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Face-off: Should all Canadians receive subsidized daycare?

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Eisen, Ben & MacEwan, Angella
Publication Date: 
23 Oct 2014



The federal New Democratic Party recently unveiled a national, universal daycare plan as a key plank in its platform ahead of next year's federal election. Two policy experts debate whether a universal program applied to all Canadians regardless of income is the proper approach, or whether a means-tested program targeted to lower-income families would be of greater benefit to lower-income Canadians. Read both opinions, and use the box on the right to vote on the one you find most persuasive.

Angella MacEwan:

It's not surprising that universal childcare is such a popular policy idea. Parents across the ideological and income spectrum struggle with the questions "can I afford to go back to work?" and "will my child be safe and well-cared for while I am at work?."

Parenting choices are intensely personal, and debating public policy around these choices can quickly become loaded. Let's be clear about three goals for a universal childcare program:

1. Ensure that sufficient high-quality spaces exist, and that a variety of options are available to meet the variety of needs in 21st century working life. History shows that increasing government transfers to parents does little to ensure quality or create spaces, and the market is unlikely to provide acceptable solutions for high-need children or for parents whose work hours fall outside 9-5. Public solutions can be tailored to meet a greater variety of needs. Parents that don't use regular full-time care can benefit from affordable part-time or drop-in services.

2. Recognize and address barriers. Quebec's experience has taught us that parents with more resources had an easier time accessing spots when the program first started. Planning needs to take this into consideration. For example, municipal, provincial and territorial governments can implement childcare spaces in low-income areas first, and extra resources can be directed to where they are most needed.

3. Level the playing field for women in the workforce. Women earn less money than their male counterparts, are more likely to work part-time, and still struggle to enter and stay in high-paid male-dominated fields such as technology. Universal childcare helps address this labour market imbalance.

Why Universality?

Universal programs are more resilient and of higher quality than targeted programs. Means-tested programs are often under resourced in the first place, and easier to starve when budgets get tight. When the Charest government in Quebec wanted to implement cuts to childcare, the universal nature of the service meant universal opposition to cuts. This has not been the case in other provinces when governments have cut funding to targeted supports for low-income families.

Targeted programs inevitably end up with some kids falling through the cracks. For example, a parent who gets a small raise can bump themselves out of a subsidized daycare spot - but the raise wasn't enough to pay for the higher fee they're now required to pay. The simplest and most effective solution to this is a universal program funded by progressive income taxes. As a parent's income rises, they pay more through their higher income taxes.

Means-tested programs are also hideously complex and inefficient, given the resources that must be devoted to determining eligibility and policing access. Universal programs, on the other hand, benefit from the simplicity of uniform requirements.

Finally, women at all education and income levels face a wage gap. Women tend to earn less money because of their disproportionate role in unpaid work. Both actual and expected time away from the labour force results in lower wages. This becomes a factor that tips the scales when heterosexual partners are deciding which parent should stay home with the kids. Decisions that make sense at the micro level - of course the lower income earner should stay home if the family can't afford childcare - have systemic consequences at the macro level. Universal childcare options help to stem that vicious cycle. And when childcare is widely available, employers are less hesitant to invest in workers of child-bearing age, reducing the prevalence of the "Mommy-track".


When a program is universal, all children have access to the same opportunities, and the economic benefits are broader and longer lasting. Universal programs are an important part of building social cohesion, and can be a key tool in reducing inequality. We can't afford not to support universal childcare solutions.

Ben Eisen:

Childcare activists often point to Quebec's universal childcare system as a model for the rest of Canada. Quebec provides heavily subsidized childcare to parents across the income distribution at a nominal fee of $7 per day, with taxpayers covering the rest of the bill. While politically popular, this system is inefficient and subsidizes economically comfortable households to the detriment of families in greater need. Instead of subsidizing formal childcare for all families regardless of income, governments should dedicate scarce public funds to providing assistance to lower-income families.


Read the full debate online at the Globe and Mail


Entered Date: 
29 Oct 2014
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