Almost one in two preschool children in Canada live in a “childcare desert,” where they have to compete with at least two others for childcare, a new report has said. This amounts to 776,000 kids without sufficient support.
The findings come from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), a think tank, which mapped out every licensed childcare centre in Canada for the first time, comparing them against the number of children in a given postal code.
The chequered map demonstrates just how much progress is still needed since a 2004 OECD report labelled the nation a “policy laggard”. Without quality childcare, kids lag behind their peers when they start school, and it has significant effects on parents’ labour force participation.
So what lessons can we draw from these maps, and how can Canadian policymakers improve the situation?
A postcode lottery
The variation in Canada’s childcare supply, both between provinces and postcodes, is huge.
In Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and many of Quebec’s cities, for example, there are at least seven spaces for every 10 kids not yet in school.
By comparison, Brampton, Ontario, has just two spaces per 10 kids, and around 95% of kids there live in what the report calls a “childcare desert” — postcodes where there are at least three children in potential competition.
One of the best explanations for this distribution, explained the report’s author David Macdonald, is the role of the market in childcare provision.
In Toronto, he said, the strongest supply is found in the city centre because it’s most convenient for parents commuting, and there’s a greater supply of commercial space. Private suppliers, therefore, are distributed according to demand.
This means that suburban areas and the countryside can get a raw deal, because it makes far less business sense to set childcare centres up there. The colours on the map, illustrating the levels of coverage in different areas, make this split very clear.
By comparison, in Quebec these issues are far less prominent because the public sector plays a larger role in governing childcare. As opposed to market distribution, childcare centres are distributed in a similar way to public schools. Even in northern Quebec — a heavily rural, sparsely-populated area — access to childcare is strong, said Macdonald.
What can policymakers do?
A recent trend among provincial governments has been to reduce fees for parents. While this is fairly straightforward to implement and helps working mothers and fathers, it doesn’t create childcare spaces, said Macdonald.
In fact, he suggests, it might mean there are fewer available because demand rises more quickly than supply. In Manitoba, for example, fees have been set by the province but coverage rates are poor.
However, there are ways to reduce childcare deserts. For example, provinces and municipalities can “grow down” schools by adding a childcare offering to pre-existing public schools.
This is already happening successfully in parts of Ontario, Quebec and the Northwest Territories. Scaling childcare in this way guarantees a more even distribution.
Secondly, private suppliers – which make up more than half of childcare in Canada – can be incentivised to set up shop in certain areas. Governments or nonprofits can tie funding opportunities to a particular area, or push to advance a licensed homecare system, which doesn’t require the kind of commercial space as childcare centres in cities.
Mapping out Canada’s childcare offering exposes the biggest problems which policymakers need to tackle. The solutions exist — it’s now up to governments to use them.