Canadians might assume family policies aim to help families. Certainly, in the last election campaign, "helping middle class families" was a phrase laid on thick—like BBQ sauce at a summer rib fest.
But any government policy can just as easily be a way to help government. And there appear to be strong notes of this in a recent federal Department of Finance briefing note called "The impact of childcare support on women's labour force participation." The note reveals a lot about how and why any government, and specifically this Liberal government, aims to "help families." It may not be in the way families think.
According to media reports, the briefing note examines, province by province, whether taxpayer-subsidized childcare enhances mothers' participation in the paid labour force. The employment rate for what they call "prime-age" (age 25 to 54) Canadian women with kids younger than 15 was 75 per cent and even lower for mothers of children under six.
This result ranks Canada ninth among OECD countries for working moms, a detail that was reported as if Canada is a tremendous loser internationally. We're not Olympic gold or even silver or bronze…we are ninth. Who wants to come in ninth?
Canadian moms want to place first but it may just be in a different category: a gold in parental choice, rather than higher levels of working moms achieved by subsidies for one form of childcare that they may or may not choose to use.
When subsidies go to childcare spaces or centres, rather than directly to parents, these act as a form of soft coercion. Rather than expanding options that increase the good for particular families, the government paints families into a corner saying "this is what we want you to do." Is that for families? Or for the good of the tax base?
All governments across the OECD are in a pinch, needing ways to pay for increasingly expensive benefits. Here, Canada is no exception. Today the Liberal government is working on a "childcare framework," which is currently budgeted at $500 million for 2017-2018. We do not yet know what the framework will be. But $500 million is nothing to sneeze at, particularly because the provinces will likely clamour for more federal money for their provincial daycare schemes.
This helps explain the government's concern over whether subsidies for childcare programs actually get mothers into the paid workforce. The result the government wants is more people—mothers, fathers, anyone—paying taxes on the work they do.
That said, even the government's briefing note admits that the correlation between working mothers and cheaper childcare is weak. In some provinces, like Ontario, where childcare costs are higher, labour force participation for mothers is lower. But in other provinces, like Manitoba, you have cheaper childcare and low labour force participation.
Getting the federal government in the childcare business would be a costly mistake for Canadian families. And given the fact that cheaper childcare does not necessarily entice mothers into the paid workforce, it will be a costly mistake for government, too.
We know from various surveys that the vast majority of Canadians do not prefer centre-based childcare and are not clamouring for more spaces to be funded. Canadians think it is best for a child under six to be at home with a parent.
Furthermore, eldercare is eclipsing childcare as a concern. Whether childcare or eldercare, everyone should be free to "age in place" (grow older in their own home) regardless of whether they are starting out in life or going into their sunset years.
This government briefing note assesses the possibility of subsidized childcare bringing more mothers into the paid workforce. It's fair for government to consider this angle as it is in their interest. It's also fair that Canadian "prime-age" women would view this particular form of government "help" with suspicion and derision as they consider their own best interests.
Originally published in Financial Post.