants on one hand to set an example for her three-year-old daughter by showing her that she can be out in the work force. But Chan, a mobile-product manager, recently had a baby boy. When her maternity leave ends, she concedes, it will be financial necessity, not ambition, that has her checking them into a day home and heading back to work. “Goodness knows if I had my choice,” she says, “it would be myself or my husband staying home to take care of the kids.”

She’s not alone. More and more families feel both parents must work because the cost of living is rising relative to income, notes Nora Spinks, chief executive of the Ottawa-based Vanier Institute. Some can’t keep up, and while no one keeps tabs on the number of families who specifically resort to illegal daycares, one in three turn to what Statistics Canada categorizes as relatives, nannies or “similar private arrangements.” Many, says Spinks, “are forced to make trade-offs.”

Still, the fact that places like the house in Vaughan could fall between the regulatory cracks has stunned political leaders and the public. Two Ministry of Education staffers have been suspended over the incident, while Ontario’s ombudsman, André Marin, is investigating whether the province does enough to protect children in unlicensed care. At a minimum, say advocates, those paid to care for groups of children on-site should be licensed and inspected. “We regulate dry cleaners, and we regulate restaurants,” says Spinks. “We want to makes sure families not only have access to services, but feel confident in making their choices.”

That’s a far cry from the egalitarian vision of universal child care. But at least it’s doable. And with Canadians as ambivalent as ever on a highly divisive issue, settling for what’s possible—as soon as possible—seems the obvious course of action.


The daycare debate

  1. If the author can’t understand that people’s opinion on what makes optimal care for a child shouldn’t dictate federal policy on the matter – esp. when an interviewee pretty much spells it out in the 4th last paragraph – maybe macleans needs a new writer.

    I mean there are so many isses that are actually worth a column on the issue of child care. It would be interesting, for instance, to see if there was ever a single business that ever took the Harper government on its idea of a tax credit for day care centres (Oh, they knew it was an issue, they just addressed it with an ideological free market solution that failed, and very possibly was never used by anyone at all).

    Allowing the theme of “but some people say a parent staying at home is the best idea” to dominate the article was a mistake and by giving it credence the author elevates it far beyond what it is worth.

    • We live in a democracy – of course people’s opinion is an important factor in formulating policy! The Liberals have been promoting the idea of publicly-funded daycare at least since the 1980s. Never have they gained the political traction needed to introduce such an expensive entitlement program. People don’t want daycare – they want to look after their own kids. Figure out some way to work in that context, and something might actually happen. The average licensed daycare cost in Canada is $700-$800 per month, or $8,000-$10,000 per year. If the government simply transferred that to parents as a straight subsidy for stay-at-home care, I think it’d be possible to for more parents to raise their kids at home. This would be especially beneficial for parents of multiple children, and would probably help bolster the flagging birth rate. This would essentially be a cost-neutral program choice from the government’s perspective – pay the parents, or pay the daycare.

      • not really democracy~~

      • public opinion is important but it can’t be an overwhelming factor when there are clear flaws. And the Liberals delayed and dropped the ball but if they had got it off the ground we’d hopefully realize it is as valuable a program as medicare.

        As for your plan of just shovelling almost 10,000 per year at a family with a kid, surely that money can be more cost effectively spent on developing spaces themselves. You’re advocating the Harper mistake multiplied by 10!

        I realize I snarled at the author and to a lesser extent you, but watching the Liberals delay and the CPC kill the idea has been so awful, and it happened because of moronic babbling rather than sound planning Harper threw a crapton of cash on a plan that didn’t fix the problem and his idiot supporters gobbled it up chanting “choice!” “freedom”

        • I can see how a national daycare program might seem like the perfect solution for people who live in large cities, however, what about people who reside in rural communities where there are no licensed day cares. Do these people still get the big subsidy to pay a private caregiver because that is what is available in their community?
          Further, I am not sure why giving people or should I said “idiot Con supporters” a choice of childcare is so unpalatable. In Alberta, the government gives the citizens a choice of where they send their children to school and basic government subsidy follows the child to that school, even if it isn’t a public school. The parents then pick up the tab for any extra costs. I am not sure why that is not a good choice for childcare in Canada.

          • There are probably more remote areas for whom it would be a larger inconvenience to access daycare. At the same time, you spend $ in a manner that gets you your biggest bang for your buck, and you simply don’t let people’s perception of the perfect destroy the real good.

            The approach you describe to subsidizing private schools is dumb and Alberta should end it.

            This is like the TO subway issue this week. A whole bunch of dumbasses let themselves be whipped into an entiltlement frenzy and the cheaper better plan got replaced with a costly absurdity. There just isn’t two sides to the issue, and that is why i am going off on the morons. The throwing money around willy-nilly instead of investing where the actual problem was was a blow to Canada. We need to come together to fix it.

          • Actually what would be a good idea would be in the smaller communities where there wouldn’t be a cheaper daycare in every town, you tell the entire large area “decide amongst yourself where the daycare goes or there isn’t one.” it would teach them about coming together, about allocation of finite resources, and not just to say “but what about me me me why do I not get what I want in exactly the way i want it.”

          • You must live in Ontario where communities are close together. This is not the case in Alberta.

          • First, I will say that your assessment of Alberta’s approach to education as being ‘dumb’ is not shared by experts. The approach has actually encouraged the development of science schools, Mandarin immersion programs, Spanish immersion programs, Arabic immersion programs. The Alberta system is so successful that educators in other provinces such as the UK are planning to emulate it. It doesn’t “subsidize’ private schools but rather subsidizes everyone’s choice of education to a very basic degree.
            I am not sure if I understand your position on the daycare for people in remote communities. When you say that accessing daycare will be “a larger inconvenience”, exactly how far do you think a person should drive to access daycare? I lived in a small community 1 and 1/2 hours drive from the nearest daycare (in no traffic). When you say that we need to get “more bang for our buck”, do you mean that rural people won’t be getting any childcare subsidy?

          • Our schools get more government funding than simply the student amount. They also get dollars for infrastructure and capital projects from our government. That’s why they’re called “public schools”, after all. And because the schoolboards are large, this sum of money is large enough to allow economies of scale to kick into play.

            The same system wouldn’t work for daycare unless we had public “day-care boards” of the same type and comparable sizes.

          • Yes, your absolutely right. When I said the government basic subsidy follows the student. It is only a few thousand dollars that the government gives to the school of the parent’s choice and the parents pay the extra.
            Of course taxpayer money from property taxes, etc. props up public schools, regardless of their boards’ choices on how to spend the money they get. It also pays for the Catholic school, which in Calgary tends to make better choices than the public by spending their money on the student’s education instead of new, expensive buildings for the school board and administration.
            I digress, however. My point is that a subsidy could follow the parents in case of childcare. It is better than nothing for people who want a choice or for whom day care is not a choice given that they live a rural area with no day care or they work shifts where day cares aren’t even open.

      • Even if they allowed income splitting for couples that want one parent to stay home, it would likely result in at least some savings to the family. They have to start thinking outside the box on these issues.

        • Income splitting is a very interesting idea that could have benefits for a lot of different types of families. Still, it’s going to come at some cost to revenue, and that’s still a challenge. There’s also the problem that it disproportionately benefits high income earners – they get the biggest break on their taxes from splitting income with a stay-at-home spouse. That’s not a problem unique to income-splitting, of course – Quebec’s publicly-funded daycare tends to be a more of a boon for high income parents as well. They realize more benefit from the subsidized cost vs. the income they can earn.

          • They could set limits on the amount of income that could be split…the first $50K.

      • I must be reading you wrong, because it sounds like you think the 2nd income earner only pulls in 700-800 per month? That the entirety of their earnings goes to day care and that the parent does that rather than stay at home themselves?

        Or are you saying that with that subsidy more stay-at-home daycares like the one that killed the kid in the article would spring up? Quite likely, I suppose, but hardly encouraging.

        The reality, of course, is that the prices in most daycares would jump, because honestly, the demand for daycare is so high (as we see by the article) that most people who actually want to do that kind of work already are.

        • The income of the 2nd earner varies a lot, but the marginal income after paying for child care often isn’t very much. If you’re paying day care for 2 children, you’re likely paying ~$1400-$1800 per month at the average rates I referenced ($700-900 per child.) If a person was clearing $800 per month after child care expenses, it’s equivalent to a pre-tax income of $35,000-$55,000 per year. Clearly paying people the cash equivalent of the child care cost won’t offset everything, but it might be enough to enable some parents to forgo full-time work.

  2. “warped values placing work ahead of family—a society where children languish in inadequate care as parents chase the almighty dollar.” Um, yeah, it’s because parents need to survive. Can’t pay the mortgage/rent or buy food without money last time I checked.

  3. We won’t have this childcare issues if the cost of living wasn’t that high. Then working families have a choice of one parent staying at home. Hold the government accountable for that …they gave free rein to corporations to fleece in everyway possible. The market is NOT efficient …it is there to enrich those with clout and impoverish everyone.

  4. Another issue is for low income earners who are dealt the short straw sort of speak. Up to $7000 per year is tax deductible, which means the higher the income the more the savings. But with lower incomes a $7000 per year tax deduction represents about 1/3rd of a full-time minimum wage earners gross income. A huge burden where they are only credited about 18% back through tax savings. Having two daycare age children (or more which is needed to support our population in the future) defeats the purpose of working for many Canadians. Thus they rely on government aid; combined with the lost tax dollars into the system creates a double whammy. If these parents could afford a proper daycare (which I am for in order to establish social skills and integration into society at a young age) then the tax dollars could be replenished and maybe the population supported through our birth rates. I am all for parents staying at home raising children, but after putting my daughter in part-time daycare I have seen a positive change in her attitude through her happiness and sociability. My daughter is 18 months. I work from home and am a high earner, and I feel there is a need for government run daycare that is accessible between most working hours 6am – 11pm, 7 days per week for example to allow more people options in employment and family. I also believe that our tax dollars and gov. spending should be monitored by a 3rd party in order to create responsible government spending so that there is enough money for a program as mentioned and other programs as well.

    • What you are talking about for your daughter can also be accomplished by putting her in playschool a few afternoons a week. Further, you might be right about the daycare that is required but I can assure you that it does not exist. As a shift worker who works with parents with young children, I can tell you that there aren’t day cares that run in the evenings or on weekends. When I worked nights, my husband worked afternoons and evenings and we had an afternoon babysitter.

      • I know. I was saying there should be a service available for people like you to take advantage of.

      • I also parent my child full-time during the day and week while my wife works. When she comes home from work we switch. I work every weekend as well, get up at 5am and work until my wife leaves for work. I then work from 5pm until 11pm before starting all over again. The part-time daycare could be considered babysitting, or a play group, or whatever you want to call it. It is only for 4 hours twice a week, but does wonders for my sanity as I am able to get things done around the house. My daughter only ever napped for 45 minutes during the day and 8 hours at night.

  5. Sounds to me as if every parent, including the writer, should be reading at least one of John Bowlby’s books. Google his name and you might learn something very important.

  6. Incidentally, that poll is nearly crap with the leading question format they used. The very first question asked is “Ideally what arrangement would you prefer for your child” Most respondents of course answered at home with the parent. Every parent would love to have the time and resources to just stay at home and take care of their kid, of course. But only after they’ve had the person state what the ideal is do they ask the questions related to what do they think the best option is in general, using pretty much the same phrasing for the answers — thus using the psychological lock-in effect on people who think “I’ve already answered it this way once..”

    And the conclusions they draw are even more crap, lumping together categories and even adding words to their results that weren’t in the question.. such as when they ask if the parent is unable to because their working would their preference be “with a family member or relative” or “with a neighborhood day-care” and a couple of other options. Then when talking about the results, they claim half the people supported “either with a family member or relative or a home-based neighborhood daycare”.

    Lumping the categories is disingenuous in itself, but adding the word “home-based” when it wasn’t in the question is flat out lying.

    In short, this survey is dishonest as hell, as is the group who commissioned it and is promoting the results. You’re promoting liars, Charlie.. are you happy about that?

    • Hahaha! “Every parent would love to have the time and resources just to stay at home and take care of their kid”. Are you even a parent? Have you spent a year, six months, a month out of the work force taking care of children and a home as your full-time unpaid job?

      • I spent 15 years out of the workforce to care for our children. I am often told that I was lucky enough to be able to stay home. It was not luck, it was a challenge that involved a lot planning and sacrifice. It was challenge we chose to accept as it was important to us. Split income would have helped our situation dramatically as it would have allowed us to provide more opportunities for the kids in the form of paid lessons, etc. and reduced our current debt load. Getting back into the work force after 15 years was not easy to do either, and some government support for retraining or upgrading would have been helpful there too.

        • I am totally in favor of allowing parents to split income. Also, to be flexible on letting them chose how they use subsidies for childcare. I also agree about retraining help. I returned to school as a mature student when I had a young child. As my husband worked shift work, we only needed a sitter for about 3 hours at a time, 4 afternoons a week. No day care is willing to allow part-time people to take up spaces that full-time children are occupying so we had no choice but to go with a private sitter. We of course tried to get a family member or a family friend…someone we trusted. No one was available so we found a lady with a young son of her own who was babysitting one other child. It worked out well.
          When I graduated, I worked opposite shifts with my husband to try to eliminate the need for a sitter altogether. I ended up working a part-time position. Day care would never have been an option as no day cares exist for shift workers. In the case of’ RNs in Alberta, one has to work at least least 1000 hours in 5 years or one loses their professional designation and cannot work at all. That was not an option I was willing to chose.
          I work with several young mothers who feel the same way I do. Many work 4 hour evening shifts 7 pm to 11 pm. Their husbands are home with the children and they come to work. It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition.

      • Yes. It was hard, but we didn’t take holidays, we shopped at thrift shops, didn’t smoke, rarely drank alcohol, and ate sensibly. My children have grown up knowing how to think for themselves, and are very successful in their fields. One was even featured in Macleans last year.

        • I commend you on your choice but it is a choice and sometimes, it isn’t a choice…economic factors make it impossible for one parent to remain at home. Sometimes it isn’t just about shopping at the thrift store. My parents had 9 children to feed, clothe and house. My mother had to work when my dad’s farm wasn’t providing the basics of life. The fact of the matter is that I don’t feel I suffered from her choices. My brothers and sisters are all very successful as well. We loved our childhood babysitter. She and her family treated us like gold.
          A few years ago, my sisters and I attended her funeral. She had come to our weddings and cuddled our babies before she succumbed to dementia in her eighties. Her husband helped care for us and her children came home from school every day and had lunch with us. They were thrilled to see us at the funeral and us, them.

  7. Government run daycare is just more jobs for the unions and more opportunity to run social experiments to shape society down the road. Much like adult daycare, children will be forced to abide by government edicts – no salt, little sugar, must conform to medical practices and have all character flaws erased. A national program would also fall under UN rules and you know what happens then. We’d need a Commissioner of Children’s Health and Welfare.

  8. people work sometimes for minimum wage these daycares are all they can afford(unfortunately) and we have a provincial govt that wastes taxpayers dollars like butter. billions and billions and scam upon scam people cant afford to pay more but we have to work more for less to keep up with this wasteful govt. these are billions of dollars that could have helped provide subsidized daycare instead its just throws money put the window to cover and protect their butts. e-health scandal windmills, Samsung contracts and the latest with his somekind of electrical plants or whatever it was, the hst (known as the holy shit tax) the eco tax which he snuck in so despite wasting billions we are the highest taxed province in the country. with sub par day care

  9. ENOUGH!!! if you choose to have a child, or 2 or 3, that’s your problem! financially plan for your children and you won’t have any issues. if you can’t plan your finances properly then why the heck should I?!?

  10. I completely disagree that the public opinion data cited in the article indicates ambivalence. The fact that parents believe that being at home with their kids is the best option for their kids says nothing about the fact that, in the current economy, parents need childcare services. It’s a service that they need to keep their lives manageable.

    So you have (1) the structural need for broad-scale childcare services because of relatively stagnant middle class earnings and (2) market failure insofar as the private market is not able to supply enough affordable childcare that is also safe and sufficient. What is the solution in this situation? Robust, well-regulated universal childcare.