Advocates of state-run child care saw opportunity in the COVID-19 crisis. It’s an old idea but not a great one.
Working parents returned home to care for their children, some able to continue paid work from home and others not. As a result, calls for universal child care grew louder than they had for 15 years.
Employment has mostly rebounded and a record federal deficit is still on the way, yet the momentum for universal child care continues.
In his classic work The Republic, Plato proposed that men and women have similar roles. He said society should raise children, not parents, lest those parents instil values in children that challenge the state.
Plato’s societal concept remained at odds with civilization for centuries after he died in 347 BC. Communist Russia and China revived some aspects nicely before cultural Marxism, second-wave feminism and political correctness advanced it in the West. The left still pushes for it today.
The pandemic provided a temporary setback. Governments shut down so many schools and businesses that parents found themselves home with their kids. Canadian female employment dropped by 1.5 million when COVID-19 hit and female labour participation rates fell to 55.5 per cent in April 2020 – the lowest level since 1986.
Those rates were 61.2 per cent in February and rebounded to 59.4 per cent in July, suggesting the problem would rectify itself to the extent that provinces would allow people to work and move freely.
Regardless, some insisted that one heavy hand of government deserved another. Advocates called for more state-regulated, state-sponsored child care in the name of a pandemic response.
Morna Ballantyne, executive director of Child Care Now, told me: “Nobody knows right now [the cost] to have affordable, high-quality, accessible child care in Canada … because there’s so many variables in making that calculation. What we do know is that we need a lot more public money. We need at least $10 billion, possibly more, on an annual basis.”
The federal government, already on its way to a $343-billion deficit, should think twice about this latest addition, which will result in fiscal subtraction. Yet the September throne speech outlined plans to implement a national child-care program (with precious few details).
The Quebec system of universal child care introduced in September 1997 receives a little too much praise from advocates.
Yet, economists Michael Baker, Jonathan Gruber and Kevin Milligan found many negative fiscal and generational impacts from the Quebec system, as outlined in The Long-Run Impacts of a Universal Child Care Program, published in the American Economic Journal in 2019.
Reviewing related studies is more like an indictment of the system than an endorsement.
These economists made a previous examination in 2008 that acknowledged that the program brought many moms into the workforce.
“At the same time,” the authors recalled in 2019, “there was a large, significant, negative shock to the preschool, noncognitive development and health of children exposed to the new program, with little measured impact on cognitive skills.”
They also found “striking negative impacts … on family outcomes.”
Next, they summarized a series of studies by Michael Kottelenberg and Steven Lehrer. In 2013, these two researchers found the same negative noncognitive and family impacts that the three others found earlier.
And, in 2014, they found such impacts “are larger the younger the age the child entered the program.” In 2017, they reported that scores on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test and motor-social development scores rose for day-care children in single-parent families but dropped for children from two-parent families.
In 2015, Catherine Haeck, Pierre Lefebvre and Philip Merrigan found the program had negative effects on cognitive development at age five. They also reported that regulated child-care places in Quebec rose from 78,864 in 1997 to 245,107 in 2012.
For parents, the cost per child per day went from $5 in 1997 to $7 in 2004 to $7.30 in 2014. At the same time, provincial subsidies rose from $288 million in 1996-97 to $2.2 billion in 2011-12, partly due to strikes by unionized child care providers.
In 2019, the first three researchers reported “that the negative effects on noncognitive outcomes persisted to school ages, and also that cohorts with increased child-care access had worse health, lower life satisfaction and higher crime rates later in life. Our results reinforce previous evidence of the central role of the early childhood environment for long-run success.”
They found the results were especially bad for males, something Kottelenberg and Lehrer also found.
Unfortunately, when government taxes almost half the earnings of parents, they have little choice but to surrender their children to that government and work to pay the bills.
Lee Harding is a research associate for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.