Why Quebec must hold the line on childcare programs

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When, in 1997, the Quebec government introduced publicly subsidized, universally accessible childcare for just $5 a day, regardless of the socio-economic conditions of its subscribers, a great hosannah arose from the province’s hoi polloi and advantaged, alike.

And for good reason.

One of the early thought-runners of this grand experiment was University of Montreal  psychology professor Camil Bouchard who concluded, in the early 1990s, that anything governments can do to produce an atmosphere in which children feel loved, wanted and cherished can only benefit society’s clear-eyed goals for longterm economic development.

To be sure, this was, by no means an original observation. After four decades, beginning in the 1950s, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Germany were only just beginning to see, in the 1990s, durable results from their respective early childhood education programs.

But, by 2008, nine years after it launched its provincial childcare agenda, Quebec had become the envy of, and the model for, the developed world.

“Based on earlier studies, we estimate that in 2008 universal access to low-fee childcare in Quebec induced nearly 70,000 more mothers to hold jobs than if no such program had existed – an increase of 3.8 per cent in women employment. By our calculation, Quebec’s domestic income was higher by about 1.7 per cent, or $5 billion, as a result.”

That came from Montreal economist Pierre Fortin, who was commissioned by provincial bureaucrats to dispassionately conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the Quebec program.

He continued: “We ran a simulation of the impact of the childcare program on government own-source revenues and family transfers and found that the tax-transfer return the federal and Quebec governments got from the program significantly exceeded its cost.”

Or, indeed, as Clement Gignac – a senior vice-president and the chief economist at Quebec-based Industrial Alliance Insurance and Financial Services stated in the Globe and Mail earlier this year, “It may seem counterintuitive to talk about a social program as a means of wealth creation. . .but it can also raise the standard of living.”

And how.

Consider the oft-repeated observations of T-D Bank’s chief economist Craig Alexander last fall: “Raising investment in early childhood education would bring long-term benefits. Most studies show that a one-dollar investment reaps a long-term reward return of 1.5-to-3 dollars. . .It is true that raising Canada to the average level of investment in other advanced economies would cost $3- to $4-billion, but that is evidence of the magnitude of underinvestment at the moment.”

All of which makes the Government of Quebec’s recent decision to cut back (or raise fees on) its demonstrably successful, universal childcare program downright bizarre. That province’s budgeting process is, unfortunately, falling prey to bureaucratic thinkers who perceive that all line items on an expenditure sheet can support equal measures of tolerance and  intolerance. For these factotums, a spread sheet is just a spread sheet.

The truth is, or should be, patently obvious: The social and economic advantages of a universally accessible system of early childhood education are far more compelling than the outright waste, patronage and bizarrely partisan schemes of most sitting governments.

Millions go to roads that are never built. Millions more go to favoured constituencies for special “ceremonial” events that produce nothing but short-term jobs and, when strategically juxtaposed with political ambitions, votes for favoured sons and daughters of a fundamentally skewed political system.

Billions of dollars are cavalierly dedicated to industries whose bottom lines, without public injections of capital, most developing countries would envy.

And all the while, provinces like Quebec poor-mouth their circumstances; they say with straight faces and crocodile tears that they can no longer afford the few social programs that they actually do right, ones which actually generate the human capital that is, in fact, necessary to lifting themselves from the doldrums they, and only they, have engineered.

As Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard rose solemnly in the National Assembly to express his deep disappointment in the state of his province’s finances this week, his staff was taking note of the vast sums the publicly owned hydro utility generates each and every day through exports to the northeastern seaboard of the United States.

Yes, indeed, in this country, we make sure to look after our money.

We’d be richer, in the long run, if we learned how to look after our kids.

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