May 7, 2009

Why young children’s education and care are not priorities in this election


It seems clear that policy-makers in this province (and country, for that matter) are not prepared to invest in a quality early education and childcare system, despite the proven benefits for children. The reasons have got to be political, as the economic case for investing in early childhood education and care has already been made (for an excellent summary, check out Old Dollars, New Sense: Recent Evidence and Arguments about Child Care Spending in the latest issue of the CCPA journal Our Schools / Our Selves, which was dedicated to child care).

What surprises me is that we don’t hear more outraged voices on this issue, considering the large number of people who stand to benefit from an expanded and improved childcare system. Pieta Woolley reminds us that:

Given that about 30.4 percent of British Columbians live in a household with kids 12 or under, the child-care issue theoretically affects more citizens than seniors’ issues (14.6 percent of B.C. is 65 or older), aboriginal issues (4.8 percent of the B.C. population is status), and public transit (4.7 percent take transit to work; all numbers according to the 2006 census).

UBC’s Paul Kershaw, assistant professor of political science, proposes an interesting theory as to why childcare is neglected in this year’s party platforms:

1. The costs scare politicians.
“By today’s standards,” he said, “it’s relatively expensive. And by that I mean we haven’t had to create a new social program in quite some time, as we did having to create health care and unemployment insurance and pensions. These are very expensive programs, but they’ve become normalized so we don’t view them as such. Health case is $15 billion, and childcare is $1.5 billion, so it’s no small chunk of change for any provincial budget. That’s one of the key reasons it’s a hot potato.”

2. Politicians won’t fund health promotion.
“We’re wonderful about treating illness after the fact. We will spend hundreds of thousands—if not millions—to save one preterm baby, but we are very uncomfortable about promoting housing for families with children that is affordable, or making the case that no one goes hungry in our province, or is homeless. Even when you get into the middle class, and childcare is largely a middle class issue, we don’t seem too concerned that we get these kids off to a good start in life. We let parents put together a patchwork of inadequate supports. We could really do so much to promote health if we go it right in the early years.”

3. Feminist arguments are considered fringy by politicians.
“No one wants to talk about gender inequality anymore….Even when both parents work full-time, women shoulder the responsible to shoulder childcare alternatives when regular care falls through, they stay home when the kids are sick. That’s just how houses are making decisions. Just 15 percent of people taking parental leave are men….Public policy seems content to say, women, figure it out yourselves….We are content to burn out women.”

4. The baby boomers are a “Canadian blight”.

“We are unwilling to ask tough questions about generational inequality….This is the generation that has their hands on the levers of power that’s tolerating 30 percent of our school-age population showing up vulnerable. These intergenerational justice questions are getting sidelined, because the dominant question seniors are wanting to ask is how much money is going to be there for me to get that next knee replacement. We need to make sure people are comfortable and cared for, but before we start debating whether people are eligible for three knee replacements, I think we really do want to think about what it means to promote health over the lifecourse and get that part right.”

I find the last point particularly interesting, as it starts raising questions about generational inequality. Can it be that politicians pay more attention to seniors because unlike children, seniors can vote? Consider also that seniors traditionally have high voter turnout rates, much higher than those of young people, the group that includes most parents of young children.

I hope I’m not being too cynical here. But it would be nice if the parties running for election would do something to dispel that cynicism. (if I may borrow from the conclusion of a recent Paul Krugman blog post)

For more excellent coverage on childcare in the election campaign, check out Ms Woolley’s articles Parties mum on time lines for child-care plans, Political parties ignore recent government-written plan for childcare and UBC prof gives four reasons BC isn’t delivering childcare.

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