Doing the math on Thomas Mulcair’s daycare plan

The NDP proposes a bold national daycare program modelled after the one in Thomas Mulcair’s backyard



Just about any aspect of government policy on early childhood can spark a nasty debate. Advocates of publicly subsidized, licensed care centres for all preschoolers square off against those who favour stay-at-home parenting or less formal care options. Believers in the virtues of not-for-profit care feud with for-profit daycare companies. Fervent admirers of Quebec’s $7-a-day system clash with those who say the province’s groundbreaking experiment in affordable care hasn’t yet produced measurable educational benefits for kids.

(Here is a look at how European research informs the debate over for-profit care. Here is one of the studies of Quebec system’s impact on the economy and kids’ readiness for school. Or, if you don’t want to read the original study. And here’s a 2011 story  on how that Quebec study fits in the context of the federal policy debate.)

But there’s one thing about early childhood policy that isn’t open to dispute: It provides great backdrops for political events. So it was Tuesday when NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair stood in the sun-dappled playground of an Ottawa daycare centre—cute kids digging in the sand and pedalling their tricycles behind him—to announce his party’s plan. Should the NDP win next fall’s election, it promises to partly fund 370,000 child care spaces across Canada by 2018-19 at a cost of nearly $1.9 billion a year.

Mulcair proposes that Ottawa cover 60 per cent of new government spending, and the provinces 40 per cent, with parents paying no more than $15 a day for a child care space. “We’ll do it with provinces and territories,” Mulcair said. “And, no, we’re not going to dictate centrally that there’s only going to be one model.” That pledge not to try to replicate Quebec’s system across Canada is key, since Mulcair’s affinity for his home province’s policy, as a former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister, is no secret.

He even brought Quebec economist Pierre Fortin to Ottawa for the NDP announcement, to make the case that Quebec’s model is a winner for the provincial treasury. Fortin says it allowed 70,000 mothers to join Quebec’s workforce, generating $1.75 in economic activity for every dollar the province spends on daycare.

Still, Mulcair stressed that, as prime minister, he would respect other provinces’ preferences. Even though the NDP favours not-for-profit care, for instance, for-profit centres wouldn’t be excluded from funding. Furthermore, giving low-income parents priority access to the new spaces—a controversial idea among advocates of a universal system—might be allowed. “That’s exactly the type of thing that provinces should be looking at, based on their own reality,” he said.

Kevin Milligan, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver School of Economics who has studied child care policy, said Mulcair is right to leave the design of daycare programs largely to the provinces. “I’d struggle to say why the federal government ought to be deciding what child care looks like in my Vancouver neighbourhood,” he said. (Read more from Milligan on what we can learn from Quebec’s child care experience, here.)

But if one of the main goals of the NDP policy is to encourage mothers of preschool children to enter the workforce, Milligan said the easiest way to accomplish that would be to effectively lower the cost of daycare by boosting the existing $7,000 maximum federal tax deduction for child care expenses. “That $7,000 hasn’t been adjusted since 1998,” Milligan pointed out, “so inflation has eroded it considerably.”

The Conservative government, however, seems less interested in enriching that deduction than touting its Universal Child Care Benefit, which pays $100 per month for every child under age six. Mulcair said he wouldn’t tamper with that signature Stephen Harper policy, even though it is often criticized by early-childhood experts for not directly funding new daycare spaces. No politician can ignore the fact that the $100-a-month benefit goes to all families with young children—including the 45 per cent of parents of preschoolers who, according to Statistics Canada figures from 2011, don’t use any form of child care, other than a stay-at-home parent. Among the 55 per cent who rely on child care, 61 per cent used licensed home daycare or daycare centres, 27 per cent private care by nannies or relatives, and the rest a mix of other arrangements.

(For a refresher on how the Conservatives, even before they won power, pitched their direct payments to parents as the antidote to Dryden’s national strategy, here’s a 2005 Maclean’s story. And for those numbers on how preschoolers are cared for, here is the Statistics Canada table.)

If Tory and NDP preferences are now on the table, the policy of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals is less clear. Back in 2005, former Liberal cabinet minister Ken Dryden spearheaded a national child care strategy, cutting separate deals with each province. Harper cancelled them after winning the 2006 election. Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner, Trudeau’s critic for employment and social development, said the party will propose a new strategy, but won’t try to estimate the cost of creating new daycare spaces before negotiating again with the provinces. “Inevitably, we’re going to have to work with the provinces in the delivery of a national program,” Cuzner said.

Trudeau’s reluctance to cost out a detailed proposal could leave Mulcair an opening to position his NDP as the voice of true conviction on early-childhood policy. And Harper, as always, will be hoping that means advantageous vote-splitting on the left.

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Doing the math on Thomas Mulcair’s daycare plan

  1. Daycare is too expensive and many young families struggle to pay so both parents can work. Bigger subsidies and lower costs are needed.

  2. Curious to know if that TC Milligan mentions winds up being one of those credits that wind up being more generous to those who don’t need the help further up the income ladder? Or have the available discretionary income to put out, and claim the money in the first place Does it also fail to help poorer families because it is non refundable ?Or is in fact taxed back progressively?
    Mulcair’s plan seems to have similar flaws in that it will be taken up by those who least need it, in the greatest numbers[ although prioritizing poorer parents might help if workable]
    As for Harper 100 bucks – that too is non refundable for those who most need the help. In addition i wonder how many of that 45% of stay at home parents actually need the help? Surely we cn figure out how to get the help to the folks who most need it – poor families and single parents!

  3. This will probably be very popular in southern Quebec, southern Ontario, lower mainland B. C. but I doubt the money will be available for the millions of other Canadians scattered through small(er) centres where driving distances make everything more challenging. But hey, those major centres are where the political left votes are ripe for picking.

  4. Let’s finish the math on Fortin’s statistic: if each $1 spent on daycare generates $1.75 in economic activity, is that actually a net gain for the economy? In Quebec, government spending represents about 35% of GDP. If we assume that Quebec governments pay for their spending by taxing GDP at that same rate of 35%, that suggests that each $1 spent on daycare returns about $0.61 ($1.75*35%) in additional funding for the government. Maybe they’d do better arguing for daycare on a non-economic basis.

  5. But Mulcair has stolen money from tax payers to pay for his satellite offices, I know the cons did too, but the dippers were caught. I wouldn’t trust him with my money. He[Mulcair] is a crook just like Harper, and wouldn’t hesitate to clean out the treasury like the cons, thats why they call them dippers. Anyone who takes out 11 mortgages on his home, is not a person you want looking after your bank account.

  6. well Mr. Geddes did not do the math either apparently. So let met summarize. The plan is $3,000-$4,000 per child to set up a spot and then at least the same per year for operating grants. Parents also deduct $7,000 per child per year so that’s a benefit per child to parents of $10,000 a year. Taxpayer money not parental. The reason governments are usually so keen to suggest setting up daycare is that they have no intention at all of funding it for all kids. To do so would cost $20 billion a year and would bankrupt government. So the plan is to only fund some kids in daycare, but very well, and to not fund the others at all. Talk big and promote big but hide the omissions. This inequality does not sit well with democracy. Instead take even half that amount, say $5,000 per child per year and actually fund the child directly, but this time all kids not just the favored few. Then parents could freely choose daycare, sitter, grandma, dad or mom at home, tag-team parent, work from home option, nanny or what is more likely a variety of the above. Money flowing with the child is much more efficient use of tax dollars. Then it always hits the mark plus it provides equal benefit under the law, a human rights basic principle.

  7. I long for the good old days when the decision to have children was based partly on what the cost to raise a child were taken into consideration.
    We we had children we paid for their care – we didn’t expect our neighbours to pay for our day care for our children.
    People think that it’s their right to have children and the rest of the working people should help pay to raise them.
    Mulcair is going to spend a billion dollars on day care while the government runs out of money for the old age pension that somehow got squandered away.
    People are in need of food and housing – medical care.
    There are people through that need help with child care expenses and should receive some help.
    They need to look at the people having all these children – a 2 income family making $100,000.00 a year certainly don’t need my money to help raise their children.
    As far as Quebec is concerned – all they are doing over there is sucking the real Canada dry of money – subsidizing manufacturing – transportation – schooling with the money given to them by the government from the rest of the people in Canada so they can in turn compete unfairly against the rest of the Canada.
    I am pretty much in the minority on this that’s for sure.
    It’s a sad day when the government tells you have work a couple more years before you can retire because they need an extra billion in order for you help pay to raise someone else’s children.

    • The Commodore s not alone. Having children is a choice ever since the pill, UIDs, condoms, vasectomies, cut tubes etc. So why should the taxpayer cover the cost so the mom can down brooms to out to work? It can’t be actualization because everybody knows that sitting in front of a computer terminal is not that thrilling, is it? It doesn’t count if you have a few drinks and get carried away because that is a choice too. And while both parents working might be acceptable in Vancouver where it cost a Chinese fortune to bu or rent,I think many of the jobs are really for a motor home, boat, quad, snowmobile or some other toy for the boys. etc. I am old fashioned but I think that raising your own kids to school age is a responsible and important job and I wouldn’t like to see it delegated to some of the daycare workers I have seen.

      To John Geddes: Is it true that the Libs before Harper forked over bucketsful of bucks to Quebec to fund the trial? (in addition to the other millions passed to Quebec so they would play nice).

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