Andrea Mrozek: City plans to add daycare spaces, but are they needed?
Toronto has more spaces in daycare centres than it can fill, yet city councillors have put the pedal to the metal on a new plan to build even more.
Thanks to a Freedom of Information request, think-tank Cardus was able to learn that Toronto had more than 4,600 surplus daycare spaces in January — growth of almost 90% since 2009. City Hall’s plan to add 30,000 more spaces over the next decade won’t be cheap. It could cost as high as $2.6 billion, which is probably why the city is hoping taxpayers in the rest of Ontario and across the country will foot 80% of the bill.
If you ask city officials, they’ll tell you that the empty spaces exist because parents can’t afford them. That’s true in some cases, but it’s not the full story. (And where true, it would seem increasing subsidies, not building spaces, would help struggling parents the most.)
Polls show parents’ No. 1 choice for childcare is being able to have one parent stay home. If that’s not possible, they choose a relative. Next choice? A local neighbourhood home care centre that is small and accessible. So, it seems likely that parents have looked at the city’s daycare centres and said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Parents may also be concerned about how well their kids would do in institutional daycare. A recent Canadian study found that boys in Quebec’s government-run daycare system experience more hyperactivity, inattention, and physical aggression relative to girls. For girls, there were increases in emotional and separation anxiety.
Some parents simply need different options.
One option is to offer money to families, instead of to centres or spaces. The City of Toronto estimates an average annual cost of $9,357 per subsidized daycare space. Were the average 2017 vacant daycare spaces filled, that would take just shy of $44 million out of city coffers. That is substantially more affordable than the billions requested for the city’s plan.
Money to families would also allow parents to make choices of their own. Some parents prefer institutional care — others can’t or won’t use it. Children are unique. For example, special needs children may need special arrangements. Parents may decide to pay a relative to take care of junior or arrange for some kind of neighbourhood before-school and after-school care. They may even stretch so one parent can stay home, juggling schedules and shifts. Governments are rarely flexible enough to accommodate the diversity young children bring.
Bottom line: Subsidizing one form of care tells parents that this is the form of care they should use. You benefit if you use it; you’re on your own if you don’t. It ends up becoming a form of not-so-subtle coercion. Highly subsidized spaces don’t reflect demand, they distort it.
Toronto City Hall’s recently released Licensed Child Care Demand and Affordability Study makes this very point: Taxpayers would have to subsidize daycare spaces substantially before parents would increase their use of this type of care. Once the created “demand” is high enough, they then need to build more daycare centres, which the entire country would be asked to pay for. While that might benefit governments, would it be good for families?
There are solutions to the struggles Toronto parents face in finding affordable childcare beyond building more of the type of daycare spaces that are in surplus. Governments can find those solutions if they look at all the available research.
— Andrea Mrozek is family program director at Cardus, a public policy think-tank.