Daycare dilemma

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      Janet Wong thought her friends were crazy. When she was three months pregnant, they told her and her husband, Tom Bokenfohr, to get on daycare waiting lists if they wanted even “a hope in hell”  of getting in by the end of her maternity leave. Her friends' nightmare stories convinced the South Vancouver couple, so they signed up for more than a dozen centres, stretching from North Vancouver to Burnaby. They were terrified at what they saw.

      “When we were looking for daycare, we visited one where all the kids were sick,”  Wong told the Georgia Straight. “One kid had snot running from his nose. Some [unlicensed daycares] have no gates, kids running on the sidewalks or watching TV all day. I asked about diaper changes, and one said, 'Sometimes I change once a day.' I was frightened.”  Wong noted that she now pays more than $1,500 per month for child-care for her two kids: a serious financial burden to the family.

      “When you buy a car, you expect there to be highways....[Prime Minister Stephen] Harper's $1,200 [per year] doesn't do anything to address the real issue that there are no spots out there.” 

      The Lower Mainland's daycare crisis is not news. There's little licensed care, something that Ottawa, Victoria, and the City of Vancouver have each promised to fix. However, in 2005 Vancouver had just 477 licensed group-daycare spaces in total for under-threes, according to the Westcoast Child Care Resource Centre. That represents about one in 20 under-threes in the city. The Vancouver Society of Children's Centres alone has a waiting list of 1,900 families.

      Usually, the daycare story is told in terms of the suffering of individual families, such as Wong's. They made the choice to reproduce and they're suffering the consequences. But with Harper's choice to abandon the Liberal's $5-billion child-care commitment (see sidebar next page), the bigger picture is starting to manifest.

      Canada's daycare crisis doesn't just affect parents. It forecasts serious social and economic problems for all citizens, because our population is aging quickly””something that a higher fertility rate would cure. The per-woman average is 1.5 kids, far fewer than needed to replace our population. Sydney and Megan will eventually help pay for our health care and the Canada Pension Plan. But Wong, along with other moms, said she won't have more children unless affordable, high-quality daycare is available.

      By 2030, Statistics Canada estimates, just 60 percent of Canadians will be of working age, down by 15 percent from 2005. Across the Pacific, Japan's current labour crisis emerged 25 years ahead of the rest of the low-fertility world's. It's showing how deeply a society without kids can hurt the economy. Who will pay for seniors' pensions and bypass surgeries? Who will buy cars and real estate? Who will be nurses and construction workers and professors?

      Since 1985, Canada has relied on immigrants to plump the population. But fertility rates around the world are plummeting. “Immigration alone,”  Statistics Canada's population projections recognized in December 2005, “cannot reverse this ageing trend.” 

      Canada needs kids, and Canada needs families like Wong's, who are willing to pay $1,500 a month for care. Or is there an alternative? Harper suggests that families choose whether to be dual- or single-income.

      Wong's reality, like that of so many other Lower Mainland families, includes work. Her mortgage is brutally expensive, she said, and a five-year maternity break from her career would kill her seniority. So she works, as does her husband. And her kids””Sydney, the toddler, and three-year-old Megan””go to daycare.

      Still, the family considers itself lucky. Unlike a friend of hers who waited almost three years for a daycare space, Sydney and Megan found spaces just in time for Wong to go back to work. The same daycare now has a waiting list of 1,300 children.

      Adequate daycare would take a miracle, according to Sharon Gregson, a collective member of the Childcare Advocates of B.C. Running a licensed daycare is not a profitable enterprise. For toddler-aged kids, the staff-to-child ratio is 1:4. If each child's parent pays $1,000 per month, that money must pay for the worker, the space, supplies, insurance, and administration. That's why in the Lower Mainland, Gregson said, daycare supply does not keep up with demand. The daycare crunch means skilled women are less able to work full-time, Gregson argues.

      In early May, she met with Finance Minister Carole Taylor to lobby for child-care. The B.C. Liberals, as part of a 2005 agreement with Ottawa, pledged $329.3 million in new child-care funding until 2008. With the loss of Ottawa's matching funds after 2007, will the Liberals' pledge hold fast?

      “They're silent on this,”  Gregson said. “It's chaos out there. They can't say they don't know about the chaos.” 

      In 2001, the province consulted with 1,000 parents and found out that there was, indeed, a need for more infant-toddler spaces, cheaper care, and more flexible hours in daycares. In early 2006, the province again consulted with parents. Gregson said the Ministry of Children and Families was supposed to release a daycare action plan on January 31. As of May 9, Gregson said, it still hadn't been released.

      Two months earlier, Vancouver city council voted to axe funding for 138 of the 345 planned daycare spaces in a 14,000-unit development in Southeast False Creek. Though the city plans to increase its daycare stock by 607 spaces by 2008, that won't come close to filling the need.

      There's a reason daycare has dropped off the top of the federal agenda, wrote University of Toronto professor David Foot in his 1998 book Boom, Bust and Echo 2000. Those with toddlers today, those born between 1967 and to 1979, are part of a generation he calls the “baby bust” . They are far fewer in number than both the baby boom and the boom's echo (from 1980 to 1995). So their voice as voters is relatively weak. However, he pointed out that, economically, this is the time to tackle daycare.

      “In general,”  he wrote in 1998, “the outlook across Canada over the next decade is for a general decline in demand for daycare. That means a national daycare program, which should be considered a necessity in an advanced industrialized economy, is now much more affordable than it was.” 

      It couldn't come too soon for Celine Mauboules, 36, a Vancouver city planner. Her 13-month-old baby, Lola, is cared for partly by a nanny she shares with other families and partly by Mauboules's husband, who works at home. That means that when she gets home, he works. It's far from an ideal situation, she said.

      “My friends told me as soon as I was pregnant, 'Oh, God! Go put your name on the [daycare waiting] lists!'”  she told the Straight. “She was born in April. By January, that's when the panic set in. What the hell were we going to do?” 

      At that time, Lola was number 11 on the City Hall child-care centre's list. They're still waiting, and the daycare estimates she'll be in by August 2006. Staying at home isn't an option, Mauboules said. The reality of living in Vancouver, she argued, is that families need two incomes. She's not sure if she'll have more children, but she said she'd be more likely to if daycare were more available. And, as a citizen, her life would be far less stressful.

      In 1989, Japan knew it was facing a crisis. With a fertility rate of just 1.59 babies per woman (the “1.59 shock” ), the population was in decline. Never a fan of immigration, the country aggressively encouraged women to bear more babies for the sake of the nation. The “Angel Plan”  of 1994, similar to Paul Martin's 2003 early-childhood plan, was the country's first stab at it. More child-care was supposed to get couples busy. It didn't work. Neither did the 1999 “New Angel Plan” , which was similar to Martin's 2005 promises.

      Instead, the country is now stuck with a 1.32 birth rate, similar to B.C.'s and among the lowest in the world. Plus, longer life spans mean the median age today in Japan is 43. We can anticipate a similar population here in 2031, according to Statistics Canada.

      “It's worth keeping an eye on what's happening to Japan,”  Carin Holroyd, a senior research analyst at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, told the Straight. “We'll be facing the same kinds of challenges in the not-too-distant future.” 

      Now business, alongside government, is desperate to keep women in the workforce to make up for labour shortages. The Nikkei Weekly recently reported that Dow Chemical Japan Ltd. offers maternity leave of 18 months to encourage female employees to stay with the company. In addition, they're offering a flex-time arrangement in which all employees must be in the office from 10:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., but employees can arrange the rest of their hours to suit their schedules.

      Japan, with its pension and social-infrastructure problems, is an early warning to the rest of the world. The United Nations' 2005 Demographic, Social and Economic Indicators report that just 2.6 children are born to each woman worldwide, and one in 10 children will die before they turn six. In 1955, by comparison, each woman worldwide could expect to bear five children””twice as many as today.

      Most of Europe, North America, and Asia is today below the replacement level of 2.1. The countries with the highest birth rates usually endure extreme poverty, disease, or war: Palestine (5.28 children per woman), Afghanistan (7.27), Democratic Republic of the Congo (6.7), Eritrea (6.8), and Uganda (7.1).

      It's not daycare that makes families big, according to David Baxter, the executive director of Vancouver's Urban Futures Institute. It's need.

      “As soon as a country has a pension plan, you don't need kids anymore,”  he told the Straight. “Societies have high birth rates where people need the next generation of workers, where kids will look after you when you're old. As soon as you take out of the equation the monetarily selfish reasons, what's left is having kids because you want them.” 

      Baxter believes, in spite of Statistics Canada's predictions, that immigration can float Canada's future population. Japan, he said, will be worse off in 10 years when the baby boomers retire. But Canada will survive economically because we're attractive to immigrants.

      “In a free society, you can't do anything about the birth rate,”  he asserted. “Women have 1.5 children because that's how many children they're choosing to have. It would be hard to find a set of circumstances that would change that. If women can go to universities and become artists and poets and doctors, you're going to have to forget about the birth rate.” 

      Baxter dismissed the idea that daycare would bring babies into the world. Parents may say they'd be open to bigger families, he said, but in reality they wouldn't be.

      Although UN population estimates show that the world's population could double in 40 years, others, such as demographer Ben Wattenberg in his 2004 book Fewer, show a 20-percent decrease by 2100.

      “Ageing populations,”  Wattenburg wrote, “may be a disturbing mess for the modern nations of Europe and Japan, once major economic powers.” 

      He pointed out that pro-natalism, when countries encourage families to bear more kids, doesn't work. Harper's $1,200 a year, such as other European and American initiatives listed in the book, doesn't approach the real cost of raising a child””whether they're cared for by a licensed daycare or a stay-at-home parent.

      Amy Nelson, 35, a chemical engineer and mother of two under-threes, said it took her almost 15 years after high school to finish university, start her career, and work up enough seniority so she felt secure taking maternity leave. She loves her job””designing fuel cells for electric cars””and her two-year-old loves daycare, so she's less conflicted than many moms. Nothing could have encouraged her to get started earlier or have more kids, she stated.

      “My daycare costs $1,000 a month, so Harper's $1,200 a year is not really going to help,”  she told the Straight. “If you're well-off, the money isn't going to matter. If you're poor, it's not really going to help. If you can't find daycare, it's not going to help. And if you stay home, the compensation is not adequate.” 

      Canada's most prolific baby birthers live in the Far North. In Nunavut, the average woman has her first baby at 21, six years younger than the Canadian average. She can also expect to have 3.04 babies in her lifetime, a figure that makes Nunavut the only jurisdiction in Canada above the replacement rate. The trend is standard. Younger moms tend to have more babies.

      But in B.C., where the average mom has her first baby at 29, it's more than daycare that hinders young parents. Former Burnaby breakfast-shift waitress Beth Larrivée-Woods was married at 21 and pregnant at 22. She recalled that she shocked her peers with her decisions.

      “A lot of them were really alienated by it,”  the stay-at-home mom told the Straight. “They were like, 'What? Are you crazy? Now you can't go to concerts, clubs, or backpack Europe.'” 

      Now 26 and caring for a three-year-old, she's still demographically alone. Her mommy buddies are all five to 10 years older, and her same-age friends are all still single. Some of them still live at home.

      More than half of B.C. first-time moms are over 30. That's not entirely a good thing, according to a July 2005 Statistics Canada report. Older moms are more likely to have babies with a low birth weight and complications. Expensive fertility treatments, too, are mostly consumed by older moms, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information's May 2006 report.

      Luckily, Larrivée-Woods's family lives in co-op housing, which makes the “very low-income”  lifestyle of herself, her full-time SFU-student husband, and their child manageable. She admitted that she appreciates Harper's $1,200 because her family is so cash-poor.

      Had Larrivée-Woods been pregnant three years earlier, she would have qualified for Jane Haywood-Farmer's pregnant-and-parenting-teen program at the North Shore Neighbourhood House. Although most of the 16- to 19-year-olds do a bang-up job of parenting, Haywood-Farmer said the community sees teen pregnancies as abhorrent.

      “Most of the girls are not happy to find out they're pregnant,”  she told the Straight. “It's a challenge. It's hard for them to find housing, daycare, to get through school, and many of them are on income assistance.” 

      In high school, the government provides free daycare while the teen moms study. After that, Haywood-Farmer said, they're on their own. If Ottawa wanted to help teen moms, she added, it should provide more subsidized housing and a universal daycare program.

      Among her peers, Larrivée-Woods said staying at home with their children is made possible by co-op housing. In 1993, however, the federal government axed the program, so few have been built in more than a decade.

      “Real estate in Vancouver””I think that's a reason a lot of moms I know have to work. They just can't afford housing,”  she said.

      Larrivée-Woods, unlike the other mothers the Straight spoke with, plans to have more children.

      Close your eyes and think of Canada. Conceive for the future of your country. No modern federal politician has uttered any words close to these. In his 2006 budget speech, Conservative Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said: “For this government, supporting families means...helping everyone in our communities to live a good life and achieve their potential. All Canadian parents struggle to balance work and family commitments and to meet their children's individual needs.” 

      Child-care, as presented by this government, is about individual choice. It's a way to solve the individual problems of individual families. The sense of daycare””as important to the collective future of the country and as an arrangement that many parents, such as Janet Wong, feel forced into””is absent from political rhetoric.

      If Statistics Canada is correct, Canada's population is rapidly aging, and immigration cannot fix that. Three decades from now, Flaherty may regret his individual-choice analysis. Who will pay for his pension?