President's Commentary: Critics of universal child care are flat wrong to suggest it limits parental freedom

Universal child care can be a money-maker for government, wind under the wings of student achievement, and a powerful force for equality between women and men. What’s to stop us? Only the ignorant—perhaps willful—misrepresentations of universal child care coming from the federal Tories and dogmatic newspaper columnists.

Ottawa (22 Oct. 2014) — A universal child care program that offers daycare for as little as $15 a day will give Canadian parents significantly more freedom and choice than they have now. It will free them, particularly women, to return to work or school on their own terms, if and when they want. It will give them more choice: for many parents, it will be their first opportunity to choose daycare providers based on quality instead of solely on cost.

The rest of us will enjoy significant benefits, too. University and big-bank economists have studied universal child care and early childhood education programs like the one being proposed nationally by the NDP. In Quebec, where they’ve had universal child care for almost 20 years, the welfare rolls have been cut in half, tens of thousands of women have returned to work or school, tax revenues have jumped significantly, and the birth rate has spiked. Around the world, formal early childhood education programs consistently lead to better educated and more productive adults. 

The evidence is clear: universal child care will make our country better

So the evidence is clear: universal child care can be a money-maker for government, wind under the wings of student achievement, and a powerful force for equality between women and men. Like our universal health care or our universal pensions, universal child care will make our country better.

What’s to stop us? The only thing that might is the ignorant—perhaps willful—misrepresentations of universal child care coming from the federal Tories and a couple of dogmatic newspaper columnists. 

Universal child care does not force parents to put their kids into daycare. It does not force parents to go back to work or school before they want to. And when parents do decide they want to go back to work or school, it does not force them to put their kids into a particular centre of the government’s choosing. On all these counts, universal child care does the exact opposite. 

Critics evoke images of children ripped from their parents' arms

And yet, after the NDP announced its universal child care plan, the Conservative Party's Minister of State for Social Development, Candice Bergen, said on the CBC program Power & Politics that, “these big, huge government-run programs tend to eat up a whole bunch of money and produce very little results. Parents should decide.” 

National Post columnist Andrew Coyne takes this argument and runs it to its illogical extreme. “While some who now entrust their children to more informal arrangements—relatives, babysitters, or indeed staying home to look after them themselves—would no doubt prefer NDP-style care, many more would not,” Coyne wrote in the National Post on Oct. 15.

Remember that “NDP-style care” does not force parents to seek out child care. But for those who do decide child care is something they want or need, what kind of care would most parents choose?

If they could, what parent wouldn't choose regulated, licenced daycare?

“The assumption behind the NDP plan,” says Coyne, “is that every child should be in a formal daycare centre: regulated, licenced, preferably non-profit, ideally unionized. Not every parent—maybe not even most—wants this."

It’s this kind of assertion that reminds us of just how isolated corporate conservatives can become inside the bubble of privilege in which they remain cloistered. 

Is Coyne suggesting that "maybe even most" parents would choose care with no safety or quality standards? That most would choose to entrust their children to care that has no oversight whatsoever? That most would choose a facility where the first priority is profit and where the people actually caring for their child have low wages, long hours, and no meaningful recourse against harassment, danger, and wrongful dismissal?

Coyne and Bergen so cling to simplistic notions of perfect markets and invisible hands that they can’t—or worse, won’t— see that the parents now "choosing" unregulated and for-profit care are "choosing” it because they can't afford anything else.

Universal care much more affordable than simply increasing child benefit cheques

Coyne does acknowledge that our current system could stand improvement. Right now, parents receive a monthly $100 cheque for each child they have younger than seven. Coyne suggests improvement is simply a matter of making each of these hundreds of thousands of cheques bigger. But considering that, across the country, monthly daycare costs range between $800 and $2,000 a month, these cheques would have to become a lot bigger to have any meaningful effect.

By choosing instead to harness our numbers in pursuit of economies of scale, the NDP plan will ensure that it’s affordable for us to offer more parents more choice.

Is the NDP’s universal child care plan perfect? Of course not. Will it immediately ensure that every parent has access to the child care of their choice? No. Will it be perfectly free from mistakes or disappointment? No more than any other human endeavour.

But it would be a true shame on us all if we let childishly overblown fears about the possibility of government incompetence prevent us from building something that will help us all, and that we can all be proud of.

It’s been more than two generations since we started building universal programs like the CPP and Medicare. It’s time for us to embark on another energizing and rewarding national project. A project for which there is credible and practical evidence that widespread success is not just possible, but likely. A project like universal child care. (Or like Pharmacare, but that’s another commentary.)

In solidarity, 

James Clancy
NUPGE National President

More information: 

A national child care program is essential for Canada

Our kids gotta come first


James Clancy is the National President of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE

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