Forget about Trudeau Nannygate: the real scandal affecting Canadian parents is the cost of decent child care. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) has just released the results of their second annual national survey of child-care fees, “They Go Up So Fast.” (Ha!) I’m sorry to report that the CCPA looked at 27 cities across Canada and found an average of a 5 percent increase in fees since just last year. For already cash-strapped working parents in need of affordable child care, this is not reassuring news.
It’s also not surprising. Dual-income families already know that the daycare math just doesn’t add up if you have more than one kid. In Toronto, the highest-fee city, “it is normal for a couple with two children under five to pay $28,300 in annual child care fees.” This amounts to 48 per cent of a Toronto family’s median income.
According to the CCPA research, the cities of St. John’s, Vancouver, Vaughan, Markham and Burnaby also have some of the highest fees in the country.
Daycare costs were lowest in the Quebec cities of Gatineau, Quebec City, Laval, Montreal and Longueuil, since the province has capped fees at $174/month for infants and provides subsidies.
In Vancouver, infant fees (“infant” usually means children under 18 months old) are $1,225 a month; in Calgary, they’re about $1,075 a month. Winnipeg is a bargain at $651 a month, and in Ottawa, monthly infant fees are $976. While costs decrease as children age out of the infant room and into the toddler and preschool rooms, it’s still steep: $1,325 for Toronto toddlers (18 months to three years) and $1,033 a month for Toronto preschoolers (three to five).
The hunt for affordable daycare begins when your baby is just a few months old. In fact, in some cities, wait lists for a regulated spot are so long that expectant couples whip out their wallets and pay multiple wait list deposit fees before they even know if they’re having a boy or a girl. I started putting my name on lists when my son was three or four months old, and by the time my one-year mat leave was up, we were still stuck on four wait lists, despite all the tours my husband and I had dutifully been on and application forms we’d filled out. There were no spots in our neighbourhood for our 12-month-old, despite how on top of it I had tried to be. We had a November baby, and unfortunately, most full-time spots become available in September, when the preschool kids graduate into JK (opening up toddler room spots, which in turn opens up infant spots).
Frantic, I started posting on Facebook groups and calling every home daycare provider and parent I knew. I discovered that since demand is so high there’s a sort-of black-market network: many home daycares do not post phone numbers or publicize their website (if they even have one), preferring a more hush-hush, friend-of-a-friend referral system. Lots of parents had to ask permission of their beloved daycare lady before they gave me the coveted phone number. This wild-west system of unlicensed providers is unregulated, and relies entirely on parents vetting daycares on their own, trusting their gut instincts and placing their faith in fellow parent recommendations. And because it’s so competitive—you’re desperate for a spot, any spot!—parents often can’t afford to be choosy.
Luckily, I eventually found a home daycare just down the street from our house. Our son is a social, smiley kid, and he loves it (aside from the constant daycare disease, including a barf bug and a brutal ear infection in a three-week span). And I’m pleased to find out that our $1,500 infant fee (which includes diapers, but not lunch) is less than the Toronto median of $1,736. So far, so good, right? But when you look at our monthly budget, $1,500 a month is like a second mortgage, and it adds up to $18,000 a year. Our daycare costs eat up more than half of my salary. If we had a second kid in care, my entire paycheque would effectively disappear. It’s no wonder many parents choose to take a break from their careers when their kids are small—they simply can’t afford not to quit. More often than not, it’s women who step back from the work force for a few years, at least, which impacts their future earning potential and can cost them their spot on the career ladder.
Child care was a huge election issue, with the NDP calling for more spots, at more affordable daily rates ($15/day, similar to Quebec’s policy); the Liberals promising to combine the Universal Child Care Benefit with social assistance and child tax credits into a more generous (up to $533 per child) monthly cheque for middle-class families; and the Conservatives sticking to their policy of sending parents a cheque for $160 per kid per month. (We pay $75 a day for infant childcare. So this benefit covers approximately two days of childcare per month. Awesome.)
In the absence of better government policies, parents have come up with their own coping strategies. A friend of mine with two kids in daycare has a full-time job outside the home, but takes on extra freelance work she can complete post-bedtime, in order to make ends meet. A coworker remembers cutting out “luxuries” like orange juice and sewing her own clothes (!), in order to eke out a few extra dollars from her monthly budget when she had two daughters in daycare at the same time. Another option is to ask for a raise—if you’re going to work, it should make financial sense for your family—but many women report feeling uncomfortable having the money talk when they’ve just returned from parental leave.
The report (read it in full here) also addresses how underpaid our child care workers are. For such a vital part of the economy—after all, without child care, parents can’t work—this makes no sense.
I suspect that the real reason the Nannygate story resonated with so many of us is not because we were angry at the Prime Minister for hiring nannies on the taxpayers’ dime, but because we could relate. OK, I can’t exactly relate to being able to afford a team of nannies (a girl can dream!), but I felt, for a moment, that Justin, Sophie and I are in the same boat: we’re all parents who love our kids, but who also love our jobs—and we need child care that works for our families. I’m hoping that having a prime minister who’s the parent of young children, and who considers himself a feminist, will translate to much-needed changes on the childcare issue. Because what we’re doing now isn’t working for anyone.
For more on this topic, check out Chatelaine’s story, “You won’t believe how expensive child care is in Canada.”