Canada Government Welfare state

On childcare in Ricochet

I forgot to post the piece I wrote on the NDP’s universal childcare proposal for Ricochet. Here it is belatedly. It was published last weekend and tries to situate the childcare proposal in the context of broader changes to the welfare state.

Why the NDP’s childcare proposal has irritated all the right people

The NDP’s universal childcare proposal has the right wing up in arms. Political opponents are playing up the spectre of big government. Their mouthpieces in the media are also predictably upset. The proposed program will be big spending, freedom limiting and unaffordable, they say. Social media too has lit up with the pundits out in force, trying to score gotcha points.

This reaction is wholly unsurprising, even when in reality the NDP’s proposal is modest.

The program is designed to be universal, but the provinces will decide how to deliver it. Parents who use it will pay up to $15 per day. It will be implemented gradually. Yet with the welfare state slowly withering away, even this relatively barebones social-democratic reform considered elemental in many Northern democracies is a big ask.

The right talks the language of equality

Much about universal childcare rankles the right wing, some of whom have recently taken up the torch of equality to defend us against the horrors of childminding for all.

Specifically, much has been made of the fact that in the first two years of Quebec’s $7-per-day childcare, use of the program went up according to income. Around half of all households with children in the top three-quarters of income distribution used the program, yet only a quarter of those in the bottom 25 per cent of income distribution did so. (There is no data, but certainly the very richest percentiles were less likely to use it; they can afford nannies or the best of private care centres.) In one sense, this equality talk shouldn’t cause surprise. The unequal distribution of the costs and benefits of programs such as universal childcare reflects on the grossly inegalitarian society in which we live. The lowest paid have the most precarious work, often part-time and at odd hours, while subsidized childcare is primarily 9 to 5.

As inequality ratchets upwards, the heyday of the welfare state falls farther into the past. Government expenditure as a percentage of GDP has recently fallen to record lows not seen since the 1940s, continuing a long downward trend started in the 1980s. Even the Quebec childcare program, while nominally universal, actually covers just 68 per cent of childcare needs outside the home.

In essence, the right wing is using the effects of neoliberalism to argue against any attempt to reverse long-term cutbacks to public services.

In fact, using equality as a defence against universal childcare ignores evidence that elsewhere it has worked to alleviate some long-term inequality. For example, a study of universal childcare in Norway produced a very interesting finding. The authors tracked two groups of people into adulthood, those born in municipalities that had childcare and those born in municipalities that didn’t. At first, the authors found that average salaries in cities with childcare were a bit lower. Looking more closely, however, they saw that working- and middle-class adults in cities with childcare were getting a sizeable earnings boost. The average effect was close to zero because those at the top experienced the opposite. In short, universal childcare worked to, as the authors write, “level the playing field.”

Missing the target

Overall, the experience of 20th-century welfare states shows that public services have a far greater chance of sustaining broad popular support if they are universal and funded enough to achieve high quality. Otherwise, as Petter Nilsson writes in relation to Sweden’s threatened welfare state, they become a “‘fall back alternative in a dull grey color’ and the system collapses.” A strong universal service today would necessitate a wide coalition of the middle and working classes, ready to tolerate some inequities to accomplish a broader, long-term political goal.

In the meantime, the right wants exactly the opposite. Targeted programs that seek to provide small-scale solutions to the most “deprived” are their measure of choice — ideally privately provided on the market. This is the liberal model that fills the gaps caused by a shrinking welfare state, rather than expands the welfare state to equalize society…

Read the rest here.

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