Don’t pinch the public’s pennies for affordable daycare

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For a study in contrasting world views, look no further than the federal Conservatives’ and New Democrats’ respective plans for daycare in Canada.

As the former ramped up its campaign rhetoric this week, promising tax cuts, credits and kiddie benefits for all – in effect, telling Canadians to take their own money and run – the latter unveiled a promising, though lightly coloured, early childhood education initiative that could find government-subsidized spots for up to one million pre-schoolers.

Of the two approaches, the NDP’s – which would charge parents a not unreasonable daily fee of $15 per child – is clearly the more thoughtful.

But the Tory scheme benefits both from its simplicity and its coarse, yet effective, appeal to base emotion: It doesn’t pick your pocket; rather, it appears to line your palm.

Try making the same argument about a multi-billion-dollar child-care program.

Right-wing politicos and their table-banging confederates in the chambers of public policy love to poke the mama bears of this country.

What right, they ponder provocatively, does the state reserve for itself – on the citizen’s dime, no less – when it interferes with a kid’s natural development in the home?

What’s wrong with babysitters, nannies, au pairs, or, for that matter, good, old mum and dad?

Stephen Harper’s “reformers” knew exactly what they were doing back in 2005 (before their ascent to power and prestige) when they promised to axe the Grits’ hard-won national daycare program and replace it with the Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB), which would dispense monthly cheques (each with a minimum value of $100) to families with kids under the age of six.

At the time, Mr. Harper said, “The only people who should be making these choices (about pre-school) are parents, not politicians, not the government.”

In effect, though, the future prime minister was signaling his intention to wield whatever authority he would soon possess to limit, not expand, options for working mothers and fathers. And recent reports from Ottawa indicate that he hasn’t changed his mind in the run-up to next fall’s general election.

According to National Post columnist John Ivison, writing on Saturday, “The Conservatives are planning to enhance the universal child-care benefit in the upcoming fiscal update, so that parents with children older than six will also receive $100 cheques, multiple sources suggest.”

All of which merely adds insult to the injury inflicted years ago when the Tories first propagated the absurd notion that $100 per child per month was a perfectly adequate, no-strings-attached alternative to universally accessible, publicly subsidized child care for kids aged 2 to four.

Still, many parents will prefer to embrace the Harper approach (and the money it provides) and dismiss the evidence, which is, frankly, overwhelming.

A report last year by Queen’s and McMaster Universities concluded that children who tend full-day kindergarten (FDK) are “better prepared to enter Grade 1 and to be more successful in school” than those who don’t.

A compendium of expert research and opinion on the subject, The Early Years Study 3, published in 2011, also states: “Researchers have found that parents whose children attend programs that are integrated into their school are much less anxious than their neighbours whose kids are in the regular jumbled system. Direct gains have also been documented for children. Evaluations of Sure Start in the UK, Communities for Children in Australia and Toronto First Duty found children in neighbourhoods with integrated children’s services showed better social development, more positive social behaviour and greater independence/self-regulation compared with children living in similar areas without an integrated program.”

Yes, establishing and operating an effective system will cost billions of dollars. And yes, overcoming the inevitable problems, both large and small, won’t be easy.

But, as the The Early Years Study 3 points out, “Investing $1 million in child care would create at least 40 jobs, 43 per cent more jobs than the next highest industry and four times the number of jobs generated by $1 million in construction spending. Every dollar invested in child care increases the economy’s output (GDP) by $2.30.”

With such facts staring us in the face, how can we take the money and run?

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