Empowering women – and the economy – through quality childcare

  • March 12, 2018
  • Debbie A. Douglas

Women’s participation in the workforce has been shown to boost the economy, and easily accessible and affordable childcare boosts women’s participation in the workforce. It follows that better childcare can lead to a better overall economy.

The Royal Commission on the Status of Women first recommended a universal childcare program in 1970. And while such a program has been studied and recommended again several times since then, we are no closer to actually having one than we were nearly 50 years ago.

The fact that women are primarily responsible for child-rearing and thus more absent from the workforce than men, and for longer periods of time, is an oft-cited reason for a persistent and well-documented wage gap between the sexes. Gordon Cleveland of the Broadbent Institute aptly states "women bear the negative employment effects of rearing children. This set of issues is often described as a problem of work-family balance. For women, family and work are often in conflict." 

On average, women earn less than men, and do the lowest-paid and least secure forms of work, while continuing to perform the lion’s share of housework and child-rearing. Finding a balance between fully participating in the workforce, which most women want and/or need to do, and shouldering those traditional roles at home becomes their biggest challenge.

A universal childcare program that provides accessible, affordable and quality childcare would help women find that balance regardless of their place on the income scale, but would be particularly helpful for those at the lower end, where incomes might not cover the cost of childcare, particularly in Canada’s larger cities. In Toronto childcare can cost as much as $19,788 a year for one toddler, according to a study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. A Toronto family with a toddler and a pre-schooler will pay $28,000 a year for childcare, which is about half the median after-tax income of a family in the city, the study says.

In 1998 the province of Quebec introduced a publicly funded childcare program that serves 70 per cent of the population at a current cost of $7 per day. In Montreal, for example, the average cost is $164 a month. As a result, there has been in increase in the participation of women in the labour force and in post-secondary education in comparison with the rest of Canada. While British Columbia recently announced a plan for a universal $10-a-day childcare program, these two provinces are outliers in making accessible, affordable childcare a government policy.

"Good-quality affordable childcare (along with changes in men’s roles) should reduce the motherhood penalty in wages, allow women to take a greater share of senior management roles in the economy, and encourage girls to imagine broader horizons,” Gordon Cleveland wrote in his Broadbent Institute blog post.

Affordable childcare should not be seen as a privilege, but a right. As Postmedia columnist Daphne Bramham writes, citing statistics from the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of British Columbia, “Children would be the biggest beneficiaries (of universal childcare) in both the short and long term. Studies have found that those who had access to early childhood education are healthier. They are better educated as adults, less likely to be involved in crime and more likely to have higher incomes, which — put directly — translates into more and better taxpayers."

A universal childcare program not only stimulates the flow of resources into families but could bolster the quality of work that women could offer, thus expanding their companies’ bottom line. As a social policy, the private and public sectors must introduce progressive parental leave and promote flex-work. This would provide wider economic stability and more targeted social mobility and enhanced social welfare for children. Not surprisingly and by implication, the generational benefits of a universal childcare program outweigh the investment costs.

Debbie A. Douglas is a student member of the Women Lawyers Forum