Why Our Economic Future Depends on a National Child-Care Program

Illustration by Dave Murray

With a lack of spaces, inconsistent quality control and a reduction of subsidies, Canada’s child-care system is severely under-developed. This puts the economic future of our country in jeopardy and leaves our kids severely disadvantaged.

After decades of coasting on its good-guy social-policy reputation, Canada risks being left behind by other countries that are actively investing in early learning and child care and enjoying the benefits of such an investment.

Those countries have discovered the economic powerhouse that is child care. Invest $1 million in child care and you’ll create four times as many jobs as you would if you were to invest that same amount of money in the construction sector. And you’ll start reaping the dividends right away. That’s just a hint at the investment opportunities Canada is missing out on now that it has decided to stake out its turf on the international stage as the child-care bad boy.

It appears we’re getting good at being bad. The most recent United Nations (UN) report card on child care—The Child Care Transition, issued in 2008—ranked us last (tied with Ireland) out of 24 economically advanced countries in the area of early childhood education and care.

If you’re wondering how we came to receive this rather embarrassing report card in the first place, it’s because Canada chose to ratify the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child back in 1989, thereby holding itself accountable before the international community for its progress in “setting standards in health care; education; and legal, civil, and social services.” Under the terms of this legally binding document, governments commit themselves to “protecting and ensuring children’s rights” and to acting in “the best interests of the child.” These obligations are spelled out over a series of 54 parts, called articles. Because Canada is a wealthy, developed country, we are expected to be tackling high-level goals, such as improvements in the area of social policy. Unfortunately, our performance on the child-care report card screams to the world that we’re not there yet.

Article 18 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states, in part, that Canada is responsible for taking “all appropriate measures to ensure that children of working parents have the right to benefit from child-care services and facilities for which they are eligible” and that Canada “shall render appropriate assistance to parents and legal guardians in the performance of their child-rearing responsibilities and shall ensure the development of institutions, facilities, and services for the care of children.”

This isn’t the only document that is—or should be—tweaking the Harper government’s conscience with regard to child care. The UN Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979) requires Canada to ensure access to affordable child care on the basis of human rights.

If Canada does move forward with a major investment in child care, it’s the federal government that stands to reap the greatest dividends: “More than 90 percent of the cost of hiring child-care workers returns to governments as increased revenue, and the federal government gains the most,” noted Ann Decter, director of advocacy and public policy for YWCA Canada, in Educated, Employed and Equal: The Economic Prosperity Case for National Child Care, released last March.

Since Canada signed that UN agreement back in 1989, a generation of Canadian kids has grown up without a universal child-care program—and a generation of Canadian parents has had to make do with whatever child care they could find. For 80 percent of us, that has meant unlicensed child care. All this time we could have had a universal child-care system that not only paid for itself but that also created spinoff jobs in our communities. We had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

The Waiting Game

Of course, most of us don’t think about Canada’s obligations to the UN when we encounter child-care snafus. We’re too busy panicking about the child-care-related train wrecks that are piling up in our own lives all too quickly—and trying to work child-care miracles on our own.

But it’s time to stop wishing for miracles and to start talking about real-world solutions.

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Photography by monozygotic.com via Flickr (CC)
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