Premier John Horgan’s government has been playing defence at the legislature the past several weeks over a deceptively simple question: What happened to its promise of universal $10-a-day child care for British Columbians?
Officially, the answer from the premier and his government is that $10-a-day is still coming within the next six years.
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Unofficially? The $10-a-day plan feels like it’s stalled out, just four years after the BC NDP took power with a promise to make it a reality.
That’s left parents scrambling, with disturbing stories about spaces remaining so rare that discrimination and racism can play a role in who gets them.
It’s also left long-time child care advocates, like Sharon Gregson, fuming.
“I think families are discouraged that they are not seeing more progress on the expansion of $10-a-day,” said Gregson. “It’s what people expected.”
The BC NDP earned major support in the 2017 and 2020 elections from cash-strapped Metro Vancouver parents hoping the party would lower child care fees (which can easily reach $2,000 a month in some areas) and shorten wait times for spaces (which can stretch for many years) by implementing a simple and easy-to-understand universal $10-a-day child care system.
Instead, April’s provincial budget was an “amazing disappointment,” said Gregson.
The government only budgeted one-third of the funding promised in the $10-a-day child care plan it used to stump for votes.
Gregson is hopeful it’s a disappointing blip during a pandemic, and the province will return to course next year.
“We’re at least looking for BC budget 2022 to not be the disaster it was in 2021,” she said.
Since the 2017 election, BC has created only 2,500 true $10-a-day spaces, at 53 pilot sites – and all of them were funded by the federal government, not the province.
BC promised to add 3,750 of its own $10-a-day spaces by 2024 in April’s budget.
But it’s just a drop in the bucket of the 53,000 new child care spaces the province estimates it needs to make up the ongoing shortfall facing parents in the next few years.
In the absence of true $10-a-day, the government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on various income-based fee reductions, fee caps, waivers and subsidies, many of which require parents to repeatedly apply for aid.
“It is complex,” said Gregson. “Over the decades (child care) has been allowed to become a play thing for the market. What is obvious to anyone is that supply and demand models don’t work with child care.”
Gregson said the current NDP government has fallen into the same trap as the previous Liberal government — a preoccupation with giving public funds to private sector child care operators and then trumpeting the thousands of spaces it has funded, even as they fail to make a meaningful difference on prices and wait times to parents in the real world.
“I think this government has got quite focused on the number of spaces that can be created,” she said. “The measure of success for the public is not how many spaces are in the works, it’s do we have access to a $10-a-day site?”
BC says it has 26,000 new spaces funded and on the way, though only 6,000 net new licensed spaces have actually opened in recent years.
Roughly 90 per cent of the new spaces are in private pro-profit day care operators, rather than in non-profits or community associations, because the government says the private sector can build faster.
“It’s important to remember we are building a new social program here,” Katrina Chen, BC’s Minister of State for Child Care, said in an interview.
“We have built a strong foundation.”
Chen said approximately 36,000 lower-income families are paying $10-a-day for child care due to various government subsidies and programs, even if they aren’t designated $10-a-day spaces.
“A lot of parents today, if your income is between $70,000-80,000, you are probably paying $10-a-day child care,” she said.
“Those programs together have brought $10-a-day child care to families.”
But that’s not the universal program that was promised, said Gregson.
“The success on child care looks like: can my family get a $10-a-day site, not can I fill out forms every two months so my fees are reduced,” she said. “That’s an invisible benefit.”
One game-changer in BC’s slow progress toward $10-a-day may be the sudden arrival of the federal government to the table, with a promised $30-billion for child care in its April budget.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, on the verge of its own snap election, is looking to steal a page from the Horgan government’s popularity by embracing $10-a-day child care as well.
The infusion of federal cash – perhaps up to $840 million annually for BC – could not only resuscitate the province’s $10-a-day ambitions but perhaps supercharge it into reality faster than Horgan’s original plan.
“It’s entirely do-able,” said Gregson. “We’ve got the money from the feds, and presumably without ongoing provincial money all we need is just the political will to get it going.”
It’s odd to question the political will of a party that made $10-a-day child care a marquee promise in the last two elections – but here we are.
“Is my kid in $10-a-day? That has to remain the goal for government,” said Gregson. “I’m not sure if they’ve remembered that’s what the public wants, and what the public voted for.”