Child care also an austerity victim

August 29, 2023

Previously published in the Winnipeg Free Press August 29, 2023

Manitoba billboards promoting $10/day childcare create the perception that the Province of Manitoba has increased funding and support for childcare. The reality is quite different. Despite provincial ELCC spending being higher than it was in 2016, federal funding accounts for all of the increase. All new childcare spending since 2017 has been thanks to transfers from Ottawa. As a result, our province appears to be congratulating itself for what are really new national investments in childcare.

Despite the rosy picture painted by billboards, early learning and childcare in Manitoba has struggled through austerity under Premiers Pallister and Stefanson. A close look reveals a government failing to invest, harming the early childhood educator workforce, and promoting privatization, with damaging effects on children and families.

Few parents and children have access to a licensed childcare space. When Premier Pallister took office in 2016, there was a licensed childcare space for fewer than one in five children under age 12. Today, there is a still licensed childcare space for fewer than one in five childrenOther provinces averaged an annual growth of 3.6% over the past decade, while Manitoba averaged 1.2%.

When the Progressive Conservatives took office, there was one certified educator for every 11.3 licensed spaces: the ratio had worsened to one educator for every 14.3 children in 2022 – basically a 25 percent reduction. Like nurses, teachers, and other providers of essential services, early childhood educators have left the sector under the weight of austerity, inadequate funding, overwork, and poor pay. By our calculations, Manitoba is currently facing a shortfall of about 1,000 qualified early childhood educators.

To understand this loss, we need to know how childcare is delivered and funded. Almost all regulated childcare spaces in our province (92%) are provided by non-profit licensed centres.. The remainder of are provided by licensed family homes. Provincial operating grants to centres were frozen for six consecutive fiscal years at 2016 levels, despite hefty increases to family homes. While operating grants finally rose by 12 percent last summer, they still lagged well behind the rising operating costs..

Frozen operating funding forced parent-run board of directors into desperate straits. Strained to manage rising costs (like rent, supplies, toys, and snacks), programs had to cut staffing costs. Over three-quarters of childcare staff who filled in our survey report that the quality of care they offer has suffered. One experienced educator told us “the job has become more and more stressful and undervalued throughout the years” while another reported “continually feeling like this essential work with children is at the bottom of the rung.” As the Free Press recently editorialized, “It didn’t have to be this way. Years of austerity made this.”Data shows that Manitoba has cumulatively spent close to $21 million less on early learning and childcare than it would have if 2017 spending levels had simply remained constant, even before accounting for either inflation adjustments or increases in the number of spaces across the past five fiscal years.

An impressive 95 percent of centres in Manitoba are non-profit, which research shows offers higher quality of care. Yet since assuming office, Premiers Pallister and Stefanson have sought to stimulate a commercial childcare sector, offering lucrative tax credits to businesses to start up childcare. They amended legislation to open up public early learning and childcare dollars to for-profit operations.. In 2019, when she was still Minister of Families, Heather Stefanson lamented that “the private sector is underrepresented” in Manitoba childcare compared to other provinces.

Manitoba already has a small supply of for-profit childcare centres. Fees in this ‘market’ sector are high. One national study found that in Winnipeg, for-profit infant care costs well over twice the cost of care in non-profits). For now, the new $10/day plan does not apply in commercial facilities,, but as one news report observed, “private daycares want piece of funding.” This is worrisome for Manitoba, because in jurisdictions with high rates of commercial care, quality standards and regulations tend to be low.

Childcare is an essential service, meeting multiple goals when it is done well. It supports children and families, helps parents reconcile caregiving and breadwinning. and is part of

Indigenous reconciliation, being among the calls to action made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Early learning and childcare brings children from diverse backgrounds together, creating welcoming sites of social inclusion. Good access to quality childcare helps combat poverty, making it particularly needed by low-income parents. Studies have repeatedly shown that investing in high-quality non-profit early childhood care and education more than pays for itself. Future governments would be well-advised to reverse course on the current costly austerity and privatization agenda.

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