National Daycare? I Feel Good!

Joe recently asked “How do we feel about a national daycare program?” Unlike Joe I am not ambivalent about the NDP proposal to create a national daycare program. Indeed to quote James Brown: “I feel good!” The opportunity to have children and raise a family is highly valued by most people. Similarly, the opportunity to have a satisfying job or rewarding career is valued by most people. It reasonable for the state to adopt policies aimed at ensuring that these opportunities are available to all citizens on a reasonably equal basis. Of course, today Canadians do not enjoy anything like equal access to these opportunities. ‘Fat cats’ like Joe and me have much better access to these opportunities than most Canadians. We have the resources that permit us to readily combine our career projects and our family projects. Lots of people find it much more difficult to combine work and family. A national affordable daycare program would not magically resolve all the obstacles people face in this regard but if done well it can help to equalize the access that people have to valuable opportunities. In particular, low and middle-income families would be better placed to combine family-life and employment than they currently are. That’s a good thing about which we should feel good. More much can be said to develop this kind equality of opportunity justification for national daycare. Among other things, a national daycare program can have a salutary effect on the unfair gendered division of household labour characteristic of most families. Here too the anticipated benefits of a good daycare program are likely to be more incremental than radically transformative. But even small contributions to gender equality are worthwhile pursuing. However, my aim here is not really to mount a full defense of a national daycare program. Instead, I want to consider one putative problem with national daycare that is popular in some quarters.

The worry is that a daycare program would be regressive because a universal program would subsidize daycare costs for rich and poor alike. Why should we subsidize the costs of daycare for those, like Joe and me, who can readily afford paying the full costs? Wouldn’t it better to target the subsidies to those who really need it? The seemingly natural way to avoid this supposed problem is to target a program to those ‘who really need it’ is through a system of means testing that distinguishes the deserving from the undeserving. Yet there are important objections to means testing. So we should employ means testing only if we really have to.

First, means testing, if it is to be fair and reasonably accurate, requires the creation of elaborate and expensive bureaucratic procedures through which eligible recipients can be distinguished from ineligible recipients. In practice, such systems are highly inefficient and frequently fail to correctly those who deserve assistance from those who do not. It is simpler and more efficient to provide the opportunity for cheap daycare available to all on an equal basis.

Second, means-testing draws invidious distinctions between citizens that jeopardize the social conditions of self-respect. In a society in which the default assumption is that citizens should bear the full cost of daycare costs, demonstrating that someone merits a subsidy often requires them to make ‘shameful revelations’. The fat cats do not have to worry about that. They are not in a position of being scrutinized by a government bureaucrat in order to determine whether they are worthy recipients of something to which all parents should have ready access to: good childcare.

I suspect that most of the people who are enthusiastic about means testing are those who are never likely to be subject to it. The rich might feel differently about means testing if say their health care cards were revoked upon determination that their income fell within the top 15% of earners and that in order to gain access to publicly provided health care they would have to complete a series of confusing forms and meet with an entitlements officer who would ask probing questions about whether they really needed to access the public system. It’s ironic that many right-wingers who are generally suspicious of the state think it’s ok to subject some citizens – usually the poor – to invasive inquiries of this sort by state officials.

Instead of treating access to affordable daycare as something that distinguishes the poor from the rich, we should treat it as an opportunity to which all have access in virtue of our common and equal citizenship. On this model, the appropriate way to ensure that the costs of providing the common good of access to daycare are fairly shared is through the background tax system. Those who worry about the regressive potential of daycare tend to neglect the overall malleability of the tax system. A properly structured arrangement for funding daycare through the tax system need not confer net benefits on the rich of the sort critics worry about. If the system for funding is made suitably fair then the concern that the rich are unfairly benefiting from a subsidy is adequately answered. Universality need not be regressive and we can have progressivity without means testing.

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