Report card

How the provinces - and the country - spend on child care

Three years ago Today’s Parent gave readers a snapshot of how different Canadian provinces stacked up in the child care arena. We analyzed statistics on child care spaces, provincial spending, training standards and other indicators of quality and availability.

Now it’s time to check in again to see what has changed.

The big picture

If you think it’s hard to find licensed child care these days, think what it must have been like in 1992 when there were fewer than half as many licensed child care spaces as there are now. Back then, Canada had enough regulated child care to accommodate 7.5% (one in 13) of children aged 12 and under. Now we have enough spots for 17.20f kids.

However, a huge chunk of that increase took place in Quebec, where the number of child care spaces has risen by more than 280,000 (361%) since 1992. Over the same period, the increase in the rest of the country was just over 78,000 spaces. Per capita spending in Quebec went from $122 per child (0–12 years) in 1992 to $1,617 in 2006. In comparison, the increase in the rest of Canada (from $164 per child to $263) looks rather paltry.

The good news

Spending is up across the country. Low-rollers New Brunswick and Nova Scotia doubled their per-child spending and Newfoundland and Labrador came close to doing the same.

Note that Manitoba, which already spent more money per child than any province except Quebec, also had the biggest increase in spending, at $143 per child. It’s also striking that our richest province, Alberta, is now the most miserly when it comes to child care spending.

Canada’s three territories were not included in our 2004 rankings due to lack of data, but 2006 numbers show that Nunavut, at $255 per child, and the Northwest Territories at $292 per child, are close to Ontario and BC, while the Yukon is the country’s second-highest spender at $1,120.

The percentage of children (0–12 years) for whom there is a regulated child care space is up in every province. However, only part of that is due to an increase in spaces. Our population of children aged 12 and under is shrinking, which makes the already modest increases (in most provinces) look better than they really are. Quebec, which had by far the most spaces in 2001, also experienced the greatest per capita growth, with spaces for almost 14% more of its kids in 2006 compared to 2001.

Saskatchewan and Newfoundland (which ranked dead last in spaces in 2001) continue to bring up the rear.

Many people think of child care primarily as a preschool issue. However, lots of school-aged children need before- and after-school care. In fact, we’ve seen a demographic shift in the child care market. The number of kids under age five with moms in the labour force declined from 1.4 million in 1992 to 1.2 million in 2005. During the same period the number of six- to 12-year-olds with working moms rose from 1.5 million to 1.8 million. Clearly, school-aged child care is an issue policy-makers shouldn’t ignore.

And there are striking differences between the provinces. Close to half of Quebec’s spaces are for school-aged children, compared to only 10 to 16% in the lowest-ranking provinces, Saskatchewan, PEI and Newfoundland and Labrador.

The bottom line

What does it all add up to? First, apart from La Belle Province and the Yukon, provincial and territorial governments have a relatively soft commitment to funding early childhood learning and care. And it turns out Canada spends significantly less than most countries on not only regulated child care and early childhood education, but various services and benefits for families with young children. And we’re not just talking about the Scandinavians. Figures released by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show that while Canada is the fourth wealthiest (per capita) of the 20 nations surveyed, we rank:

• 20th (last) in access to regulated child care for three- to six-year-olds
• 17th in public spending on benefits and services for families with young children
• 14th in spending on early childhood education programs

That might be why so many Canadian families are having trouble finding the care they need, and too many have concerns about the quality of the child care they can find, as evidenced by the Today’s Parent 2006 Child Care Survey (Todaysparent.com/surveyresults).

All the data point to the fact that child care expands (and improves) when governments provide funding. Whether or not the Canadian federal government and provinces other than Quebec start devoting more of their budgets to child care remains to be seen. We’ll keep watching.