COMMENT: A Local Perspective on the Canadian Childcare Crisis

Andrew Zwicker
By Andrew Zwicker
December 18th, 2008

A report issued late last week by UNICEF on early childhood education in economically advanced countries announced that Canada, of the 25 nations involved, was tied for last place with Ireland when it comes to supporting child care. This news, for people not intimately involved in the child care industry or without young children of their own, likely came as a surprise to a nation that back in the 90’s was consistently ranked as the number one place on earth to live.

The full report can be downloaded in PDF here.

The study suggests that our society in general has undergone a major shift in the way we raise children over the last generation. It also states that the current generation is the first in which the majority of children are spending a large part of their early years in out-of-home care. At the same time, neuro-scientific research is demonstrating that loving, stable, secure, and stimulating relationships with caregivers in the earliest months and years of life are critical for every aspect of a child’s development. Taken together these two developments confront public policymakers with urgent questions on how to best support our young children in this new reality.

On the local front, here in Rossland the lack of federal and provincial funding for early childhood education programs is having a direct effect on families.

In an issue that has many different tiers and angles, one of the foremost issues in our area is the lack of subsidies or wage assistance paid to early childhood educators. With a pay scale ranging from approximately $12 to $16 per hour and a job that requires an enormous amount of responsibility and care, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find ECE employees to staff our child care centers.

Rebecca Sterling of the Golden Bear Child Care Centre states, “It’s not even so much the pay. It’s a very hard job. It’s physically and emotionally draining. When you can go and clean a house for more money why would you do it? People are leaving this field in droves. There are no benefits, poor wages and BC’s got the highest cost of living in the country.”

“I have tons of children in the infant and toddler age on our waiting list and I can’t get qualified staff to take them in. We’ve been advertising for over a year (For an ECE position). We can have 46 children on any given day. We’re licensed for that number but I’m not at that number mostly because I can’t find qualified staff.”

The logical business approach to remedy the problem would appear to be, charge more for the child care to cover higher wages for ECE employees; however, the cost of child care is already prohibitive to many families and increasing the cost without government assistance would only hurt those families further.

“You can’t charge higher rates to pay the ECE workers more. The parents are finding that they can’t afford it and getting work visas and bringing in nannies. Sure there are some good nannies out there, but the quality of education and care that we provide supersedes anything that a nanny could do,” said Sterling.

What the UNICEF study and various other studies over time have shown is that quality child care from trained staff has a much higher benefit to children than unlicensed nannies.

Having a parent stay at home with the child to raise them, as was the case for most of us in previous generations, seems to be a fading opportunity for many, with the cost of living where it is now. The insulated nature of our lives in an increasingly insulated world with less direct contact and socializing with others in smaller family units also provides a need for the child care opportunities mentioned by Sterling.

“The momma staying home baking cookies in the oven is long gone. When kids are really little obviously they need that, but once they get to thirty months of age they actually need the socialization. There was a time when there was a greater sense of community so children would get that socialization in the community, and also they had larger families with four, five, or six children so they learned how to cooperate and share and learn their social skills that way, but if you’ve got a family with one or two children, where are they going to get that?”

Ultimately, what is needed to help solve the issue of child care seems to be a two pronged approach. The first being increased government funding into maternity/paternity leave programs so that parents can be there with their child during the most important formative years of their lives. The UNICEF study noted that several European countries, including Sweden, Denmark and Finland, offer up to three years of maternity leave funding. The second approach involves more funding for qualified quality child day care.

Part of the solution to the problem may lie in a fundamental shift in the way we look at funding early childhood education. Numerous studies out show that the best investment in our economies is investing in our young children’s education and opportunities. This shift in looking at funding maternity leaves and early childhood education as an investment rather than a subsidy may go a long way to filling the current gap.

Locally this could look like increased wages for ECE workers so that child care centers are able to provide adequate number of spaces, and qualified staff to fill the positions allowing families to go out and get second jobs to provide the income needed to sustain a poverty-free lifestyle in a province with the highest costs of living in the country. Success-By-Six coordinator Kim Adamson notes, “Our cost of living just to provide the bare necessities for our families is so high that one income just doesn’t cut it anymore unless you are one of those lucky few that make 100 grand a year. In Rossland you rely heavily on the tourism sector. Tourism jobs tend to not pay well and people that are working the tourism field tend to be young people that maybe are just starting their families, so one tourism job isn’t enough to support kids.”

One example to potentially follow is Quebec’s universal child care program, which recently celebrated its tenth year of existence.

“In Quebec if you need child care you can find it and I think it’s $5 a day. In those ten years since they put that program in place, they know it has partially helped them cutting their child poverty rate in half and their student academic achievement has gone from the worst to the best in the country and they’ve got a higher percentage of women in the workforce,” explained Adamson.

“What they did was invest money. They saw it as an investment and not a subsidy. There are lots of studies that show that the return on investment for every dollar our government spends on quality child care they would see a $2 return on investment.”

That in itself seems like a sound and simple argument that any government could get behind and start boosting child care programs around the country. Part of the problem, however, likely lies in the problem that our government lives and dies in four year cycles, or eighteen months or less lately, and the results of this type or program take a generation to fully realize, thus not providing that “Look at what we accomplished!” election buzz phrase that helps politicians keep their jobs.

“So what you need is a brave leader to stand up and say that we know the evidence is clear that if we step up and invest this money in our children we’ll see returns in the future. Not in this particular mandate but down the road we’ll all be better off for it,” summed up Adamson.

With a new Conservative budget coming down in January, and or a new election on the horizon, this is prime time to make the future voices of our young children heard and demand action that our governments can do better than tied for last place among the world’s developed nations when it comes to caring for our children.

If as it seems we’ve got 15 billion dollars of Canadian tax payer dollars to “Give away” to American corporations running a failed business, creating a product that people don’t want, than surely they can find a few dollars for our own children.

Categories: Op/Ed

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