December 14, 2019

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Daycare dilemma

More than half of Manitoba parents struggle to access the child care they need, survey says

Marie-Serge Bibeau says she’s one of the lucky ones. As soon as she got pregnant, people advised her to get on the list for a child-care spot. Ultimately, she only had to wait five months: one-third of the average wait time.

"It’s really stressful; it doesn’t give people the initiative and the motivation to go back to work," said Bibeau, who lives in Lockport.

Although Winnipeg has some of the country’s most affordable daycare, a Statistics Canada survey has found 52 per cent of Manitobans struggle to access spots, the highest rate in Canada.

The spots that do appear seem to exist in higher-income areas.

Bibeau herself ran out of money while waiting for a spot. She didn’t have relatives who could take care of her baby. So instead of returning to work, she ended up on welfare.

"I was actually on EIA (Employment and Income Assistance) for that period of time, which I’m ashamed to say — and it’s because I could not find child care," she said.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Marie-Serge Bibeau and her daughter, Jannah Belkasseh, 4. Bibeau ended up on welfare because she ‘could not find child care.’</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Marie-Serge Bibeau and her daughter, Jannah Belkasseh, 4. Bibeau ended up on welfare because she ‘could not find child care.’

The daycare she did find was far from her workplace. Each day she had to rush to drop off and collect her daughter because her shift was during business hours.

"It’s a whole process," she said. "The demand is there, and it’s one of those things that’s always going to be there."

While all provincial parties have pledged to boost funding for child care, advocates argue it will take more than cash to fix the problem.

"Until you get to the real heart of the issue, it’s going to keep coming up," said Don Giesbrecht, head of the Canadian Child Care Federation.

The perpetual problem

Earlier this year, Statistics Canada surveyed the parents of 7,548 children under five years old across Canada.

The waiting game

Click to Expand

16,000: Children on provincial wait lists for child care as of spring 2018 (including 1,000 unborn children)

$5,412: Average annual cost of child care for either a toddler or preschooler in Manitoba

$7,812: Average annual child-care fee for an infant in Manitoba

15 months: Average wait time for child care, reported in an autumn 2016 survey of Manitobans

41 per cent: Number of surveyed parents who delayed a return to work because of problems finding child care, in an autumn 2016 survey of Manitobans

The snapshot survey found that 51.9 per cent of Manitobans "had difficulty finding child care," compared with 36.4 per cent nationally.

The survey found that parents postpone their return to the workplace, cut back hours and use a mix of arrangements to get their kids looked after.

Parents told researchers they couldn’t access daycare due to everything from cost, to location, to quality.

Giesbrecht said governments have to tackle all those factors at the same time, if they want to get at the problem.

"Typical solutions offered in this country are Band-Aids or one-offs, rather than being holistic solutions," said Giesbrecht, who used to run a daycare in St. James.

As of 2015, 74 per cent of two-parent families with a child under five years had both parents in the workforce.

Despite that high demand, cities across Canada go from having not enough spots, to unaffordable options, to a shortfall in staff to adequately staff centres that have enough funding.

"We keep circling back to the same topics," he said. "It’s perpetual."

A quasi-public system

Since 1983, Manitoba parents have paid a set fee for child care, with the province subsidizing non-profit providers to make up for their costs. Low-income families get stipends.

Child care spare for rural, reserve families

While child-care access is limited in Winnipeg, the situation is much worse in other areas of the province, especially on reserves.

In a spring 2018 analysis, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found there were only two spots for every five children in Winnipeg, and half that amount for smaller towns across the province.

Meanwhile, Ottawa has only recently started tinkering with funding for child-care spots on reserves, which had been frozen for 22 years.

While child-care access is limited in Winnipeg, the situation is much worse in other areas of the province, especially on reserves.

In a spring 2018 analysis, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found there were only two spots for every five children in Winnipeg, and half that amount for smaller towns across the province.

Meanwhile, Ottawa has only recently started tinkering with funding for child-care spots on reserves, which had been frozen for 22 years.

Ottawa launched the First Nations and Inuit Child-Care Initiative in the 1995-96 fiscal year, after the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples said early-childhood education was key to giving Indigenous people a solid start in life, and opportunities for their parents.

Since then, $55 million has been spent annually to provide child care to parents who start a new job or enroll in a training program. But that funding has not increased at the rate of inflation. The Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator shows that $55 million in 1996 is worth $84.7 million today.

In that same time period, census data show that Manitoba’s First Nations population rose 63 per cent, largely due to high birthrates on reserves.

In places such as Cross Lake, that boils down to one daycare spot for more than 10 children of eligible age. A year ago, the fly-in First Nation of Red Sucker Lake had just eight spots for its 240 children aged 4 and younger.

In March 2018, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak held a meeting of daycare directors. They were upset child-care funding had been frozen while a program, Aboriginal Head Start on Reserve, helps parents who aren’t at work or school, by providing activities to do together. MKO warned that the program gives incentive to parents to put off college or quit work because welfare recipients are eligible.

NDP MP Niki Ashton, who represents northern Manitoba, said many felt there was  a “disconnect” between the Liberals’ reconciliation agenda and the situation on the ground.

Last September, Employment and Social Development Canada signed a framework with First Nations, Inuit and Métis leaders to take on a greater role in child care through $1.7 billion in federal funding over the course of a decade.

Advocates have welcomed that change, though some have questioned why it took so long.

“Those kids need action now; not five years from now when they're no longer little toddlers and can benefit from a program,” said Cindy Blackstock, head of the First Nations Caring Society.

 —Dylan Robertson

The model is similar to Quebec and Prince Edward Island, but access in those provinces is higher, with a regulated child-care space for 39.4 and 38.4 per cent of children respectively, compared with the 23.8 per cent rate in Manitoba.

There are many reasons. Manitoba has not changed the cap on parental fees since 2013. The province has also frozen most operating grants since 2016. In Manitoba, 95 per cent of child-care centres are non-profit, and they have to transfer their assets to other non-profits if they dissolve.

Susan Prentice, a University of Manitoba sociology professor who specializes in child-care policy, sees a disjointed system that’s held up by subsidies, stipends and grants, instead of simply having the government provide child care.

"It’s like we’ve taken half the step to making it a public service," Prentice said. "This is a province vacillating over its role in ensuring that parents have access to child care."

In its last months of government, the NDP commissioned the Manitoba Early Learning and Child Care Commission, which concluded in January 2016.

It recommended that the province benchmark child care to cost 10 per cent of the average income of a two-parent family, and use a sliding scale with a cap for the highest earners.

It also urged a synchronized system to make sure early-childhood educators can get training, and that the courses available meet projected market needs.

"We can’t open up new places without addressing the workplace shortage," Jodie Kehl, flanked by Manitoba NDP leader Wab Kinew, said. (Jessica Botelho-Urbanski / Free Press files)

"We can’t open up new places without addressing the workplace shortage," Jodie Kehl, flanked by Manitoba NDP leader Wab Kinew, said. (Jessica Botelho-Urbanski / Free Press files)

Manitoba Child Care Association’s executive director Jodie Kehl said the PC government hasn’t implemented any of the 2016 report’s recommendations.

"It’s a large, systemic issue," she said, arguing recommended industry wages are particularly ignored.

Most front-line child-care workers make from $13 to $18 per hour, which the association argues is only appropriate for those starting out.

While the province does offer a pension plan, the low wages make child care an unattractive field. There is a dearth of qualified people to run new centres.

"We can’t open up new places without addressing the workplace shortage," Kehl said.

Instead, the PCs have introduced a child-care centre development tax credit, which rebates up to $10,000 per child for companies that provide day care.

The Pallister government has wagered that private operators will help fill the gaps while keeping costs low. Kiehl says she needs to see proof of that assertion, arguing Manitoba’s non-profit model is the envy of other provinces.

In June, the province issued a request for proposals for a consultancy firm to review the funding model for daycare in Manitoba.

The scope of the review is blocked by a confidentiality agreement and advocates wonder what’s on the table.

‘A popcorn model’

Child-care spots are increasingly showing up in richer areas, in part due to a policy that compels schools and daycares to be built in new neighbourhoods.

"In Manitoba, you’re more likely to find a child-care space if you’re in a more affluent community. So in Winnipeg, you’ll find more child care in River Heights than you will in Point Douglas," Giesbrecht said.

Those trends were documented in a spring 2018 study on "child-care deserts" by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

(Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives)

(Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives)

Economists with the CCPA tabulated the number of child-care spots listed in a provincial database with the number of children up to age five.

Across Winnipeg, 44 per cent of children were living in a postal code where there is only one spot for every three kids.

Prentice said spots that come on the market through the new corporate tax credit are showing up in places such as Sage Creek, despite the need being higher in other areas.

"It’s a popcorn model, where you wait for it to pop up," she said. "There’s literally no planning."

Meanwhile, an autumn 2016 survey of roughly 3,100 parents commissioned by the association found that 25 per cent of families turn to unlicensed child-care spots.

Giesbrecht suggests those spots, which are considered risky, are likely in poorer areas.

"The demand gets met then by a market that is below the surface. You don’t know where all these kids are going," he said.

"Governments are relying on that to help ease the burden."

 

What the parties propose

The Trudeau government has put out a $7.5-billion, 11-year plan that includes funding more spots and training for educators, but does not set a strict target for how many spots should be available.

Provincially, the parties have largely focused on funding and targets for child-care spots:

● The PCs have pledged to boost tax credits for corporations that provide care, and provide a $6,000 annual top-up to low-income families, in addition to existing subsidies and child-care plans.

● The NDP have promised to add 600 spaces a year and eventually make child care available for $15 a day through boosted funding for non-profits.

● The Liberals say they would put up 18,000 new spaces over eight years and boost workers’ wages. That would mean a total target of 55,000 spaces by 2027. The party appears to be the only one to have a goal for overall child-care spaces.

● The Greens have promised 2,000 new non-profit spaces over 10 years, and to cap child-care costs at 10 per cent of household income.

Prentice said she’s encouraged the parties have put forward platforms on child care, saying the topic has been off the radar for years. She said their promises are a piecemeal approach to a pressing need.

"It’s time for a larger debate about what parents need today, and what does affordability mean in real life."

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

Dylan Robertson

Dylan Robertson
Parliamentary bureau chief

In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"

Read full biography

History

Updated on Monday, September 9, 2019 at 6:17 AM CDT: Clarifies headline

3:04 PM: Duplicate fact box removed.

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