Monday, December 12, 2005


Politics and child care

I'm so very reluctant to get political on blog for a number of reasons. First, because I'm mostly bored to tears by the endless punditicisms during an election. Second, because I always fear that my brain is not big enough to contribute a reasoned, well-considered argument on the subject simply because I scan and take in a lot of information, but I have the retention skills of your average pool skimmer. Finally, because I really think choosing between Stephen Harper and the Liberals is a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea. And yes, I switched from party to person on purpose.

But now one of the central election platforms seems to be child care, and I have some opinions on that subject. Get a fresh cup and settle in, this might run long.

For the benefit of our outside observers, the basic promises made to date are as follows. The governing Liberals, widely believed to be lying, cheating fat cat bureaucrats living large at the expense of the average joe, have promised $5B over five years for a "nation-wide system that embraces the shared principles of quality care, universal inclusiveness, accessibility and an emphasis on development and learning." The Conservatives, led by the truly frightening Stephen Harper (imagine George Bush, but right wing-ier and less charismatic - yikes!) have promised $1200 per year per preschool child for the family to ostensibly pay toward day care fees.

In theory, I like the Liberal's concept the best. Spend more money to make universally accessible, quality day care. Except, of all the Canadian families I know who have children in daycare - all of them, virtual and IRL friends - only one family I can think of uses a day care centre. The vast, vast majority of families use in-home daycare which is unlicenced, unregulated and will be completely untouched by this promised funding.

For us, what I call "institutional" daycare (that used to be a slag, now it's just a term of convenience) wasn't even an option, because there is only one daycare centre in the entire city of Ottawa, the nation's capital, that accepts children one year of age or younger on a part-time basis. It was also prohibitively expensive.

In 2003, when I started back to work after my maternity leave with Tristan was done, it would have cost in the neighbourhood of $800 to $1000 per month, per child, for full-time care in a daycare centre. We ended up finding a neighbourhood grandmother who took care of Tristan with her five-year-old grandson and a half a dozen before-and-after school kids after an exhausting and disheartening search. When we moved later that year, I had to start my search all over again, and ended up paying a third-party company $100 just for a list of referrals to people offering daycare in our neighbourhood, whom I had to then interview and do background checks on myself to find a suitable match.

While Tristan and Simon are treated as members of the family, there are relatively minor issues that come up from time to time that make me question (agonize for sleepless hours) whether Bobbie is the best possible care provider for them, but the simple fear of having to start over from scratch in the search stops me from even considering making a switch.

As it is, we pay $30 per boy per day. We have no written agreement, and what to do about holidays, sick days (hers or theirs), vacation time, changes to the schedule or any other issue is worked out on an as-needs basis, negotiated politely while I put the boys' boots and coats on at the end of the day. This flexibility is what I gained from not using a formal daycare centre, but is also turning out to be the Achilles heel of our relationship.

So in theory, then, I should like the Conservative's plan, which would put an extra $100 per child in my pocket each month, regardless of whether the family uses child care or not. It is basically an extension of the Child Tax Benefit we already get from the government, except it is not income tested, meaning everyone (rich or poor, urban or rural) gets exactly the same amount. When I walk through my neighbourhood and see the half-million dollar homes and think they will get the same $100 as the single mom supporting her three kids who lives next door to me, I can think of more than a few problems with this scheme.

Scott Reid, the Liberal's director of communications, got in a lot of trouble this weekend for saying that the Conservative's promise was problematic because it could allow parents to use their child-care benefits to simply buy "beer and popcorn." I have to say, I said more or less the same thing myself when I first heard about it. This is a token and meaningless amount. Would $1200 a year make it easier for anybody to make the decision to stay home rather than work? Only somebody who was already on the cusp of being able to make that choice already, I would imagine. And $100 a month barely covers three days of daycare out of the average month for us, and I know for a fact we have one of the more affordable arrangements.

I'm not impressed. The idea that affordable, accessible and regulated day care has become a national election issue should have me dancing with joy. I should feel the validation of finally being a significant demographic, of finally being able to contribute meaningfully to the conversation of politics. Rather, I'm left feeling disheartened and disillusioned.

This is the best our national leaders can do?