Tuesday, December 06, 2005

One easy choice among many difficult ones

Babble on.

As I was reminded the last time I posted about it, childcare is a delicate topic.

The choice to forego a second income in order to have one parent stay home is gut wrenching. Alternatively if both parents choose to work outside the home, deciding how to take care of your children when you're not there to do it yourself is no less tortuous. Since the issue is so emotionally charged, it becomes tricky discerning what's best for the child: how do you balance the care and focus only a parent's love can bring against the ability to live in a good neighbourhood and afford books and swimming lessons and trips to the museum that expand your child's horizons? These are apples and oranges we're comparing here, and once you throw in the fact that each individual child's needs are different, it's clear there's no universally right or wrong choice.

Oh, and if you're thinking solely in terms of the choices available to two parent families, you're missing out on a significant and increasing portion (chart p.19) of the Canadian population. The options available to single parents are even more limited and the choices more excruciating than for the rest of us.

The most we can hope for is that each parent make their choice with the best interests of the child in mind.

I think boiled down to its essence, that's why I prefer the Conservative approach to the Liberal one when it comes to childcare policy. Each family is different, and one size doesn't fit all.

You see, the Liberals believe only in regulated care, and so have geared their policy exclusively toward that option:

Today in Canada, 84 per cent of parents with children are both in the workforce and 70 per cent of women with children under the age of six are employed. Furthermore, the great majority of children under the age of six are receiving child care in some form, yet only one in five is in regulated care. More accessible, regulated child care spaces are a necessity.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, believe that the federal government has no business favouring one family over another based upon a choice between equally legitimate childcare options:

The plan will help parents to choose the decision that best suits their families – whether it means formal child care, informal care through neighbours or relatives, or a parent staying at home.

Now, don't get me wrong: just because I favour the Conservative approach doesn't mean I'm blind to its shortcomings. One hundred dollars per month is a drop in the bucket when it comes to childcare expenses. It certainly won't replace an outside-the-home income. The $250 million per year Community Childcare Investment Program is a good start to dealing with the infrastructure gap that exists across the country, but it's not a fix-all.

The one clear advantage it has over the Liberal plan is that it doesn't tell families who have relatives looking after the kids, families where the parents work shifts, families where one parent stays home, families that feel better having a neighbour or a friend care for their kids that their choices aren't worth supporting. It doesn't force families who choose something other than the state-favoured and state-sponsored regulated care to subsidize those who do.

Childcare is a difficult enough issue as it stands, without the Liberals driving a wedge between those who choose a sponsored facility for their kids and those who don't.

From that standpoint, the choice between the two plans couldn't be clearer. If you favour regulated care, if you feel the government should support regulated care over every other childcare option, and if you feel families who don't choose regulated care should subsidize those who do with their tax dollars, then the Liberal plan's for you.

If you prefer that the federal government simply give all families a little more financial help to facilitate whatever choice they've made (including regulated care), if you think a national childcare policy should be truly inclusive of all families, and if you don't think the government has any business pushing one childcare choice over another, then the Conservative plan wins out.

When it comes to childcare, that's probably the simplest choice parents will ever face.

Babble off.


At 12:37 p.m., Blogger postername said...

What seems to be lost in much of this debate is that it is not only about "daycare" or babysitting. It is also about providing early education programs.

Some literature can be found here that you might want to look at.

I don't agree with all of it, but it certainly makes a number of good points related to the economic benefits (among other things) of early education programs.

At 12:56 p.m., Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

Interesting information there, postername. I'm not fond of their ideological slant, and I'm not sure their research backs up the 'myth' tag they attach to the counterargument, but it's useful to see the other side of the coin.

Regarding early childhood education, I find the rigid favouritism towards regulated care disturbing. For example: is a child's intellectual development furthered more by going to a Montessori school, or by learning a foreign language at the knee of a care-giving grandparent? Are the moral lessons appropriate to parental care more important than the art lessons in a high-quality preschool? What is the relative value of cuddling versus curriculum?

And this is the key: is the government qualified to make that determination for each child in a one-size-fits-all sort of way? Is it justified in doing so? Is it good policy to try?

At 1:19 p.m., Blogger wonderdog said...

First of all, to your point that parents must do what their own consciences dictate, I agree. And I think it's time we all set a simple ground rule for this debate, a kind of analogue to Godwin's Law: anyone who suggests that someone is a bad parent because of their child care choices deserves to be ridiculed and ignored.

As you might have noticed, I'm not a fan of the conservative plan, but I have to agree with you on certain shortcomings of the Liberal plan: it fails to support shift workers, etc. That's a failing. But it is not a problem with the approach.

This matter of choice is a red herring, because for many, there simply isn't a choice.

We need to look at the aim first:
- the Conservatives want to hand out a small amount of money to everyone, in a way that will benefit least those who need it most.
- the other parties want to make certain forms of child care more affordable, in a way that does not support parents who make other choices.

We could adopt the second model and then work on making it accomodate everyone more effectively.

But we can't adopt the Conservative system and make child care affordable to those who need it.

At 1:36 p.m., Blogger PGP said...

One aspect of the Conservative vs. Liberal debate as it applies to childcare is...That in addition to a childcare cheque the Conservatives have a realistic plan to reduce taxes including income taxes in a way that will allow individuals to Make Personal Decisions about how to raise their children...thanks God my kids are beyond the reach of these would be social engineers.
A second issue is that you cannot trust the government to contain and manage costs or to deliver effective programs. If the government says 5b$ or 10b$ of our tax dollars would be needed you can bet that before long that will be 20b$ or 50b$......have you never read or heard of an auditor generals report? Or did you already forget about the last 2 or three AGreports and the waste and mismanagement they illuminated?

At 1:39 p.m., Blogger Paul MacPhail said...

Wonderdog, who's to say that the Conservative plan can't be modified it they find a need? The commitment may be carved in stone, but the details are in sand. I see no indication that a responsible Conservative government wouldn't make positive modifications to the program if they find out after a year or two that it could be improved affordably.

At 1:47 p.m., Blogger Greg said...

There is another choice too B. If you like the Liberal plan but don't believe they will actually do anything (this is the 5th time they have promised this), you can vote NDP.

At 2:04 p.m., Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

Greg, I'm ignoring the NDP just to piss you off. ;)

Wonderdog, the idea that the Conservative approach doesn't help those who need it most, whereas the Liberal approach would isn't borne out by the Quebec experience:

In terms of accessibility, Quebec's $7-a-day program, regardless of family income approach to daycare, clearly favours upper-income families.

Economist Pierre Lefebvre has shown that the proportion of children attending daycare increases steadily with family income and that children from upper-income families are overrepresented among those in subsidized daycare.

This suggests middle- and upper-income families benefit most from this system and that the rest of Canada would do well to identify an appropriate level of parental contribution.

The Quebec experience also shows that universality does not necessarily translate into quality care for all children.

From the perspective of the rest of the country, given these problems and deficiencies, emulating Quebec may not only be unrealistic in terms of public spending but also unwise if the objective is to provide quality care for all children.

In fact, in light of the Quebec experience, the current situation of daycare services in most other provinces, as well as available and proposed funding, it seems there are two options:

- One is to support working parents with good quality care programs with a fair parental contribution. In that case, developing a regulated family-care network could be considered. In fact, this is the preferred mode of care in Quebec, especially for children under 2 years old, second only to care in the child's home.

- A second option is to target and invest in children most at risk and thus foster school readiness.

What is often forgotten in the current public discussion about early childhood education is that data regarding the benefits of high-quality programs were collected from low-income and significantly disadvantaged settings, notably in the U.S. Less is known about the impact of attending similar high quality childcare for non- or less-disadvantaged children.

Remember, all that is quoted from researchers who favour the universal regulated-care approach.

At 3:26 p.m., Blogger wonderdog said...

Damian, I'm not arguing specifically for the Liberal approach, but in general for the approach advocated by all the other parties, that of a national daycare program.

Obviously it's a concern that the program in Quebec hasn't benefitted those who most need help. I'll take that at face value, because I don't have the inclination to dig into it.

But that's not a fundamental problem with the approach. It's a specific problem with the implementation.

I do see a problem with the CPC's approach, and to Paul's point, while you could tweak it, how much?

The CPC is offering a handout, essentially. You could start to limit it based on income, or increase it for people with lower incomes, but do you really think this is a sound approach? For it to be meaningful, the cash payout to lower income earners would have to be quite large, and I don't think anyone would favour that.

I think there is a great deal of scope for discussion of how a national daycare program might be implemented. I'm not married to what the Liberals want, nor even to what the NDP wants. I simply think the CPC proposal is the worst one on the table.

At 3:34 p.m., Blogger Myrddin Wyllt said...

What is lost in this and the tax break issue is how did we get to the point that we need two incomes in order to pay the bills?
After all it has only happened in the last 40 odd years, before that anyone with a grade ten education could afford to be sole provider for a family of 2,3,5 or even 7 children.
Wage controls introduced by Trudeau when he was elected to provide price controls created this mess.
Even if my wage only rose by the cost of living increases over the last 30 yrs my wage would be 48 dollars an hr, yet it is only 23 an hr, less than half.
We should be asking not what they will give us, but what will they get rid of so as to quit taking in the first place.

At 4:09 p.m., Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

Wonderdog, you're losing me a bit here.

"The CPC is offering a handout, essentially. You could start to limit it based on income, or increase it for people with lower incomes, but do you really think this is a sound approach? For it to be meaningful, the cash payout to lower income earners would have to be quite large, and I don't think anyone would favour that."

Low income earners already have their childcare costs largely subsidized by government.

Casting the Conservative plan as a handout to families that don't need it, and the Liberal/NDP universal regulated-care approach as kinder to low income earners is misleading.

At 5:09 p.m., Blogger wonderdog said...

Okay, "low income earners" was vague.

Point is, the only way to modify the Conservative plan is to change the amount paid out or who it's paid out to.

For example, there's a level at which there's a real question as to whether there's any point in working, because daycare costs eat such a large proportion of your cheque. If you want to ease the burden on those people, using the Conservative plan, the only meaningful way is to give them more money. But then, are you being unfair to families at the same income level where one parent stays home? Do you give them more money, too? For some people, could it become a replacement income?

Is that really an approach anyone can favour?

This is why I view the Conservative plan as inflexible. And I think it's intended to be; the philosophy is not to favour any group or choice.

I'm fully in favour of easing the burden on middle class families, particularly where there's a single income. After all, that's me, too. But I don't think it's a replacement for a national child care plan.

At 5:39 p.m., Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

I think there are two separate issues here, Dog.

The first has to do with the government incenting one type of childcare over another equally legitimate type. The Liberals don't seem to think anything other than regulated care is legitimate (read Ken Dryden's comments in Hansard) - otherwise they'd be finding a way to support that as well. The Conservative plan is better on this point, because it doesn't incent one choice over another.

The second issue is one of infrastructure. Parents who want to stay at home need a better ability to do so. Cutting taxes burdens and stimulating the economy so the breadwinner earns more and earns it more securely can help there. Parents who want institutional childcare need a higher supply of regulated spaces for their children. More supply will bring costs down and hopefully lower the demand for "babysitters" who simply plop the kids in front of a DVD all day. That's where the capital investment portion of the Conservative plan comes in. It's not enough, I'd say. And I'd like to see some performance standard against which it will be measured. But it's something.

The Liberal plan, on the other hand, doesn't recognize my family's choice as legitimate. It doesn't help rural families. It doesn't help those families who want their kids to get the benefit of a grandparent's love and attention in the early years. It doesn't help shift workers.

On the infrastructure issue, the Liberal plan claims to be able to create 450,000 more regulated spaces than the Conservatives. If you're inclined to believe their estimates, that plan wins on the infrastructure side. But look at the track record for big government programs - they tend to fall short of expectations, run way over budget, and have unintended ripple-effect consequences on society. Do we really believe this big government program will be any different?

At 6:05 p.m., Blogger wonderdog said...

Well, there are a lot of separate issues.

I agree with you that the Liberal plan has a key shortcoming that it doesn't work for everyone. And I agree that it's desirable to help parents out in general, kids being the future and all that.

I'm also inclined to suspect the Liberal numbers, simply because of their track record. If they promise to create 250,000 spaces in four years (and I'm pulling numbers out of the air here for the sake of argument), you can bet it's really going to take seven years and it will all come together in the seventh year as they roll towards an election with the usual flurry of spending.

But I don't agree that we shouldn't incent some choices over others.

This can be what you might denigrate as social engineering. But I don't think there's anything wrong with supporting people who want to work, to help encourage people to get out and work.

It doesn't always have to be social engineering, though. Some choices carry higher costs, and some lower. Keeping the kids at home is cheaper than putting them in daycare, no question. If the government subsidizes my neighbour to the tune of $25 a day to put his kids in daycare, does it follow that they should support my choice to keep them home, to the tune of $25 a day?

That's like letting people who aren't married claim the basic spousal amount on their taxes.

At 6:23 p.m., Blogger MarkC said...

It's actually more expensive to keep kids at home than to put them in day care, if the income (after tax and, maybe, costs) which could be earned by the stay at home parent exceeds the cost of daycare (after child care deduction). Opportunity costs are costs too.

I personally don't think that there is anything wrong with helping parents who want to raise their kids themselves to do so.

As BB says, do you want to incent one form of care over another? If so, why? The default position should be (it seems to me) to be neutral between care options. If you want to incent one over another, you should be expected to give and defend a reason.

At 8:19 p.m., Blogger wonderdog said...

Well, Mark, I have given and defended the reasons some time ago. Damian and I have been talking about this one for some time. In short, if we help people get out and work, we help them to make money, save it, and contribute directly to the economy -- if they want to work, that is.

If someone wants to stay home with their kids, nobody is proposing that their kids should be rammed into daycares.

Please, don't try dragging opportunity cost into this, or you'll end up arguing that it's okay to pay someone with two kids, in the example I gave, $50 a day to sit at home because we have to compensate her for her opportunity cost. And that's not just bad conservatism, it's bad policy period.

The income tax laws don't treat opportunity costs as costs, for good reason. I don't get to claim that by choosing not to work a second job, I have given up income and I should get some kind of deduction.

What you're really trying to argue is that we should not have any public support for daycare.

At 12:00 a.m., Blogger Chris said...

I tend to think the dificiences in the amount being offered could likely be offset by allowing for income slipping as well. At the very least that would certainly afford single income families a more tenable position visa-via disposable income. At the moment those whom are in that position are financially punished for that particular decision, as opposed to a family where both parents work but equaling lesser sums that total the same amount.

I find it rather disturbing that its becoming a luxury item for parents to recieve the instinct and natural nuture of their parents in their formative years. There may be economic arguments for getting more people into the work force. I've a degree in economics so I'm well aware of them.

On the other hand one has to acknowledge that there are externalities associated from kids that are raised with defficient supervision. Ask any teacher and they'll readily describe a downward tread in the work ethic, discipline and respect with which kids behave. I would suggest there is a direct correlation between that behaviour and the number of kids who've been shipped off to day care or left to be raised by television. And however, nicely they may be taught to finger paint or cut and paste that will never really be a subsitute for the values and love that their parents can instill in them.

But the point I'm attempting to make is this, its widely acknowledged a child's early years are its formative ones. What costs and externalities are new fangled day care systems imposing on our society? Are they raising generations of children with lousy attitudes and assorted nuroises?

At 9:32 a.m., Blogger MarkC said...

I find the whole "day care is good, because it is better for parents to be working" argument fairly weak. If that argument makes sense, then the government should be carrying out other low cost policies to encourage people to get into the labour force. Examples are stopping university tuition subsidies for students taking more than 4 years to get their undergrad, or raising the retirement age for CPP. Getting perpetual students and 66 year olds to work would have no downside, while, as Chris says, children receive many advantages from being with their parents.

Furthermore, if we are talking about the total value for Canadians, which is where the "encourage people to work" argument comes in, we should definitely consider opportunity cost - but in the opposite way. Consider this example: if you have two stay at home parents looking after their own kids, no money changes hands, so there is no effect on GDP. If they swap kids and pay each other a certain amount per week, GDP may rise, but are people really better off? Now if one looks after both kids, and the other gets a paying job, then the economy is better off, because more has been produced. So, people must be arguing for daycare because it is more efficient than stay at home care - because one daycare provider can look after more kids than a parent does in practice. But, if it really is cheaper, then why does it need to be subsidized at all? I suspect that "daycare is better, because it cares for kids in bulk and is therefore cheaper" would be a weak rallying cry anyway,

At 1:03 p.m., Blogger MustControlFistOfDeath said...

Those in favour of a national childcare plan seem to operate under the false assumption that it will work - that it will provide affordable daycare for every Canadian child - that will never happen.

As Brooks pointed out, we only have to look at the results in Quebec, who had the advantage of starting on a smaller scale, to realize that the costs will always over run the investment.

The system will be chronically underfunded, suck up ever greater portions of federal and provincial budgets, fail to meet the needs of rural parents and those will uncommon working hours, put current unregulated daycares, like the lady down the street out of business and leave her unemployed, be held hostage to the never ending wage demands of unionized workers and have a permanent waiting list of parents hoping to get a spot. In other words, it will be the new health-care - a government monolpolized failure that will be declared a Canadian value and untouchable by any party.


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