Child care: Do you get what you pay for?

Outrageous fees. Vast cost discrepancies. Staggering wait-lists. Our survey reveals a lot about the reality of child care for families across Canada

One statement, from a parent in Nova Scotia, pretty well sums up the story coming out of the Today’s Parent Child Care Fees Survey. She said she felt lucky to live in an area where child care fees are relatively affordable, but added, “Friends of ours living in a major city pay over two times the amount we pay for child care.” Indeed, our survey data weaves a tale of staggering inconsistency and variability in child care fees.

We all know that parents in Quebec (at least those who can nab a licensed space) have the nation’s sweetest child care deal at seven bucks a day, although, as our numbers show, it’s actually a little more than that in practice. But would it surprise you to know parents in BC and Alberta pay, on average, almost twice as much for child care as parents in Manitoba? Would you have guessed that some parents in Ontario are paying double what other Ontario parents pay? Well, it’s true, according to the parents who answered the online survey we conducted last summer.

What you pay

In analyzing our survey results, we zeroed in on the cost of preschool care because we wanted to make sure we were comparing apples to apples. Preschool care fees are lower than those for toddler or infant care. That’s because younger children require more staff and, as we shall see, staffing is the biggest single cost in the child care business. And 73% of our respondents have children in the preschool group.

Most respondents (outside of Quebec) said they paid between $600 and $800 a month for full-time, centre-based preschool care. That in itself is a pretty wide range. The difference between paying $600 versus $800 a month adds up to $2,400 a year: a lot of money for a young family. But some parents reported paying as little as $400 a month, while others were paying well over $1,000 a month. The biggest surprise? Wide variations in what parents pay within the same province or region, even the same city.

THE NUMBERS Province Average fee per month* Newfoundland $588 Nova Scotia $601 PEI $546 New Brunswick $563 Ontario $814 Manitoba $399 Saskatchewan $610 Alberta $750 BC $775 *Non-subsidized fees for full-time preschool care.
Behind the numbers

Quebec is excluded from the charts because the $7-a-day rate for government-regulated care is widely known. Two things about child care in Quebec are worth noting: The centres are now allowed to add surcharges to the set fee, for things like field trips, personal hygiene items, extra care or extra meals. Further, although Quebec has far more regulated spaces than any other province, not all Quebec parents can find a regulated space. We had one Quebec respondent who reported paying $599 a month.

Notice the comparatively low fees in Manitoba. That’s because the provincial government has mandated maximum fees for non-profit licensed preschool centres that receive government operating grants. Manitoba parents pay $18.80 a day and the government adds $13.70 a day per space. If parents bore the full cost, the fees would be $32.50 per day. That works out to $682.50 a month, closer to what many other Canadian parents are paying.

In some provinces without such government-mandated fees, the range is spectacular (see From low to high). First, it’s noteworthy that almost three-quarters (72%) of Ontario respondents were paying more than the highest fee reported in any of the Atlantic provinces ($693). One in six Ontario respondents reported paying $1,000 a month ($47/day) or more for preschool care. Information on the City of Toronto’s website reports that fees for full-time daily care in licensed Toronto centres range from about $31.13 a day ($654/month) to $49.76 ($1,045/month), although it was also noted that some centres charge outside this range. (We found one that advertised monthly fees of $1,180 on its website.)

Contrast that with the Atlantic provinces where the averages are much lower — $563 in New Brunswick and $601 in Nova Scotia. In these provinces, the ranges are less dramatic, but there was still a $100-plus per month difference between the lowest and highest fees reported for Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland.

Average fees in Alberta and BC are fairly close to those in Ontario, but Alberta fees do not range as widely, and a lower proportion of parents from the far west reported paying very high fees. More than half of the BC parents reported fees in the $620 to $800 range, but several were up around $1,000 a month or more. Yet, other BC parents reportedly paid $600 or less — again, a surprisingly wide range within the same province.
Why the inconsistencies?

What accounts for the vast discrepancies in fees? The short answer is that child care in Canada is a user-pay, market-driven service. Prices rise and fall based on a number of factors: what parents in a given area are believed to be able to pay, what child care wages are in that market, whether staff are unionized (a Canadian study showed that unionized staff earned $3.32 more an hour than their non-union counterparts), and whether the centre is non-profit or for-profit.

The biggest single cost for child care centres is wages. Martha Friendly, director of the Childcare Resource and Research Unit, a Toronto-based policy and research institute focused on early childhood education, estimates that 75% to 90% of a centre’s expenses are wages and benefits. “Some centres charge very high fees because they can. Others, which can’t charge high fees, have to find ways to cut costs, usually by paying lower wages, which is likely to affect the quality of the care they can provide,” says Friendly.

Petr Varmuza, director of operational effectiveness for the Children’s Services department of the City of Toronto, says some fully qualified early childhood educators (ECEs) in Toronto centres are paid as much as $26 an hour, while others with the same qualifications are paid as little as $16.

FROM LOW TO HIGH Province Range of monthly fees* Newfoundland** $525–651 Nova Scotia $483–693 PEI n/a New Brunswick $504–630 Ontario $420–1,600 Manitoba $378–420 Saskatchewan** $570–650 Alberta $500–895 BC $400–1,425 *Non-subsidized fees for full-time preschool care.
**Very low base size.

You get what you pay for

Imagine how much easier it would be to attract and retain top-notch staff at $26 an hour than at $16 an hour. And keep in mind that some child care teachers in some provinces are paid even less. Lower wages lead directly to one of the key challenges child care centres grapple with: retaining good staff. Parents are well aware of this problem.

“Our daycare has had numerous employees in and out over the past several years. When they find an excellent teacher, that person finds a higher-paying job or goes to work for the school board as a teacher’s assistant,” noted a New Brunswick parent. Her observation was echoed by others, including a parent from Alberta: “There is a high teacher turnover. So once your child gets comfortable in a room, a new teacher comes in and the room is again unstable.”

In spite of inequities in fees, our respondents expressed a surprisingly high level of satisfaction with what they pay. In all provinces, most parents said they were somewhat or very satisfied with the fees they were paying for child care and the service they were getting in return. Although, as you’d expect, more Manitoba and Quebec parents were highly satisfied. Thirty percent of Alberta respondents expressed dissatisfaction, compared to 12% or less in other provinces. While satisfaction may be high, respondents expressed a clear desire for more help from government. In fact, four out of five said they wanted more government assistance with child care fees. “The provincial and federal governments need to do more to make child care affordable for the average family. Income-based subsidies are not very helpful to the average family, and child care should be made affordable for all families,” said a parent from BC.

Quality counts

Regardless of parents’ feelings about what they pay for child care, the crucial issue for parents is how they feel about the quality of care their child receives.

And the good news here is that some folks really, really like their children’s centre. “My daycare experience was fantastic. I loved all of the teachers, they were all very loving and caring, and always went the extra mile with my son and our family,” wrote a parent from Manitoba.

One Quebec parent went even further: “I have nothing but praise for my care providers, and I am certain I would not have had three children if I didn’t have access to this quality care at affordable prices.”

Obviously, child care a parent feels that good about is a wonderful resource for a family. But not all parents can find care of that quality, as noted by one BC parent who loved her daycare centre, but acknowledged that it’s hard to get into, with a long waiting list. That sentiment was echoed in other provinces. “Our biggest issue here in Melfort is a lack of spaces. The wait-list for infants is currently at 20,” said a Saskatchewan parent.

This last comment speaks to the myth of “choice” in child care. For some high-income parents in large urban centres, there may be a certain amount of choice. If you live in Toronto, can afford full fees and are flexible about location, there are non-subsidized spots open right now. But if you live in a rural area, or need a subsidy, as many middle-class parents do, then competition is stiff and the idea of choice is laughable (cryable might be more apt). As one New Brunswick parent put it: “If you don’t like the daycare or don’t agree with their practices, it is difficult to just walk away as there are limited alternatives.”

What are you paying for?

So where does the money you fork over every month go? Here’s a breakdown of the budget of the campus site of Trent Child Care, a non-profit centre in Peterborough, Ont. The centre offers 57 full- and part-time spaces and employs 13 full-time staff. They charge about $729 per month. Most (72%) of the revenue is from fees, while the rest is from provincial subsidies, United Way contributions and other grants.

Operating budget expenses Salaries and benefits 87% Food 4% Rent, repairs, maintenance, utilities, insurance 4% Craft supplies, toys, professional development 2% Administrative costs 3%
What does it all mean?

So we’re left with a rather chaotic picture. Some parents pay low fees, others pay high; some find spots, others can’t; some are ecstatic about the service they receive, others are frustrated and concerned.

It all comes down to a lack of both federal and provincial policy about child care, says Martha Friendly. “As a country, Canada hasn’t even taken the first steps toward putting in place any sort of national policy framework for child care,” she says.

“All we have, for the most part, are minimal standards for health, safety, training and staff ratios, and a patchwork of regional systems for subsidizing fees. But we haven’t decided what our goals are for child care, what we want child care to be, how governments will support it, how we’ll know if we’re doing a good job providing the service.”

And until we do, until we create policy that starts to turn that patchwork into something resembling a system that parents (and their children) can count on — including supports for stay-home parents — we’ll keep hearing that fees, availability and quality of care are all over the place. And we’ll keep hearing comments like this one from a Nova Scotia parent: “I feel the kids would be better taken care of if the facility were able to pay employees competitive wages. The quality of care is below acceptable at my centre, but with only two to choose from, it leaves working parents little room to complain.”

Part-time care wanted

Many parents need flexible, rather than full-time, care. In fact, 39% of our respondents said they used preschool care for three days a week or less, and 29% used daycare for less that six hours per day. Almost a quarter of our respondents said they used before- and after-school care for older children. So what do these numbers indicate? The need for access to flexible care arrangements.

About the survey

There were 840 parents who responded to our survey. All of them were members of the Today’s Parent Community sample, so our data may not be a representative sample of the general Canadian population. We asked about fees only for licensed, centre-based care — not family home care or unlicensed care.

Geographical location of respondents: Atlantic provinces: 79, Quebec: 39, Ontario: 526, Manitoba and Saskatchewan: 49, Alberta: 49, BC: 97, Territories: 1

Respondents using not-for-profit care: 46%; for-profit care: 35%; didn’t know: 19%.

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