Liberals offer the best child care plan for Ontario
This is one of a series of editorials on issues facing Ontario voters:
In a first for Ontario, child care has become one of the top issues in a provincial election campaign.
It’s easy to see why. Parents put their children on daycare waiting lists even before they’re born, and it’s not uncommon for women to use their entire paycheque just to cover the cost.
Child care also clearly separates the three parties and their leaders’ capacity to address an important public policy issue.
Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals have proposed an achievable plan that does much, but not everything. Andrea Horwath’s NDP vastly over-promises what it can deliver. And Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives offer shiny trinkets instead of the services that are actually needed.
There’s a good debate to be had between the Liberal and NDP plans. But Ford has taken himself entirely out of the running on an issue crucial for women and the future of Ontario’s economy.
He proposes a tax rebate that would cover the cost of some welcome babysitting but falls far short of the kind of child care that lets mothers fully participate in the workforce.
The Liberal plan calls for free child care, regardless of family income, for kids from the age of 2 ½ to kindergarten.
This would provide an immediate benefit for the greatest number of families and has the most potential as a long-term plan that can be expanded to all children.
Universal programs are the gold standard when it comes to providing licensed daycare. Nobody falls through the cracks. And because everyone benefits from them and is therefore invested, they are more durable and less vulnerable to political lurches.
By making daycare free for preschoolers — the most common age group in daycare — the $2.2-billion Liberal plan gets the most bang for the buck and, just as crucially, the necessary new spaces can realistically be rolled out within the three-year time-frame.
The obvious criticism of the plan is that by starting at age 2 ½ the Liberals leave out infants and toddlers whose care is the most expensive for families — topping $2,000 a month in Toronto.
That’s what the NDP tries, but ultimately fails, to tackle. Its daycare plan covers all kids under 4 and offers free care for low-income families and fees of $12 a day, on average, for everyone else.
The New Democrats rightly see the need for affordable infant and toddler care. But they drastically overestimate how quickly government could provide for that, given how few spaces exist right now and how expensive they are to provide.
Ontario has daycare spaces for just 7 per cent of infants and 32 per cent of toddlers, and dropping the cost to parents will open the floodgates of pent-up demand.
That makes the NDP plan, which is projected to rise to an annual cost of $5.4 billion, a recipe for frustrated parents on lengthy wait-lists, not affordable, quality care.
That’s a lesson Quebec learned the hard way.
There, the government rolled out $5-a-day child care in the late 1990s before it had a way to meet the demand. It resorted to home daycares, untrained staff and lower-quality for-profit centres to get spaces open quickly. To this day it has a two-tier system, where some child care is higher quality than the rest.
Ontario should learn from Quebec’s mistakes, not repeat them.
When Ford weighed into the daycare debate, weeks after the other parties, it was with his familiar “more money in your pocket” soundbite.
His proposed rebate, which purports to cover up to 75 per cent of the costs of everything from licensed child care and nannies to after school programs and paying the babysitter for children up to 15, is certain to be popular with some.
Money? Sure, why not?
But Ford’s plan does not, as it claims, offer parents “choices.”
That’s because the maximum rebates allowed under Ford’s plan are well below the costs of the quality care parents want. It won’t help create new daycare spaces or make them more affordable.
As usual, his math just does not add up. The $389 million that Ford has announced for his plan would stretch to provide just $175 a year for the 2.2 million Ontario children under 14.
That makes Ford’s plan a soundbite, not the beginnings of a robust child-care system. And sadly, we’ve seen this before.
In 2005, Paul Martin’s Liberal government promised to kick-start a universal system, only to have the plan scuttled by the Harper government and replaced with $100-a-month benefits.
That did nothing to create accessible, affordable child care and Ford’s proposal is more of the same. It’s the wrong answer to the problem.
Ontario’s economy can’t afford to have mothers of young children who want to work full-time unable to do so because affordable, high-quality, child care isn’t available.
The Liberal plan offers the most benefits to working mothers now. Just as crucially, it would lay a strong foundation for a universal system that can develop affordable care for all ages.