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Andrea Mrozek: Quebec's child-care system isn't what you've been told it is
“If Quebec can do it, why can’t we,” many have asked. Alas, if only Quebec could.
By: Andrea Mrozek
Since last month’s election, many have been asking which promises the Liberals made will prove the most difficult to keep. Put child care at the top of the list: The federal government’s five-year, $30 billion Canada-wide child-care plan is rife with complicating factors. When government officials point to Quebec as the model for the rest of Canada, what that means is a system plagued by lack of access, inequality and poor quality.
When Quebec introduced its low-user fee “universal” system in 1997, the goal was to create a centre-based, publicly-funded system for all children. Fees started at $5 a day, briefly shifting to a fee structure based on income, before settling in at the current daily rate of $8.50.
The rapid reduction in fees in only one part of the child-care sector disrupted the care options parents were using in Quebec. Private providers, who were not to be included in Quebec’s system, “understandably crumbled” after the system began. Unfortunately, the public system never picked up the slack. So the Quebec government then coaxed them back into the business of child-care provision through a system of tax credits.
Consider this: We are told publicly funded child care offered at a fixed low price for parents is the way to go across Canada. Consider further that we are told Quebec is the model for said child-care system. Then consider that between 2003 and 2021, in Quebec, public (“Centres de la petite enfance” or CPE spaces) increased by about 55 per cent, or 35,000 spaces. In the same time period, private, unsubsidized spaces increased by about 4,200 per cent or 68,500 spaces. This growth in private provision is not at all what architects of public child-care provision desire. It has, however, proved unavoidable in Quebec, precisely because provision of public spaces has been so slow. Whether it’s lack of funds, political will or some other combination of factors, Quebec has been unable over two decades to build the system of CPE’s envisioned in the mid 1990s.
None of this is a secret: The Quebec auditor general reported last fall there are “not enough spaces available in subsidized child care to meet the needs of families in Quebec.” There are 98,014 spaces in CPEs but 46,000 on a waiting list for a CPE space, as per the auditor general. Does this sound like a policy success?
Further, the waitlists are now themselves a source of inequity. The same auditor-general report highlights that in Montreal in particular, “the children of low-income families are underrepresented in (CPEs).” Previous studies showed this to be a problem across Quebec. Sociologist Rod Beaujot wrote this in a 2013 paper: “In Quebec, day care is used less by children in vulnerable environments, and the services they use are of lower quality (Giguère and Desrosiers 2011). In contrast, the higher the mother’s education, and the higher the family income, the greater the usage of child-care in the Quebec program (Audet and Gingras 2011.) While the program has provisions for disadvantaged families, it would appear that other provinces are more successful in tailoring programs to families with lower incomes.”
Quebec’s lauded public system, with its long waiting lists, most advantages the well off.
This is not hard to explain. Better-off families have the time and resources to navigate the system. They are also more likely to have the 9-5 jobs that centre-based daycare works the best for. Parents working non-standard hours in fields such as retail, hospitality or construction need to get creative about child-care solutions. Whatever the reason, it’s not terribly surprising; when a system is supposed to be for everyone, but actually fails to provide enough public spaces, parents are forced to compete to get those spaces. It’s unlikely that cash-strapped and/or time-poor parents are going to win.
While Canadians may believe that space creation is the goal of the new Canada-wide system, the $30 billion federal program focuses primarily on reducing costs in existing licensed spaces. At the time of writing, the new agreements with seven of 10 provinces promise about 107,000 new spaces. Alberta, Ontario and New Brunswick have yet to sign. While the tally for expected new spaces is likely to rise as the remaining provinces sign on, it remains true these new spaces serve a very small portion of Canada’s estimated 2.2 million children under the age of six.
Furthermore, in places where money does not grow on trees, it’s worth mentioning that in Quebec, implementation of their provincial system affected families in other ways. Data show that 72 per cent of families received less financial assistance from the Quebec government after the creation of their child-care system than they did before.
This is in part because the system is costly. There is no way around the fact that providing high-quality care for vulnerable babies, toddlers and children is expensive. One measure of quality is child-to-adult-caregiver ratios. This data isn’t collected anywhere that permits easy provincial comparisons, but our research has found that Quebec has the worst legal ratios in the country with one adult for five infants. Worse still is the Quebec ratio of one adult for eight toddlers. The very model the federal government points to as its model has the worst quality adult-child ratios in Canada.
This leads to a broader discussion of quality outcomes in Quebec. When academics examine outcomes for Quebec children, they find these are less than stellar. Canadian economists Baker, Gruber and Milligan find that “negative non-cognitive effects persisted to school ages, and also that cohorts with increased child-care access subsequently had worse health, lower-life satisfaction, and higher crime rates later in life.” “Non-cognitive” problems means increases in things like anxiety and aggression in Quebec children, now young adults. Their work has been replicated by other scholars (Lehrer, Kottelenberg).
The current federal funding amounts are simply not enough to create a high-quality child-care system for all Canadian children under the age of six. The real costs of a federal national daycare system are much higher than the funding allocated in the federal budget. Cardus’s realistic costing model rings in at $36.3 billion total in year five, with the federal government covering $9.2 billion and parents covering $3.8 billion through user fees. In this scenario, the provinces are left to cover $23.3 billion. This figure highlights the real shortfall of the current funding.
The federal government has not committed to building a system, but to funding provinces for an insufficient number of spaces over the next five years. What happens after that? The federal plan to deliver on child care appears to boil down to leaving a hot mess for the provinces to clean up down the road when federal funding has been proven to be wholly inadequate.
While Quebec’s system is flawed, it’s quite rare to hear details about that in public. Quebec politicians defend it to the death, and federal politicians parrot this. But at niche conferences that most parents don’t attend, the lack of quality care and access is a significant discussion point amongst child-care experts. Furthermore, at the time of writing, Quebec’s child-care workers are planning a series of one-day strikes — which is just one more way for parents to need to scramble. There is no recent polling on how Quebeckers feel about their system. That said, a March 2021 Angus Reid poll asked for levels of agreement with the statement “Finding quality child care is a way bigger hassle than it should be for parents today” and found the highest percentage of agreement (81 per cent) in Quebec.
“If Quebec can do it, why can’t we,” many have asked. Alas, if only Quebec could. $5-a-day (or $8.50, or $10) is a great slogan, but parents should be wary of what they get precisely because Quebec-style daycare may be it, and Quebec’s child-care story is not exactly what we have been led to believe.
Andrea Mrozek is a senior fellow at Cardus.
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