Cross Country Checkup

Facing a 'she-cession,' federal child care funding needed to support women in the workforce, says expert

Experts say that the pandemic has highlighted a glaring issue for women: they are bearing the brunt of unpaid care work and, as a result, some feel they have no choice but to leave the workforce. Federal support for child care could change that, according to economists.

'We would be foolish not to do it': economist Armine Yalnizyan

Experts say that women, particularly during the pandemic, are having to choose between work and child care. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Apr. 19 update: Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland announced the federal government will invest roughly $30 billion over five years to help offset the cost of early learning and child care services. Read more here.

With schools in Ontario closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and her access to child care limited, Erin Hosken is having to make tough decisions.

The single mother and dental assistant in Kingston, Ont., says that child care for her youngest children is too costly, and she has relied on their schools for child care. 

But now, she says she has to decide whether to leave her four children, aged seven to 15, home alone or give up work.

"I have to make the choice between working and providing a life for them, or being there to hold their hand and give them a snack after school," she told Cross Country Checkup.

"Unfortunately, the long-term projection is that hopefully they'll be OK if I'm not there to make a snack for them, but none of us will be OK if I don't go to work."

Experts say that the pandemic has highlighted a glaring issue for women: they are bearing the brunt of unpaid care work and, as a result, some are feeling they have no choice but to leave the workforce.

Erin Hosken, a mother in Kingston, Ont., says that with an inadequate supply of child care spaces, finding support "is a huge struggle for so many people." (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Coupled with the fact that women have been harder hit by job losses during the pandemic, they say the country is facing a "she-cession."

When the federal Liberals release their budget later today — the government's first in two years — it's expected that money for improved access to child care will be among the line items. CBC News reported Sunday that the budget will include an investment of more than $2 billion for a national child-care program, according to a senior government source.

That's something economist Armine Yalnizyan, a member of the federal government's task force on women in the economy, welcomes.

"There will be no recovery, macroeconomically speaking, without a 'she-covery,' and there can be no 'she-covery' without child care," she said. 

WATCH | Why the pandemic is changing work for women

Pandemic pushing employers to make work more flexible for parents

3 years ago
Duration 2:31
Over the past year, many women have either left their jobs or reduced their hours so they could take care of children during the pandemic. It has pushed some employers to look into how to make work more flexible for parents.

'We would be foolish not to do it'

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, Canada's first woman in the role, hinted earlier this month that there will be a spotlight on child care in the upcoming budget.

"I really believe COVID has created a window of political opportunity and maybe an epiphany on the importance of early learning and child care," Freeland said during a "fireside chat" at the party's policy convention.

Yalnizyan says funding for a national plan would help improve both access to child care and the quality of it.

In turn, she says more women will return to the workforce, and the government will recoup its investment through their income taxes.

"One of the biggest assets that we have that is underutilized is our own human capital, and this is a way to maximize that human capital going forward for decades to come," she said.

"We would be foolish not to do it."

Such a plan could include direct payments to parents or bilateral agreements with provincial and territorial governments — several of which already exist, Yalnizyan notes.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland has hinted that the government will announce more federal funding for child care in this year's budget. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Ken Boessenkool, a professor of practice at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University and a research fellow for the C.D. Howe Institute, says that the pandemic has slowed women's participation in the workforce and agrees that federal support for child care would help it return.

But he cautions against what he calls a "big bang" approach to funding child-care programs, like transferring jurisdiction from provinces to the federal government.

"We don't have a problem with the federal government putting more money into the child care system, but they really ought to pick a narrow, specific lane," he said.

"What the government should do is put money into more spaces, and specifically fund provincial efforts to find more spaces."

Questions around economic benefit

Quebec, which has subsidized child care for years, has been touted as proof that funding child care can benefit women and the economy.

A 2010 study found the program "significantly increased" the participation of women with children aged one to four in the workforce. In 2016, 85 per cent of women aged 20 to 44 in Quebec were part of the labour force, compared to an average of 80 per cent in other parts of the country, according to economist Pierre Fortin.

But Vincent Geloso, assistant professor of economics at King's University College, says that while it's undeniable child-care programs benefit working women, he questions how much.

"I want more affordable daycare. I want it more affordable for the poor. I want the benefits from the higher skills that kids will have in the long run in terms of higher school completion rates, university continuation rates," he said.

"But it doesn't have to be a universal program. Actually, there's more evidence that dollar for dollar you would do much better by removing needless regulations," he added, pointing to provincial and territorial rules around how daycares are run.

WATCH | Quebec's subsidized daycare could be model for nationwide program

Quebec’s subsidized daycare could be model for nationwide program

2 years ago
Duration 2:04
The federal government has said the upcoming budget will include a plan for a nationwide early learning and child-care system and hinted that Quebec would be the model.

It's estimated that 40 per cent of the cost of Quebec's subsidy is recouped by the increase of working women. Geloso argues that newer data he has compiled suggests that amount is significantly lower, however.

He says that targeted measures on child-care funding, which should include money provided directly to low-income workers, is a more sound approach.

"That could be stuff like a daycare voucher or tax credits at the end of the year that are modulated, according to the parents' income," he said.

'Huge struggle' for many parents

Kingston mother Hosken believes it's time for the federal government to step in as "there's not enough child care, and there's no affordable child care."

Her children have been on a waitlist for before- and after-school programs at their school since 2018. For years before that, she was a stay-at-home mom but eventually returned to school in order to return to the workforce.

A lack of open spaces — and, more recently, a shortage of staff due to the pandemic — has forced her to consider other plans.

She says that worry is compounded by the fact that students are currently learning virtually with no return to the classroom in sight, and summer holidays are quickly approaching.

"Right now, the immediate stem-the-tide kind of solution would be to really start thinking about what municipalities or provinces or whatever can do in the way of organizing summer child care," she said. 

But ultimately, Hosken believes that people shouldn't have to choose whether to work or have a family — and that support for a national child care strategy would go a long way in making that decision more equitable.

"I'm resourceful and thankfully, so are my children. But this is a huge struggle for so many people," she said.

Written by Jason Vermes with files from Menna Elnaka and Steve Howard.

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