The Wal-Mart-ification of Public Services
Our childcare fantasies for this country are pocketbook politics at their most distorted.
Currently, monthly childcare fees at licensed non-profit centres can be as high as $1600/month. They vary widely depending on the geography and age of the child. The service is on par with rent and tend to bite new parents in the butt.
In response to steep fees (by the way, can we call it “tuition”?) it seems that many Canadians have decided that parents should pay about a quarter of the going rate while the rest of us generously pick up the tab. The thing is, no part of the $15/day childcare “movement” makes an effort to elaborate on the fine print of that bargain. Though market demand far exceeds the present supply of spaces, the current and would-be users of childcare services are pressing for a super discounted price. As presented, their appeal does not make sense.
That’s because when we take this price-point approach to public policy, we aren’t really communicating that we want to be able to better afford childcare. What we’re doing is worse: promoting that it should be “cheap.” Not framing it as a public good is as unproductive as it is strangely resonant. Ultimately, it’s wrong.
Popular advocacy has taken a seductive Wal-Mart approach to one of the most important public investments possible. In doing so, we are actually devaluing early childhood education as a national policy priority and misleading our penny-pinching peers. How can we believe something this important should be reduced to a cashier’s transaction?
Price check on aisle child care: investments in early learning support children, parents, and the economy, with a return of up to $3 per dollar invested. The benefits are not in question, but how to best deliver childcare programming is.
If I wanted to, I would just blame Quebec and the demonstrated success of their insane $9/day program. Instead, allow me to simply point out that the belle province pays about $2 billion a year supporting this oft-envied program, and that studies have shown there are no early learning gains from the investment. That means that when they show up to their first day of grade one, Quebec kids aren’t any more ready to start school than their non-daycare peers. The only real benefit to the province has been increased maternal labour force participation. Arguing for a particular price point prevents us from talking about the goals of the program and distinguishing between mom being at work, brains getting smarter, or both.
Coupon-cutting childcare numbers are obscuring important national conversations about how we would pay for national childcare (that would be taxes) and whether it should be means-tested (it totally should). We are also seriously compromising our creativity by stifling any debate around delivery models. All we are looking at is the price tag and scanning political platform aisles for one that says “flat fee” and “universality.”
The thing is, we can’t offshore Early Childhood Educators or manufacture childcare policies in China. The workers who will get low pay will be (are) our neighbours and the premiums that subsidize each day’s delivery will still come out of our collective taxpayer pocket. The only way to cut early learning delivery costs is to inflate the number of children and decrease the corresponding ratio of adults. Such a modification only introduces modest savings at the margin and seriously erodes the quality of the experience.
What do I want us to do instead? Think about childcare as more of a public service and less of a personal one.
Back to the price tag: other things that cost about fifteen dollars a day are my lunch (when I don’t pack it) and parking. I often pay more for a six pack of craft beer.
We are comfortable paying a range of fees for airline seats, motor vehicles, homes, and running shoes. As consumers of public services, as we lobby for a universal childcare program we can’t keep confusing equality with sameness. Yes, we need more affordable childcare, but campaigning for $15/day is regressive, not progressive.
It is well known that a high quality early learning program provides a significant bang for each buck. But the business question to the public isn’t what price point people are willing to pay. It’s whether they’re willing to pay for other kids and families to enjoy the same educational programming that they either might already be able to enjoy or may never even have to access.
When I go to Wal Mart or No Frills, I get the “best” price. When you drop off your infant at child care, you want the best product and I’m willing to help pay for it. Are you?