Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the cost of not having access to quality, affordable, accessible childcare was apparent – but like many other societal challenges, the pandemic has exacerbated this to a nearly unmanageable state. The pandemic has exposed existing fundamental vulnerabilities in our social, political and economic systems, particularly with respect to gender.
To remedy these fundamental vulnerabilities and balance getting people back to work with protecting and managing our public health, advocates and academics have reminded us that affordable childcare is one of the most critical tools we can leverage, and it has economic benefits that extend far beyond getting parents back to work.
Statistics Canada reports that for 2019, 59.9% of Canadian children aged 0 to 5 were enrolled in childcare arrangements. In Alberta, the number of children was only slightly lower than the national estimate, with 54.1% or 178,070 children enrolled in childcare programs.
For parents, logical and predicable considerations play a role in choosing the type of program for their child. For Alberta families, these criteria include: affordability, location of the provider, characteristics of the care provider, and hours of operation.
Given the widespread use of childcare programs in Alberta, the initial closure of schools from March to September, and daycares from March until June, led a considerable disruption for families across the province with children staying home full-time. Since schools reopened, requirements for isolation and COVID-19 testing for students have led to children spending more time at home than before the pandemic. In both instances, taking care of children at home is unpaid work that typically falls on women to perform. Studies show that, on average, women spend twice as much time caring for children compared to men.
Access to affordable childcare may not eliminate this discrepancy, but it does give more women the flexibility and opportunity to access paid work. Conversely, when families report difficulties in finding childcare that works for them, it leads to changing work schedules, the need to use multiple arrangements, or working fewer hours – all of which lead to less labour and talent for business. With the context of the pandemic in mind, let’s dive deeper into the economic benefits of childcare, the system in Alberta, and our opportunity moving forward.
Greater access to paid work for women is only one potential benefit that Alberta could take advantage of by making improvements to our childcare system to be more universal, accessible, affordable, and higher quality. Other benefits include:
1. It pays for itself: Evidence also shows that more expansive programs provide a return on investment through increased GDP and a larger tax base with more people working. According to one estimate, “in 2008 each $100 of daycare subsidy paid out by the Quebec government generated a return of $104 [for the provincial government] and…$43 for the federal government.”
2. Increases labour force participation: Using Quebec’s experience as a possible case study, a universal, affordable, and accessible model allows more parents to enter the workforce. Research shows that from 1997-2016, the participation rate for Quebec women increased seven percentage points, and exceeded the national average.
3. Provides a stronger start for our kids: Childcare that incorporates elements of early childhood education increases human capital over the long term, as the productive skills people have which are developed in early childhood and critical for permanent brain development. By contrast, poor early childhood experiences predict poor mental health, behavioural, and physical health problems. Early education provides the remedy to these potentially negative experiences. In addition to the immeasurable benefits of child well-being, economists estimate that every dollar of initial investment in early childhood education returns an additional $0.07 to $0.10 per year. That’s a considerable return over time.
Childcare in Alberta can vary depending on type and need and the system is regulated and funded by the provincial government. The system is a variety of different providers which offer different services. According to the Government of Alberta, the programs in operation include:
Paying for childcare in Alberta occurs through two mechanisms, each of which provides funding directly to program providers or operators. The aims of these two funding models are to ensure affordability for parents and support for childcare providers.
The Government of Alberta offers a subsidy to parents to make childcare more affordable. According to the government, the subsidy is paid directly to the childcare provided and parents pay the resulting difference between the fees and the subsidy they qualify for. The exact amount parents qualify for depends on household income (maximum $75,000) and the program type children are enrolled in.
Alberta Child Care Grant Funding Program
The Alberta Child Care Grant Funding Program supports the development of childcare staff. The first way this program achieves that goal is through a wage top-up, which provides operators with additional funds to add to staff wages based on their certification level. The second way this program supports staff development is through professional development. Funding is provided to childcare programs to assist with the costs of post-secondary tuition, textbooks, as well as conferences or workshops for child development assistants, workers, and supervisors.
As described above, many small businesses run childcare centers in the province, and government can support their success. Earlier this month, the provincial government looked to make changes to the current system. According to the government, updated legislation would improve transparency for parents; implement risk-based licensing; encourage digital record-keeping; replace previous accreditation standards with new guiding principles that focus on quality, safety, well-being, inclusion, and child development; simplify and clarify language and rules for operators; allow 24 hour/overnight child care; and provide updated resources for parents and operators.
At the same time, the Official Opposition – Alberta’s New Democratic Party – believes other policy options could improve the system in Alberta. Recently, Alberta’s NDP have called for: using funds from Budget 2020 to provide immediate support to the childcare sector, improving online tools to provide better data on childcare availability across the province, full implementation of Alberta’s “Flight” early childhood curriculum, developing and implementing a workforce strategy for early childhood educators, establishing an Early Learning and Child Care Task Force to implement a universal $25/day quality early learning and child care program, and ultimately implementing that program across the province.
From the position of government, opposition, or thought leaders, Alberta has an opportunity to continue improving our system. The Government of Alberta continues to review feedback from parents, childcare providers, early childhood educators and experts. Further options for reform should focus on ensuring high-quality childcare. Evidence shows that high-quality childcare typically includes:
For our families and our economy, these reforms are possible, and now is the time to ensure Alberta prioritizes our economic recovery, and the well-being of every child and family.