Why Can’t Toronto Get Child Care Right?
Councillor Janet Davis on how we got into the mess we're in—and how to get out.
When you read this, the child care budget dance will be all but over. Mayor John Tory will have sashayed into the spotlight to announce he’s reversed the cut to school-based child care grants and increased fee subsidies for low-income families. And parents across the city who rallied and wrote can take full credit for moving him onto the dance floor.
Last month, in defence of his budget proposal, the mayor said he was “re-purposing” funds by taking them from families who can afford to pay fees and giving them to families who can’t. But parents facing the highest child care fees in the country balked—then organized.
The 2017 child care dance began with a proposed budget that included no new fee subsidies—despite 17,724 children on the wait list as recently as February 3. Fee subsidies help make child care more affordable for eligible families. They are paid by the City to child care centres on behalf of families deemed eligible through a provincially-defined income test.
Subsidies not only help families struggling to afford child care, they also ensure the financial viability of child care centres. Most child care is delivered by community-based not-for-profit centres. Over the past five years, licensed child care spaces have grown by 16,000, funded, in part, through city and provincial capital funds. But they grew without the addition of more fee subsidies, and the existing pool of 26,000 fee subsidies has been spread wider and thinner, leaving centres with vacant spaces and financial instability. A recent staff report said we need 5,000 new subsidies just to restore the proportion of subsidies to 2010 levels.
The budget also proposes closing Capri Child Care Centre and its 36 spaces located in a TCHC building in an underserved area of Etobicoke. Staff say the building needs one million dollars in updates, and children can be moved to other centres. This is a budget-driven, short-sighted, poorly-planned decision that will disrupt the lives of many families and children and reduce access for others in the future. A renovated or new centre should have been built before this one closed.
Lastly, the most contentious aspect of the budget is a proposed cut of $1.13 million to eliminate the Child Care Occupancy Grants, which pay utility and operating costs of school-based child care. The provincially-imposed education funding formula does not fund child care space. Since 1998, the City has paid $5.82 million per year to cover the occupancy costs for 25,490 licensed child care spaces in schools. This reduces the operating cost and parent fees by about $350 per year per child. Under the proposed budget, the City would continue to pay for the costs for subsidized families—about 40 per cent of the spaces.
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reports median monthly child care fees in Toronto have risen to $1,649 for infants, $1,375 for toddlers, and $1,150 for preschoolers. What’s another $350 per year when you’re already paying as much as $20,000 annually for a child care space? It’s the breaking point for many families. It’s a critical factor in the decision to go back to work for thousands of women. But look at the child care fee increase from another perspective: $350 is 3.5 times the proposed $96 tax increase ($8 per month or 26 cents per day) on the average house.
Through this budget, the decades-old debate has been reignited: who is responsible for child care and who should pay for it? Should governments fund child care costs for all parents or target resources to low-income families? The City already funds 15 per cent of the operating budgets of all licensed child care through a “General Operating Grant.” Direct operating funding has been part of the child care system for decades. All families need support to find and pay for child care.
Once this budget is approved, and the annual child care cha-cha is finished, the real work begins. Toronto families deserve a strong voice at City Hall and contributing partners with the federal and provincial governments to build the city’s child care system.
A report slated for the April City Council meeting will propose a multi-year child care “growth strategy” for Toronto. It will be a blueprint for building the high-quality, affordable child care system families so desperately need, and a test of the leadership parents expect.
After all, parents have waited long enough. Honourable Robert Welch, a well-respected cabinet minister in the Conservative government of Bill Davis, said it well in 1984:
“Childcare is no longer a welfare issue, concerning only the needy. It is as well an employment and economic issue concerning all working parents of all income levels. Either we take the action required to ensure the provision of a range of reliable childcare services at an affordable price or we risk losing many of the gains women have won, and endangering the economic independence of families.”
How many more generations must families wait?
Janet Davis is the city councillor for Ward 31, Beaches–East York.
This article has corrected a sentence that referred to the Capri Child Care Centre being renovated instead of closed.