There is little doubt that the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has been disproportionately tilted toward the less fortunate in our society. Whether they be lower income earners, single parents, newcomers, or racialized Canadians, all have borne the brunt of the upheaval, from lost jobs and shuttered stores to fears of eviction and a general inability to work from home.
There is, however, one element of the pandemic that cuts easily through disparities in class and income, affecting all those it touches with equal force: access to childcare.
In those Canadian jurisdictions where COVID-19 infection levels have forced schools and day care centres to close for any length of time, parents and caregivers of young children have found themselves taking on the dual roles of both employee and education assistant, carving hours out of their work day to assist their children with virtual lessons, video-conference meetings, and home-based assignments.
Needless to say, all this unpaid labour must be made to fit in around regular work, forcing many parents to juggle childcare duties during the day before racing to catch up on work once children are asleep.
Recent Statistics Canada surveys indicate the burden of homeschooling and homework assistance falls primarily on mothers, placing even greater pressure on women’s labour market participation. New research from the Labour Market Information Council of Canada supports this, finding no group has lost more working hours during the pandemic than single mothers with children aged six or younger. Their hours have declined by 28 percent, compared to an average of 20 percent for mothers and 17 percent for fathers.
Before the pandemic, childcare was an issue that could typically be overcome with money: parents with means would spend whatever was necessary to get care for their children outside of school hours, permitting them to work full-time jobs.
With our world upended by the pandemic, however, no amount of money is sufficient to overcome stay-at-home orders and a switch to virtual learning. In many instances, grandparents or others, especially elderly relatives, have stepped back from providing care because of COVID-19 health concerns. If children are too old for pre-school but too young to be self-sufficient learners, research shows parents are obliged to provide more intense levels of care than they’re used to, with productivity and labour force participation the victims.
As such, an issue that until now had disproportionately impacted lower income families has now had an undeniable impact on Canadians of all stripes. By extension, a long-neglected concern has become a front-of-mind issue for parents of all economic backgrounds, and their employers.
With childcare’s relevance as an economic enabler so abundantly clear to all, the impact of its absence felt by many instead of just an unfortunate few, now is the time to examine policy and make the necessary investments to improve delivery systems, so that the post-COVID economy is one where childcare is accessible for all who need it.
As things stand, Canadians living in different jurisdictions face different access to childcare and pay wildly different amounts for the service. Ontario provides publicly funded kindergarten for children beginning in the year they turn four, while Quebec provides subsidized childcare for all children under the age of five. In the other jurisdictions, childcare is typically considered a private responsibility.
In such an environment, parents face a broad range of childcare costs depending on location. According to research from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the median monthly cost to provide care for a toddler ranges from $175 per month in Quebec to $1367 per month in Toronto. To address these discrepancies, provincial governments should adopt childcare systems that give parents equitable access to care, regardless of their income.
While such an approach will undoubtedly cost taxpayer money to build and fund, Quebec data compiled by UQAM economics professor Dr. Pierre Fortin has shown that the public expenditure would be more than offset by the economic gains that result from creating conditions to increase labour market participation for parents, primarily young women. Former Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz has estimated that if a Quebec-style childcare system was adopted across the country, it could add 300,000 women to Canada’s workforce.
The impact of adding hundreds of thousands of workers to the labour force extends far beyond those directly affected, improving the economic outlook for those without children as much as it does for parents.
The idea that access to childcare is an issue affecting all Canadians is shared by the Business Council of Canada. In a recent pre-budget letter to Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland the council presented six recommendations, including a call to improve the affordability and reliability of childcare as a way to allow more women to return to the workforce.
Forging an equitable recovery from the scourge of COVID-19 will require the development of many different policy planks and programs. As swathes of harried, unproductive parents (and their employers) now know, childcare must assuredly be one of them.
The pandemic has made the importance of affordable childcare abundantly clear to all. In this environment, it is essential that we seize the opportunity and capitalize on the attention by working to find lasting, equitable solutions to an issue that has been overlooked far too long.