The Ontario Liberals Are Promising Free Preschool Child Care — But Will That Help Women Get Back To Work?

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne explains her big promise to the province ahead of the June election.

It’s a whopper of a promise that got the attention of most parents (and would-be parents) in Ontario this week: If re-elected, the governing Liberals would make child care free for all Ontario kids aged two-and-a-half to four by the year 2020. Yes, free.

Premier Kathleen Wynne announced the $2.2 billion investment in child care on the eve of the 2018 Ontario budget, proclaiming it a game-changer for a province in which child care has become increasingly scarce and unaffordable, particularly in Toronto. More than that, she claims the investment will help get women back into the workforce to fuel the economy for the future. “No more anxiety about costs. And the freedom to choose when it’s time for Mom or Dad to go back to work. This is a big change,” she told reporters. The plan claims it will save parents $17,000 a year in child care costs per kid.

Facing criticism from her opponents that this announcement was purely a vote-buying strategy ahead of an election, the premier defended herself in a sit-down interview with Chatelaine, saying this move is simply a “progression” of what the Liberals have already been doing to expand child care, starting with full-day kindergarten. Here are answers to some questions you might have:

Why free child care — and why promise it now?

According to the government, fewer than 22 percent of families can currently afford to leave their kid with a licensed child care provider while at work, and a recent report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that it costs a median of $1,700 a month for infant childcare in Toronto compared to $868 in Saint John, N.B. The government said it would also invest $534 million over the next six years to build 10,000 preschool child care spaces in schools and 4,000 community-based spaces to further increase capacity. 

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But the timing of this promise is … interesting. The Ontario election is on June 7, and the Liberals have not performed well in the polls for awhile now. The Progressive Conservatives also now have a star candidate in new leader Doug Ford, who called out the daycare announcement as desperate vote-pandering. To be fair, the Liberals have had a long time to fix child care — 15 years in power, that is. And this plan will mean plunging the province into six years of deficits.

“Yes, we’re in an election year and yes, this is a plan for four years  … It can’t help but be a campaign platform,” Wynne says, adding that it would be “disingenuous” to roll out a campaign platform that looked very different from the budget. She says this has been in the works for some time. Last July, months after announcing 100,000 new child care spaces in the 2017 budget, the Liberals commissioned a study from economist Dr. Gordon Cleveland on how to make child care more affordable. He published that report in February 2018, recommending that child care be publicly funded for all preschool-aged Ontario children — so this, like other social spending strategies, “did not come out of the blue.”

Will it really be “free?” daycare? Surely taxes will have to go up to pay for this.

The Liberals say they will not raise taxes to pay for child care. Instead, they plan to plunge the province further into debt in order to cover the fees parents have so far been paying out of pocket.

Conservatives aren’t a fan of this approach. “It’s amazing how they pledge billions of dollars for children who haven’t even been born,” Ford told reporters Wednesday.

“The reality is that a government has to plan for the future, and if we don’t plan for the children who are going to be part of our society, then we’re neglecting our duty and responsibility,” Wynne says in response, adding that her ministers have travelled the province and heard directly from parents that publicly funded child care would really help.

Their move to full-day kindergarten in 2014 did play a role in child care fee increases, which has contributed to parents feeling stretched, adds Martha Friendly, a policy researcher with the Childcare Resource and Research Unit, who has advocated for universal daycare since the 1970s. That said, she’s a supporter of the Liberals’ plan, because it has the potential to build a larger, more sustainable, publicly funded system in the future. “I’m really convinced by the data and the logic that going this way actually is going to give it the best chance for being successful.”

Why does the plan only start at age two-and-a-half?

NDP leader Andrea Horwath was critical of the Liberals’ plan for its failure to address the needs of parents whose children are younger than two and a half. “This announcement does nothing for those women who are trying to get back to work after their parental leave,” she told reporters on Wednesday.

Friendly, too, was initially skeptical of the strategy, since infant care in Ontario is so much more expensive. But she’s got faith in this plan because it offers sustainability that she says wouldn’t be possible if the Liberals offered free care for all kids aged 0–4 with the snap of their fingers. “This is the right way to do it. If you look at what the availability of regulated space is, there’s hardly any infant care.”

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Cleveland also recommended a sliding scale be put in place to help make that more expensive child care for younger children more affordable — but you won’t find mention of that in the budget. Wynne insists this is a long-term plan, and that her work to make all child care more affordable “is not work that will stop.”

Wynne also says the “bulge” of child care demand is at that preschool mark, so it would affect the most parents. “That’s where people can’t find child care, and that’s when the bulk of women want to go back,” she says, though she concedes there is likely a mixture of women staying out of the workforce by choice and out of necessity because child care in the earlier years costs too much or there aren’t enough spots.

Why make it “universal” and not have that 20 percent who can afford to pay for it, do so?

Wynne says she wants to shift people’s thinking about child care from the sole responsibility of the individual to “part of the social fabric,” like it is in some Scandinavian countries with high educational outcomes. She looked to those countries when considering whether to make child care free, and Cleveland’s report considered other countries’ approaches to funding child care, including Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, among others.

The Liberals’ plan is a lot like what you might find in France or Spain, except that child care in those countries is folded into the education system, not separated out as child care. And it’s different from Quebec’s $10-a-day child care, which operates on a sliding scale according to parents’ income levels.

“If the federal government had fully funded child care across the country, we wouldn’t be doing this,” Wynne says. “But that hasn’t happened. So we’re stepping up.”

How will it actually help women get back to work?

Advocates have been saying this for years: The biggest thing that will help get more women into the workforce, and close the gender wage gap, is to provide more affordable child care. That’s what the Liberals say they heard during consultations on both child care and the gender wage gap. The federal government, the Bank of Canada and even private businesses have talked a lot recently about the importance of getting more women into the economy. Researchers have estimated that every public dollar invested in child care leads to a $2.47 benefit to the Ontario economy because women are working.

David Mcdonald of the CCPA, which published the study on child care fees, says 70 percent of parents are already back to work by the time kids are in preschool, but a lot of mothers (often the lower-income-earning parent and primary caregiver) are only able to work part-time because full-time child care is so expensive.

He also has concerns about demand outpacing capacity.

“You’d move people out of unlicensed care to licensed centres,” he says. “But at present, we’ve got 120,000 licensed preschool spaces, including licensed family care. We probably have to double that, and it has to be done in two years.”

This is not lost on the premier. She says the infrastructure work is “well under way,” even if it’s moving slower than planned.

“This is going to really light a fire under the process because there’ll be a huge uptake on this,” she says. “So we’re going to work to that deadline.”

That is, if she is re-elected.