Affording Ontario: The high cost of child care

Across the province, parents are struggling to find affordable and accessible care for their kids. Do we need a national child-care plan?
By Mary Baxter - Published on Oct 02, 2019
a desk in a day care centre
According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the median monthly fee for child care in London in 2018 was $1,129. (iStock.com/Rawpixel)

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Every week until the 2019 Canadian election, TVO.org will look at the federal issues that matter to Ontarians. This week, we tackle cost-of-living issues in a three-part series. Watch for Part 2 on Thursday.

Before Kasey Huizenga can get to her job at a health-care wholesaler in London, she has to make two stops: her five-year-old son’s public school and her one-year-old daughter’s daycare. Huizenga lives in Thorndale, a community in Thames Centre, 20 minutes northeast of London, and the stops add an extra 25 minutes to her commute. “Dropping them off at two different places definitely isn't ideal,” she says.

Huizenga, 25, and her husband both work full time; the only licensed child-care option servicing Thorndale’s 600 residents is a before- and after-school program — appropriate for her son but not her infant daughter — but it’s completely full. And licensed child care in London, she says, is too expensive: she estimates that it would cost her more than $70 a day for both children. Because her husband makes more than minimum wage, they’re not eligible for a provincial subsidy.

So she decided to save roughly $20 a day and go the unlicensed route, hiring a recent retiree to watch her son after school and finding a daycare for her daughter on the way to the city. Unlicensed child-care providers can operate in the province as long as they follow certain rules — for example, there are limits on the number of children they’re permitted to care for. Such providers are not required to undertake training or to register with the province.

“It's definitely very stressful to find something that works for me and someone who's watching my child,” Huizenga says.

Access to affordable child care is a problem provincewide. In 2017, child-care services accommodated less than 23 per cent of Ontarian children under the age of four. The Ontario Municipal Social Services Association estimates that another 22 to 27 per cent of children in this age group would be in child care if spaces were available. According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the median monthly fee for child care in London in 2018 was $1,129. In Hamilton that year, it was $1,497 a month, and in Toronto, $1,685 a month.  

The four main parties have made the issue a priority during the federal-election campaign. The Liberals say they would create 250,000 spaces in before- and after-school programs, lower fees by 10 per cent across the country, attract workers by subsidizing training costs, and establish a secretariat to develop national standards and best practices for child care. The combined pledges would cost at least $535 million a year. Pam Armstrong, the Liberal candidate for Elgin–Middlesex–London, says that they will also “work with all provinces and territories, including Ontario, to create a national secretariat that will lay the groundwork for a pan-Canadian child-care system.”

The NDP say they’d invest $1 billion in child care in 2020, and they’ve pledged to increase that investment annually and to legislate a national public child-care program. The Green party also supports a national approach and proposes cutting the GST on construction costs for new child-care spaces.

The Conservatives are pledging to increase child-care program funding by 3 per cent annually and to maintain the Canadian Child Care Benefit — but they do not support the idea of a national system. Karen Vecchio, Conservative incumbent for Elgin–Middlesex–London (which includes Thames Centre) and the party’s critic for families, children and social development, says that her party prioritizes individual choice. “It's really hard if we're trying to compare my community, which is made up of many, many rural municipalities, comparing to seeing something what you'd see in downtown Toronto or in Fort McMurray,” she says. “So, by putting the money into the pockets of Canadians and making life more affordable, it's giving them the opportunity to choose what's best for their families.”

Martha Friendly, a child-care advocate and executive director of the Childcare Resource and Research Unit, in Toronto, says the best route forward should involve a national strategy. “It doesn't all have to be the same across the country, but there are some things that are shown to be the right direction and some things have been shown to be the wrong direction,” she says. The problem with giving money directly to parents, she says, is that “you can't have any assurance of what it's going to deliver.”

She wonders, though, how a national system would work in Ontario. Earlier this year, the provincial government told municipalities that they would have to use their existing operating budgets to cover certain costs related to developing new child-care spaces and that, in 2020, they would have to cost-share in the operation of new spaces. The province will also require municipalities to share in the costs of administering the spaces by 2021 and, beginning in 2022, to reduce the cap on administration from 10 per cent to 5 per cent. For many, this will prove be financially challenging.

In July, Sudbury city staff estimated that child-care costs for the coming year would mean a $1.3 million budget hole. This month, Peterborough city staff recommended that council consider closing public child-care facilities to address a budget shortfall of $ 518,000. Near London, in Middlesex County, councillors have decided to move ahead with the construction of 88 spaces at River Heights Public School, in Dorchester — a community of nearly 4,000 with no licensed full-time daycare — even though it will cost the county an extra $29,000 a year. “We need these child-care spots,” says Kelly Elliott, deputy mayor of Thames Centre, which includes Dorchester.

Armstrong, the Liberal candidate for Middlesex-Elgin-London, cautions that provincial and federal governments don’t always share priorities. “We have no control when the provincial government decides to use it a little differently than what it was mandated for,” she says.

NDP candidate Bob Hargreaves says that concerns about differing priorities shouldn’t get in the way of a national solution. “I'm not a lawyer,” he says. “If you have a national care program, I believe that you would work closely with the provinces to ensure that they comply. We would work with them to make sure it’s instituted.” 

Back in Thorndale, Huizenga wants her son to be able to access the licensed after-school program. “They're working on hiring more people so that more parents can have before- and after-school care,” she says. She’d also like to see subsidies extended to people like her and her husband. “Those of us who don't get subsidies, we still have to pay for everything — we have to pay for our kids, our house, our bills, the whole nine yards,” she says. “I think I've put more money in gas in my car this week than I've actually made.”

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