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Denley: Ontario pays to fall for Trudeau’s ‘free’ daycare money

Now the centers don’t have enough money to operate, early childhood educators’ salaries are too low, and parents who want spaces can’t find them.

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When Doug Ford’s government signed the $10-a-day federal child care plan just over two years ago, it didn’t take a psychic to foresee the problems that would follow.

The low-cost child care plan was billed as universal, but despite a $10.2 billion commitment over five years from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s federal government, there won’t be enough money to care for all eligible children. in Ontario. Even if the money were available, it is unlikely the province would be able to train enough early childhood educators or build the spaces needed for care centres.

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Just months after the deal was struck, Ontario’s Financial Accountability Office (FAO) put numbers to those concerns. Even if the province were somehow able to create just over 375,000 child care spaces by 2026 as planned, that would mean about 225,000 children would not have a place in the subsidized, licensed system. FAO estimated there would be a funding gap of $1.2 billion by 2026-27.

The other safe bet was that most of the credit for the program would go to the federal government, but its inevitable difficulties would be the province’s problem.

Indeed, Ontario child care centers have been threatening to close due to lack of funding, and Education Minister Stephen Lecce has been criticized for daring to seek administrative efficiencies in the province’s complex child care system.

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Last week, Lecce announced a new funding model for child care centers after protests from providers, including the YMCA, the province’s largest child care provider.

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As parents’ share of the cost decreases, the province has been doling out money to replace some of the revenue child care centers have lost. Unfortunately for the centers, they had to freeze their rates in 2022 as part of the new agreement, and many had frozen them during the pandemic as well. The replacement money was not enough to cover rising personnel and utility costs. Lecce says the new system will provide cost-based increases rather than an inflation-driven formula, but not until next year. Meanwhile, the government will spend up to $98 million to help cover the cost crisis for operators.

The province is making some progress on its goal of adding 86,000 new childcare spots by 2026. By the end of last year, 46,000 spots had been added, according to the government. That achievement was made somewhat easier by using 2019 as a baseline figure, although that was well before the start of the federal program in 2022.

Counting federal money, Ontario now spends about $4.1 billion a year on child care programs. Before the $10 a day plan, the province was spending $2 billion a year, which included $300 million in federal money from previous programs.

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That seems like a lot more money for that relatively modest level of achievement, and costs will continue to rise as the program expands and parents’ share of the cost decreases. The lower rates are being phased in and will not reach the $10 target until 2025. Rapid population expansion will also increase the number of eligible children.

As the childcare program develops, it will no doubt be liked by those who get the low-cost offer. Who wouldn’t want to pay less? And yet, parents who can’t get a spot in daycare will feel cheated, as their taxes go to pay for a program that other people get, but not them.

The problem with a “universal” but underfunded welfare program is that there is never enough of anything. The centers do not have enough money to operate, the salaries of early childhood educators are too low, parents want spaces but cannot find them.

It is reminiscent of Canada’s “universal” healthcare system, where no amount of money is enough, all types of workers are dissatisfied and, in Ontario, more than two million people don’t even have a family doctor.

It may seem strange to suggest in the modern world, but there is some value in self-sufficiency. Before the federal government decided that child care should be heavily subsidized, even for the wealthy, most people had to find child care on their own. It wasn’t always easy and rarely cheap, but at least parents had some control.

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Now, as with so many things, people are forced to beg the government to keep its promises.

Ontario was slow to join the super-subsidized child care plan and it’s certainly not the kind of thing it would have started on its own. Politically, however, it would have been difficult to be the only provincial government to reject billions of dollars in “free” money for child care. It is a gift that we will all continue to pay for indefinitely.

Randall Denley is a journalist from Ottawa. Contact him at [email protected]

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