Childcare affordability is critical. So is choice

Parents need both affordability and choice in childcare, and all childcare providers deserve dignity, autonomy, and equality of opportunity.

This article was originally published in Business in Vancouver on September 16, 2021, during the federal election. 

Finding and affording childcare in British Columbia is a major challenge for many families, significantly affecting parents’ ability to work outside of home. 

Childcare has been central in this federal election, and that’s a good thing.
Regardless of political stripe, let’s agree families whatever form they take are a cornerstone of our society and childcare is an economic issue, not just a social one. So let’s get past the rhetoric, debate the substance and find balanced solutions that work for families, childcare workers and childcare operators. 

The federal Liberals have made a $30 billion, five-year commitment toward funding $10/day childcare for some parents at government-approved facilities. The federal Conservatives would instead give refundable tax credits up to $6,000 a year directly to all parents, letting them make their own childcare choices.

There are merits to each approach, and some might argue even a combination of both. At the core, parents deserve both affordability and choice. But, this being an election, each party will try to convince voters only their plan works. 

Here’s the thing: Ottawa can allocate funding through federal transfers or by putting spending power in the hands of parents, but the regulation and operation of childcare is provincial jurisdiction.

In B.C., John Horgan’s NDP is failing badly on their $10/day childcare promise. Having delivered only a quarter of the new spaces they promised, their clumsy effort to cap prices ended up blocking new childcares from opening because it would have required many providers to operate at a loss. How did that help families? 

Good intentions, poor execution. 

As economist Roslyn Kunin has pointed out, $10/day covers less than half an hour’s time for one child care worker. Reducing the “sticker price” requires a major contribution from taxpayers via the federal and provincial governments. 

There’s no magical money tree, so many families who see the sticker price of childcare go down with the $10/day plan would also see their taxes go up. There’s always a price.  

Whether it is paid for directly by parents or on their behalf by governments doesn’t change the quality and suitability of childcare or how much it costs to actually deliver.

There are great nonprofits delivering childcare, but the reality is that childcare in B.C. is a regulated industry consisting largely of local small businesses. In a 95% female industry, countless women entrepreneurs – typically parents themselves – have poured their sweat equity into building small childcare businesses. For many, running home-based childcare makes housing affordable for their own families by offsetting their mortgage or rent. This isn’t about getting rich. 

Today, many small business operators in the childcare sector feel invisible, as if the NDP has written them out of the political equation. Despite accounting for 90% of new spaces due their ability to respond quickly to demand, they feel largely sidelined in government consultations, communications, and policies. Some private operators fear the NDP is trying to pit workers and parents against them, that it won’t be long before they’re thrown under the bus by a government that’s better at finding villains than solutions.

John Horgan’s government has made life harder for small childcare businesses, with a series of policies that squeeze operators and reduce their autonomy. Meanwhile, structural issues that would help address affordability and accessibility remain unaddressed, like modernizing permitting and oversight to open more spaces faster, enabling childcare in or near workplaces and business districts, and making it easier to hire qualified substitute staff on short notice. 

Many female childcare operators with decades of experience and commitment feel the NDP is devaluing them and herding them toward one of two options: surrender their autonomy and become de facto government employees (without the benefits) or be driven out of the market and replaced by one-size-fits-all operations that suit the ideological preferences of the NDP and their political allies. 

We all win when women entrepreneurs thrive, so it’s shocking to see John Horgan’s disregard for these women’s work. We should not casually crush their dreams. We should respect private operators, consult them and include them in the future of B.C. childcare, especially if they can bring much-needed spaces online faster at less cost to taxpayers. 

We need strong regulations to keep kids safe. But a big government takeover of the childcare sector is not the answer. It is unlikely to save money on an overall basis, even if the sticker price is lower. 

One size doesn’t fit all. Parents need both affordability and choice in childcare, and all childcare providers deserve dignity, autonomy, and equality of opportunity. 

Gavin Dew is an entrepreneur running to lead the BC Liberal Party. Erin Shum Dew is the owner/operator of a Vancouver childcare. Together, they have two young children.

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