International Family Policy Comparisons: Why Canada lags behind

Couple Holding Infant ShoesCanada lags behind most other industrial countries on many of the international family policy rankings, including public investments. In most provinces, this reflects the on-going fragmentation of both our systems for and our thinking about families with young children. In her keynote address (which can be viewed here) to the UBC’s Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP) Fall 2013 Research Exposition, Lynell Anderson, Senior Researcher for the Generation Squeeze campaign at HELP, and a Certified General Accountant, explored what we can learn from international policy comparisons (with a focus on OECD countries including Norway, France, the United Kingdom, the U.S. and Australia), and highlights policy changes required to help children and families thrive in Canada. Her research focuses on the financing of family policy in Canada, especially with respect to child care services.

Lynell points out that BC’s recent decision to expand kindergarten was uncontroversial in terms of whether there would be free universal access, trained teachers, etc. But change the word ‘school’ to “child care” and a different set of values emerges, even though both are teacher-led programs in partnership with parents, but generally without parents participating directly in the program. In this discussion, Lynell compares Canada with 5 other developed countries, 2 Nordic (Finland & Norway) and 3 that are considered Canada’s peer nations (Australia, USA and UK).

Are we really comparable?

Lynell’s arguments are based on analysis of major international reports. Canada ranks well internationally in programs defined as ‘school’, such as the PISA scale that measures reading levels at age 15, but the PISA scale ranks a single skill-set. In scales that reflect multi-indicators, Canada does not do as well. The World Economic Forum ranks four Key Domains using multi-indicator scales (2013). When we look at Economic Competitiveness and Healthy Aging, Canada and its peer nations compare well with the Nordic countries. Where we diverge is where it comes to Gender Equality and Family Policy in Early Years. Contrary to common belief, the Nordic countries demonstrate that it is possible to maintain a healthy economy whilst maintaining healthy aging, gender equality and support for families with young children.

Why are we so far behind other developed countries?

Firstly, she states, it is NOT because we cannot afford the cost of the supportive family policies being proposed in the New Deal for Families. The 2% reduction in GST introduced by the federal government represents enough to cover more than half the cost of the New Deal for Families. Furthermore, between 2007 and 2010, we chose to increase health care spending by an amount that would cover the whole of the New Deal for Families. One key reason we lag behind is because we do not yet have a shared understanding of the depth of the time, income and service squeeze on families with young children and the level of scale of investment needed to address the problem. Every service has 2 elements we try to maximize: quality and access. In an ideal world we would see a combination of user fees and public funding that meshes to produce a robust, universal system that includes our most vulnerable.

She notes that our Canadian systems are under pressure, especially for the most marginalized amongst us who find it hardest to access quality services. The introduction of universal health care and old age pensions a generation ago, together with a rising economy, was central in enabling us to reduce poverty amongst seniors from 29% in 1976 to 5% today. By comparison, child poverty rates nationally have remained high. In BC, child vulnerability today is at a similar rate to seniors’ vulnerability a generation ago. Increasingly we understand that our ability to provide effective health care and education services is directly linked to our ability to support healthy child development in the early years and other determinants of health.

Her central point is that childcare, or early childhood learning is key to the time, income and service squeeze on families with young children. Across Canada, outside Quebec, we know that three quarters of women with young children are active in the paid labour force, but only about 20% of children have access to a regulated childcare space. The 80%, known as the expansion gap, is the difference between current availability of spaces and a truly universal system. Even when families can access a regulated childcare space, fees here in BC are significantly higher than the internationally recognized proportion of costs of 20%. This is known as the affordability gap.

Even when fees and subsidies are taken into consideration, there is not enough money available in the current system to recruit and retain well-qualified staff. So there is also a quality gap in our current provision. Childcare in most of Canada, apart from Quebec, is far too dependent on unregulated care. 

Lynell stresses that the plans are there to create a universal system, including a cost benefit analysis. According to The Canadian Pediatric Society, the “vast majority of families find child care expensive and hard to access”. But Canada’s public reporting in the area of childcare is weak, with no plan and no comparative data. Lynell thinks it is because we don’t have a public bylaw and a political environment that supports us to acknowledge shared problems and shared solutions. That is what Generation Squeeze and HELP are working to address.

But public spending in BC in early years has increased?

There have been increases in early childhood programs not including kindergarten and childcare; it has increased both at provincial level and through federal transfers, even after allowing for inflation. About two thirds of the increase comes from federal transfers and has been used to assist or set up new programs in aboriginal ECD parental support, midwifery, adoption support, early intervention and others. Despite this spending, vulnerability has increased during the same time period.

She asks how we explain these results. It is difficult to compare like-with-like with other countries, as in many countries ECD programming is wrapped into health or education. She gives a different, but valid comparison. Total ECD public spending increases in BC over the past 10 years have amounted to $91 million for the entire population under 6, which is less than the amount announced for the move from part day to full school day kindergarten just for 5 year olds.  And even the spending on kindergarten can be put into context. Public expenditure on Early Care & Education under 6 years (Canada includes child care and kindergarten/pre-K) expressed as a percentage of GDP, reported on by OECD, showed that Canada ranked last out of 14 countries. Canada’s investment was actually shown as at about 0.25% of GDP. HELP has made a more inclusively generous assessment at about 0.34% of GDP, but even these figures are influenced by Quebec. BC offers below the national average, at about 0.23%; even when the kindergarten investment is included, it still only moves to 0.29%, which is still the lowest investment of all, less than half of the OECD benchmark of ten years ago, and less than one third of the UNICEF benchmark of 1% of GDP. With only 22% of the early childhood population in Canada, Quebec has 41% of the total childcare spaces and 65% of Canada’s public investment in regulated childcare.

Girl Playing With Building BlocksWhy the emphasis on childcare?

She raises the point that a worry exists that if we increase the time spent in childcare, we will reduce the time parents have to interact with their own children. Canada offers one-year parental leave for mothers, but no parental leave for fathers, except in Quebec. However, one has to meet employment duration criteria in order to qualify for leave, and payment is made at a portion of regular earnings so low that many cannot afford to utilize the full 50 weeks of parental leave. Only about two thirds of parents take up their entitlement of parental leave. This is significantly higher in Quebec, which offers more compensation and leave to fathers. 

Where parental leave is better compensated, parents spend significantly more time caring for their own infants within a family setting. Countries that have strong childcare systems also have generous family leave provision. Infants and toddlers in Nordic countries are much more likely to be cared for by parents and family members than are children in Canada. Countries that rank well on family policy provide more time and income for parental care early on. 

In BC, 26% of children birth to 18 months, and 49% of children aged 18 months-3 years experience some form of childcare in addition to parent care. Because there are very few regulated spaces for children in that age range, the majority of children are in unregulated childcare arrangements.

She states that, out-of-home experiences for young children have the potential to be very valuable if they are done well, but also have the potential to be a risk if they are not well done. Regulated childcare in Canada today receives insufficient funding and attention to ensure that it is consistently at the level of quality that will advance healthy development. Research also shows that quality in unregulated childcare is generally lower than in regulated care. 

Can we do better and build a quality, universal childcare system? Lynell says the evidence is yes. First of all, there is a 30-year follow-up Norwegian study, confirmed by a Meta-analysis of 123 US studies (Barnett, 2013) that shows:

    • Positive effects substantial over time
    • Achievable at large scale (increased education/lower welfare access)
    • Levels the playing field
    • Less informal care (Norway)

The question she asks is: given that most children are experiencing out-of-family childcare, when will we put policies and resources in place to reduce their exposure to risk and move Canada from the bottom of UNICEF Family Policy benchmarks? Her answer is that a level of public investment and planning that would expand parental leave with higher benefits paid to families and universal childcare would eliminate child poverty in Canada.

Is cooperation amongst levels of government possible?

Lynell points to the example of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics - which required several years of federal, provincial, municipal cooperation and collaboration - as well as when the recession first hit and Canada launched its Economic Action Plan. She observed that, in just two years, over 60 billion dollars in federal, provincial and territorial funding were put out, through 90 programs, requiring 35 federal entities to work with provinces, territories, municipalities, NGO’s and the private sector. She comments, “When tasked with rolling out a complex and time-sensitive initiative…departments worked together to achieve timely implementation while paying considerable attention to risk…. When senior officials give priority to large initiatives…public servants rise to the challenge” (Fraser, 2010). So, in Lynell’s view, yes it is possible.

Lynell was awarded the 2010 United Way of the Lower Mainland Excellence in Action Early Childhood Development Award for her research and advocacy on behalf of children, women and families. She volunteers as Chairperson of the Federation of BC Youth in Care Networks and Treasurer of the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC and is also a Research Associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.