Lowering child care fees was the easy part. The hard part is building out the system

David MacdonaldCanadian parents know child care can be hard to find. And it’s not getting easier despite the fact that fees are falling quickly across the country.

These diminishing fees are prompting more parents to look into child care as an option, including those who’d found it too costly before. To meet this increased demand, and get the full economic benefits of affordable child care, we need a rapid expansion in the number of spaces. Without that, we’ll end up with longer and longer wait lists.

Across the country, 48 per cent of children not yet of kindergarten age live in child care deserts. That means these children live in a postal code with three or more children competing for every licensed child care space.

If that national statistic sounds bad enough, it’s much worse in some provinces.

daycare-children-Child care accessibility crisis
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In Newfoundland and Labrador, 79 per cent of children live in child care deserts, and in Saskatchewan, it’s an overwhelming 92 per cent of children who lack access to adequate child care spaces.

But it doesn’t have to be that way: In PEI and Quebec, less than 11 per cent of children live in child care deserts.

The range of child care coverage rates also varies widely by city and argues for both the need for rapid expansion and to target it in specific places.

For example, there are seven licensed spaces for every 10 younger children in Whitehorse, Charlottetown, and the island of Montreal. But there are only two spaces for every 10 children in Saskatoon, Regina, Kitchener, and Vancouver. In cities, downtowns are often well-served, while suburban areas are child care deserts.

The difference between rural and urban communities shows again why increasing the number of child care spaces is so urgent. There are huge shortages of licensed spaces in basically every rural postal code in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Newfoundland. And yet again, Quebec, with only 16 per cent of its rural children living in child care deserts, shows that services can be better provided.

Since fees have already fallen – and will continue to until $ 10 a day is reached in 2025 – the debate will now shift to spaces and waitlists. A rapid expansion of the sector is imperative to obtain many of the economic goals of a national system. After all, we can’t increase women’s participation in the labour force, economic growth or tax revenues (from more people working) unless we have lower fees AND enough child care spaces.

In many ways lowering fees was the easy part. The hard part is building out the system.

Capital dollars for constructing buildings or renovating spaces to be child care centres will increasingly be needed, but staffing is the vital and under-appreciated, component.

Anyone who’s worked in the sector knows that child care workers are poorly paid and often only employed part-time. Plenty of folks have gotten the qualifications but only worked briefly in the sector before realizing they couldn’t make a career of it as wages are just too low. Unless this changes, staff retention will be the most significant impediment to building a national child care system.

Finally, we have to change how we think about child care from something businesses provide according to their economic priorities to something we establish according to society’s needs. That would mean placing them where the children are, thereby eliminating child care deserts.

After all, you don’t build schools where it’s more convenient for the school principal. You build schools where the kids are, and you manage that process very publicly. The same should be true for child care centres, with cities, the provinces and the federal government working together.

If making high-quality child care accessible to all Canadian families is our goal, we must plan rationally to expand public, licensed child care spaces and make child care deserts a thing of the past.

David Macdonald is a senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

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