Opinion: Child Care and the New Visage of Female Oppression

Krzysztof Banel

It is seldom that one can have a discussion about child care policies in Canada today without alluding to the implications that such policies can — and do — have on Canadian women. The implementation of the Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB), instead of a national child care program, has placed the responsibility for child care on women while impeding their ability to be financially independent.

In 2005, the federal Liberal party – under the leadership of then-Prime Minister Paul Martin – reached a consensus with the provinces to introduce a universal child care program which would have ensured affordable and accessible child care spaces throughout Canada. The program was designed to guarantee that all families had the choice of sending their children to a certified day care provider. However, shortly after the Liberal government’s defeat in the 2006 general election, and before it could even be implemented, the national child care program was replaced with the UCCB by the Conservative government.

The UCCB is designed to assist families with children by financially supporting their child care choices. It purports to grant families the financial means to allow them to freely choose which child care option they deem to be most appropriate, according to their needs and the needs of their children. Payments made by the federal government to families with children under the age of six can total up to $100 a month per child (to a maximum of $1200 in annual benefits for a family with a single child).

However, this freedom of choice proclaimed to be offered to Canadians through the UCCB is little more than partisan rhetoric. The policy fails to offer many families the freedom to choose their ideal child care option, due to the high and rising costs of child care and its limited availability. In Toronto, the median monthly child care fee can range from $1324 for toddlers to $1,676 for children under 18 months of age. Juxtaposing these costs to the UCCB installments of up to $100 per month per child makes the argument that this benefit promotes choice in child care wholly misleading. Given the current fiscal context, the UCCB contributes little to help families cover the cost of child care in cities with high child care fees.

UCCB installments are particularly unlikely to ensure access to affordable child care for low- to moderate income families. For many of these families, finding a regulated, subsidized child care space can be a formidable task in itself. The City of Toronto’s “Let’s Talk Child Care Campaign” recently found that, as of January 2014, there were 16,381 children on waiting lists to be registered for subsidized child care spaces in the city. Across the country, the Canadian Child Care Federation has reported that registered day care centres can only accommodate about 20 per cent of children between infancy and five years of age. The UCCB has done nothing to create new or affordable child care spaces, growing issues which a universal child care program would have redressed.

I believe that implementation of the UCCB instead of a national child care program has also served to reinforce the traditional division of labour based on gender. In 2011, the average hourly wage of women who were working full-time in Canada was 87 per cent of the average hourly wage earned by men. A lack of affordable child care in many Canadians cities means that families — particularly those in the low-income bracket — may opt to have one parent stay home to assume the role of caregiver.

While both sexes can equally assume this role (or take parental leave, if gainfully employed), more women than men tend to do so. This is because a family often has more to lose if the male takes a leave from the labour force, given a typically higher average salary. Low-income families who are forced to live a frugal life as a means of subsistence may have no choice but to have the mother take parental leave, if the costs of child care exceed the benefits of her employment. And if more women than men continue to assume the caregiver role on a permanent basis, then employers may further discriminate against women by not hiring or promoting them because they may be thought of as “precarious employees”.

If women are not working as a result of having to assume a caregiver role, then they are also not contributing to the Canada Pension Plan (CPP). The amount of money that will be paid regularly to an individual after retirement through the CPP depends on how much an individual contributed to the plan on the basis of the length of time worked and the value of earnings. Considering this, and given a longer average life expectancy for women, more women than men may end up living in poverty as seniors due in part to the inaccessibility and unaffordability of child care today.

Despite the federal government’s claims, the Universal Child Care Benefit currently offers families with children little financial assistance, and fails to address or eliminate the backlog of families waiting for a vacant child care space. As a consequence, many mothers in low- to moderate-income families may have no choice but to assume the at-home caregiver role, especially given the long-standing gender pay gap. Significant policy reform is needed to truly allow families the freedom to choose the child care option they deem to be the most appropriate for them.

Krzysztof Banel is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. He holds a Bachelor of Arts from York University, where he completed a major in political science and a minor in psychology. Krzysztof is particularly passionate about health policy and social policy, and hopes to improve conditions for cycling.