Was it worth the wait?
The government of Ontario took almost a year to sign a five-year deal with the federal government to accept $10.2 billion in new federal funding, designed to lower parent fees, increase capacity, and improve quality for early learning and child care.
This program has the potential to be as transformative as Medicare, fifty years ago. We should have introduced it fifty years ago, when the Royal Commission on the Status of Women asked for it. But it took a pandemic and a she-cession, then escalating labour shortages, to move to action and send a clear message: we need a national strategy where people in every part of the country are supported by strong social infrastructure that provides good quality paid early learning and child care, and ensures every one of those jobs is a good job.
Did Ontario achieve any gains by holding out, and holding up the long-overdue momentum towards transformational change? No. Instead, the wait caused us to shift focus away from what requires our attention to sustain this win.
Attention has been on whether or not the delay caused Ontario families to lose out on fee reductions. Rest assured, it hasn't. In fact, Ontario is in the middle of the pack when it comes to timing of cuts to parent fees. Every federal agreement requires the provinces and territories to cut parent fees for licensed care of children aged 0-5 by 50% by the end of 2022. Ontario will cut fees by 25% retroactive to April 1 and again by the end of the year. Check out the charts here to see how federal funding facilitates fee cuts, but allows for provincial variation in the pace of those cuts in 2022, and as we head to $10 a day care, on average, in four years’ time.
There are two other issues throwing much longer shadows on this historic win, and requiring our vigilance. This is where my attention is.
1. The troubling rise in for-profit care. This deal agrees to add 86,000 new licensed spaces over the next five years. While it's a start, this will not fully address the chronic shortfall in high quality care. 15,000 of these spaces have already been built since 2019, and another 15,000 or so were in the pipeline when the province signed a deal with the federal government. However, most of these are in the for-profit sector. The provincial government noted this week that the for-profit market share of licensed spaces will rise from 25% to 30%. This challenges all evidence on how to best spend through the public purse because, as in all aspects of the Care Economy, nonprofit and public care overall provides lower prices, better care and better jobs, delivering greater value for money for every tax-funded dollar. Whereas the federal deals favour use of new federal funding for non-profit and public expansion, it does not prohibit for-profit growth. This trend needs to be contained, or we will be using public dollars to re-create the long-term care sector in Ontario, which was proven to be worse than dysfunctional for the elderly and promises to under-deliver for our children and our future.
2. Creating decent work for early childhood educators. We won’t be able to provide good quality care in existing spaces, let alone expand, if we don’t value our early childhood educators more. They are leaving the field because they are so underpaid and working conditions are so stressful. Ontario systematically undervalued early childhood educators even amidst a pandemic, offering only a $2 an hour wage top up, when even Alberta offered $6 an hour more. Coming out of this deal, Ontario is using federal largesse to add only $1 an hour more to the starting wage of an ECE, bringing them up to $18 an hour. These are the people who will shape the next generation. We pay garbage collectors more than ECEs in Ontario. How do we think we are going to attract and retain qualified workers whose job it is to educate and nurture our youngest neighbours? Public policy that literally guarantees low wages in the licensed care sector could lead to a flow out of the sector rather than building it up. We need a wage grid with a competitive floor otherwise parents, businesses and the whole economy will be forced to scramble, and will underperform.
Getting all provinces and territories to join a national strategy that has the potential to transform so many lives is of immense historic significance. But let’s be clear: it’s easier to sign a deal than to implement it.
Early learning and childcare could be the gift that keeps on giving. Let’s make sure it’s a gift worth giving, in the first place.
Find me on Twitter @ArmineYalnizyan, and on Instagram @futureofworkers.
The Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers is supported by the Atkinson Foundation. Find more information here.