Parties mum on time lines for child-care plans

Back in 2001, when the B.C. New Democratic Party was just weeks away from losing power in B.C., it introduced the most affordable childcare plan in Canada outside Quebec. The Child Care B.C. Act—a program swiftly cancelled by the B.C. Liberal Party— capped fees at $14 a day. Maximum fees for full-time care would have been just $290.50 a month.

What a difference eight years make.

For the May 12 election, the NDP is no longer offering $14-a-day childcare. Instead, the party is promising to cap childcare fees where they are now. In Vancouver, that’s $996 a month, on average, for toddlers, according to the Westcoast Child Care Resource Centre—that works out to $48 per day, more than three times the fee the NDP offered in 2001.

Why the change?

“That, you know, is a good question, honestly”¦you’re telling me something new here,” Jenn McGinn, the Vancouver-Fairview incumbent, told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview on May 4. Later, she said: “The challenge where we are right now with this budget and this economy”¦is that we need to be a bit more gradual about it.”

McGinn was referring to a government-coordinated system of affordable, accessible childcare, a system she repeatedly said she and the party believe in.

In fact, no party was able to demonstrate to the Straight that it has a concrete plan for addressing the child-care crisis in B.C. Given that about 30.4 percent of British Columbians live in a household with kids 12 or under, the child-care issue theoretically affects more citizens than seniors’ issues (14.6 percent of B.C. is 65 or older), aboriginal issues (4.8 percent of the B.C. population is status), and public transit (4.7 percent take transit to work; all numbers according to the 2006 census).

Only about 15 percent of children have access to licensed care in B.C., according to the NDP. Yet, when asked, no party could cough up a time line or a proposed budget for implementing a plan.

To put in perspective the NDP policy switch on fees, the change from 2001’s $14 a day to 2009’s capping fees means $8,466 a year more for licensed group care for one toddler. For a family that has a one-year-old plus one child in half-day kindergarten, childcare would cost $14,196 a year more than if the NDP had reintroduced its commitment to $14 a day.

That dwarfs the $158 a year that the NDP claims slashing the carbon tax will save families.

The backbone of the NDP child-care platform is an increase of
$125 million over three years in childcare operating funds. McGinn noted the money will drop parent fees to more affordable rates, increase spaces, and help providers pay their workers properly. But she also said the party has no mechanism to compel child-care providers to do any of those things with
the money.

“I know that we’re committed to building a child-care system in B.C.”¦but it’s not going to happen overnight, right? Like, the system is pretty broken. And it’s going to take years to phase this in.”

The party is also promising to improve recruitment and retention of early childhood education workers. But McGinn said meeting the Early Childhood Educators of B.C. demand to be paid at least $20 an hour “is not going to happen overnight with us”. All-day kindergarten for five-year-olds, an as-yet-undelivered initiative of the Liberals, is supported by the NDP “as finances permit”.

McGinn acknowledged childcare has not been a top-of-the-platform issue for the party, though it is among voters.

“In my riding, Vancouver-Fairview, there’s a lot of younger families,” she said. “Childcare is coming up as one of the number one issues on the doorstep.”¦Some people say it’s going to be cheaper for them to quit their jobs and stay home to raise their kids than to be able to afford childcare. That’s not the system we’d like to see.”

Green party leader Jane Sterk told the Straight her party’s platform is comprehensive—if not spelled out for voters. If elected, she said in a phone interview from Victoria, the party will provide a universal, highly subsidized program similar to Quebec’s; it will give incentives (that she wasn’t able to define) to businesses to develop on-site centres, and parents will have the choice to stay home, thanks to a guaranteed livable income of about $2,946 a month.

Sterk, however, admitted the plan has not been costed out, nor does the party have time lines or targets in place. Why hasn’t the issue been top-of-platform pre-election? Initially, Sterk slammed the other two parties for turning the election into a personality race and the media for underreporting on the party. But when the Straight pointed out that the Greens’ 75-page platform contains just 25 words about childcare, she called it “fair criticism”.

“We now can see the gaps in our policy where we need to be working over the course of the next four years.”

Despite repeated calls to B.C. Liberal spokesperson Chad Peterson, the incumbent party didn’t get back to the Straight with either a detailed written plan for childcare or someone quotable on the issue. The B.C. Liberal platform refers to improving childcare twice: “We will increase funding for early childhood development, childcare and supports to children with special needs”, and “more funding for child care subsidies”.

Why are the parties not taking childcare seriously?

According to Paul Kershaw, assistant professor of political science and codirector of UBC’s Early Learning and Child Care Research Unit, a big reason is that it’s expensive. For a universal program, he noted, it would cost the province about $1.5 billion a year for the under-six crowd alone—or 10 percent of the health budget. And Canada does not have much
appetite for raising taxes right now.

What would it take to make childcare a top issue in the 2013 election?

“Right now in B.C., we have almost 30 percent of kids hitting the formal school system vulnerable,” Kershaw said, referring to the results from the Early Development Instrument, which measures cognitive, physical, and emotional abilities. “At what point do we become a species at risk? I think that in the near term, people are going to start connecting the dots for what that means for us, economically.”

Kershaw noted that what’s really missing is a “creative visionary” in provincial politics who can make the child-care argument in terms of dollars. After the May 3 debate, when childcare barely got a mention, he noted, that person is missing in 2009.



Bernadette Keenan

May 24, 2009 at 1:11pm

One of the things I will never forgive the Liberals for is canceling the NDP daycare program. Sounds like I maybe one of the few who remember. As a Green Party member and single mom who struggled with daycare costs and locations - trying to get there on transit, think that the initiative of incentives for on site daycares is very positive and works on many levels for sustainability.