State-run child care advocates saw opportunity in the COVID-19 crisis. Working moms 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. Female employment has mostly rebounded and a record federal deficit is still on the way, yet the momentum for universal child care continues. It’s an old idea, but not a great one.
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 most centuries after he died in 347 B.C. 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. Female employment dropped by 1.5 million when the pandemic hit and dropped female labour participation rates to 55.5 percent in April 2020—the lowest level since 1986.
Those rates were 61.2 percent in February and rebounded to 59.4 percent 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 pandemic response.
Morna Ballantyne, Executive Director of Child Care Now, told me on August 31, “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, er, subtraction. The Quebec system of universal child care introduced in September of 1997 receives a little too much praise from child care advocates. Economists Baker, Gruber, and Milligan (BGM) 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.
The literature review is more like an indictment of the system than an endorsement. BGM 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, BGM summarized a series of studies by Kottelenberg and Lehrer (K&L), In 2013, K&L found the same negative noncognitive and family impacts that BGM found earlier. And, in 2014, they found such impacts “are larger the younger the age the child entered the program.” In 2017, K&L reported that scores on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test and Motor-Social Development Scores rose for daycare children in single-parent families, but dropped for children from two-parent families.
In 2015, Haeck, Lefebvre, and Merrigan found the program had negative effects on cognitive development at age 5. They also reported that regulated child care places in the province 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, BGM reported “that the negative effects on non-cognitive 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.” BGM found the results were especially bad for males, something K&L also found.
At one time, universal health care was provided by families who made enough on one income to pay for everyone. Yet, advocates continue to push for the pricier, inferior state-run alternative. Unfortunately, when the 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.
Photo by BBC Creative on Unsplash