Spotlight Exclusives

What the U.S. Can Learn From Canada’s ‘$10-a-Day’ Child Care Policy

Elliot Haspel Elliot Haspel, posted on

The lack of  available, affordable, quality child care for American families has become increasingly acute since the pandemic. The child care sector has never recovered from the shock of COVID and pandemic-era federal supports began phasing out at the end of September. Some experts are suggesting that the U.S. can learn from its neighbor to the north, as Canada instituted a new national child care policy five years ago. Child and family policy expert Elliot Haspel, author of  “Crawling Behind: America’s Child Care Crisis and How to Fix It,” has studied the Canadian system and how it might offer insights for U.S. policymakers. Haspel spoke recently to Spotlight; the transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Why don’t we start with Canada and what they’re doing and how that might impact us?

I think Canada is providing a near-peer precedent for what it looks like when a country finally starts putting public money behind a child care system. So, Canada as of 20 years ago, was very similar to the U.S. in terms of having a deeply market-based system—very expensive for parents, very low wages for educators, a highly inadequate supply, really questionable quality, doesn’t really work for anyone. And then steadily starting with Quebec in 1997, but then especially throughout the past 20 years, they’ve been building momentum for a nationally supported but locally run system. And that culminated with what’s called the $10-a-day child care system.

They are putting in $30 billion Canadian over five years, which with a crude adjustment for population is somewhere around $250 billion U.S. over five years. So, a really significant amount of funding, and they’re already starting to see some really significant impacts. In many provinces, most families have already seen fee cuts up to 50% and $10-a-Day sites are coming online where parents are seeing their child care bills go down to $2,400 a year or less if they’re lower income. But at the same time, programs are getting the funding to operate more sustainably.

Things aren’t perfect. They’re still having workforce challenges there—the current debate is what do we do to get wages up to a place where the workforce is more sustainable? But it is absolutely a precedent we can look to. We kind of look around and despair, seeing that our childcare system is awful and how are we ever going to, to have one that’s functional? But we can say, actually, other countries have faced the same problem.

And for the average Canadian parent, just for our readers, how does this work? The impact is more on providers?

It is more of a supply-side intervention. What that means is that the parents’ fees go down because the providers are getting public funding. If you’re a child care provider, you can get money to operate your program only from three places. You get it from parents, you can get it from corporations or some private entities, or you can get it from the government. And so, what’s happening for parents is basically their share of the contribution is going significantly down because the government share is increasing. It’s going to take a while to get to a true $10-a-day model, and that’s the goal. What they’re doing is the making the goal is to cut all parent fees in half as a temporary measure.

Canada is obviously a very different political culture, but are there things they did to build support for this that we should learn from?

I think part of the lesson is the way that they advocated for it was by coming up with very simple messages and just reinforcing them over and over and over again. We’re going to have more spaces; we’re going to have better choices; we’re going to have lower fees – very simple, six-word statements they could repeat. And it’s the $10-a-day slogan too. Nothing magic about $10 a day. It could be $8 a day, it could be $11 a day. It’s a sticky slogan.

It’s also a message that shows that the government is doing something positive for children and families and which begins to push back against socio-cultural barriers to the idea that it’s proper for government to support parents in this way.

Some of that was done through just getting these broad coalitions together, getting politicians to say this out loud, and having very public campaigns and rallies. And the last thing I’ll say is, it’s hard to talk about the Canadian story without talking about the role that female leadership has had in it. When Quebec started this movement, their premier was a woman, as is the current Finance Minister, Chrystia Freeland, who’s been instrumental in this. And so, I think part of this story is also the rising political power, not that child care should be a women’s issue. Look over at Germany and Angela Merkel was instrumental in a lot of their child care reform. So, in as much as the U.S. can continue to have women in positions of leadership, I think the better off that we’re going to be.

And does the policy offer any benefits for families that are caring for their kids at home? I know that’s something that you’ve pointed out is a major political stumbling block here.

Not to my knowledge. There’s some suggestion that provinces can try to basically create almost like hubs of offerings so that a $10-a- day center is existing next to an in-home family child care provider and next to services for stay-at-home parents. But it is primarily focused on more formal, licensed types of child care, which is a criticism that has been levied at it.

Let’s talk about where you see things are in this country, as we’ve gone through the pandemic and the government supports have now lapsed. Certainly, you would think that the moment is ripe for some sort of child care legislation, but it doesn’t seem like it’s necessarily anywhere on the horizon.

It does not appear that any major federal legislation’s going to move anytime soon, but I agree that the conditions are increasingly in place for some sort of grand compromise. And what I mean by that is child care is a pain point in red states and blue states, in rural areas and urban areas. There is the issue of making sure that there’s a strong labor force, making sure that businesses are able to operate without having a constant kind of churn of employees or loss of productivity. But it’s also on a very human level, a level of family values. We’re seeing families that are not able to stay in the communities that they want to stay in. It goes to the health of entire communities, or families being able to have the number of kids that they want to have. And all of that means that regardless of whether one loves the idea of an external childcare system existing, like you need to reckon with it if you’re a policymaker.

As to why this isn’t happening, I think there are probably a couple of causes of that. One is the willingness to have a conversation about how you’re going to pay for it. Senator Kennedy, the Republican from Louisiana, made some comments at a Senate hearing the other week on child care where he basically said that supporting child care, and I’m paraphrasing, is like supporting puppies. Everyone can get behind the idea, but how are you going to pay for it? That can be an abstraction to avoid talking about the issue, but it’s also a real question. It’s not an inexpensive service to provide, even if it’s an investment that ultimately pays a lot of the investment back. Where is that money going to come from? We need for folks from the right and the left to start providing some options because I do think there’s generally some agreement on the core idea that the current system isn’t working.

The second thing I would say is that policy wise, there does need to be a conversation in the U.S. in particular about more inclusive child care. We should want parents to be able to have whatever kind of child care they need and prefer, and that works for their family. And that could include licensed child care, that could include faith-based child care. That could include an in-home family child care provider that’s licensed or that could include a friend, a family or neighbor. It can include a stay-at-home parent. And all of those can be very valid, very high-quality settings for kids. But most policy proposals on the table do tend to focus more disproportionately on the licensed formal care.

I think the other thing is that there isn’t a lot of parent power, so to speak, on this issue. And it’s been pointed out by others, like Dana Suskind, that there’s no equivalent of an AARP for parents—there’s no union for parents to speak of. And so, the fact is, we see parents will often come together and rally on certain issues, whether that’s Moms Demand Action on gun control or Moms For Liberty on the side of some of the cultural issues on the right. But child care has traditionally not been one of those issues, and sociologists have theories that this has to do with the sense that it is transgressive to ask for government help with something that is coded as an individual family responsibility. It’s as if something is wrong with you if you have to ask for help. So, I think there’s a lot of work to be done, particularly at the national level, developing a really large show of force that actually that has parents saying they have the right to demand the government support them in child rearing.

Does it increase the chance some kind of child care legislation that Republicans, post-Roe, are looking for ways to think creatively about pro-family policies?

I think that’s right. You can look in the last Congress and Tim Scott and Richard Burr had a bill that basically took a lot of Democratic principles and would’ve made child care free for everyone making under 75% of the state median income. And with 13 or 14 Republican co-sponsors in the Senate, it was actually filibuster proof. The challenge is, and this goes back to my first point, there was not a dollar of dedicated money—it was an unfunded mandate. But to see a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate basically saying, yes, we accept that this issue is important, and it should be much more deeply affordable for the middle class, that was new. That conversation wasn’t happening five years ago.

I think there’s a temptation to try to think that employers are going to solve this. But I think the people who actually know the policy, or if you just sit with it for five minutes, realize that these sort of incremental solutions don’t solve what is a structural problem.

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