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With daycare deal, province signals end to any debate

Any debate over whether the government should be sinking billions of tax dollars into daycare schemes is pretty much dead at this point. Ontario is the latest province to sign on with Ottawa’s $10-a-day childcare plan.

The province this week agreed to a $13.2 billion deal to lower the daily cost to $10 by 2025. There’s also a pledge to create 86,000 new licensed early learning and childcare spaces in Ontario.

With the provinces signing on, the issue is no longer the ideological battleground it was for years. Those on the right argue against any involvement, saying child rearing is a personal responsibility. On the left, you’ll find proponents of universal daycare, something akin to the school system. The financial concerns have now been swept aside.

As with all its spending, the government refers to daycare spending as an investment that will create jobs and foster economic growth, encouraging more women to join the workforce. There have been plenty of studies to that effect.

Having pushed for $10-a-day childcare in last year’s budget, Ottawa went about bringing the provinces on board in a cost-sharing arrangement.

As critics have pointed out, provinces have plenty of reasons to be wary of Ottawa’s proposal to split the costs 50/50. The risk is that once the program is firmly established, the federal government may begin pulling back from its 50-per-cent position, as history indicates is likely given the experience with the likes of housing, welfare and, most notably, health care.

Likewise, the program is likely to fall prey to the standard government practice of program bloat and internal entitlements becoming entrenched. Costs rise, administrative fees blossom and the taxpayers make up for the ever-widening gap between initial estimates and the reality of everyone getting a bigger cut. As with all budget deliberations, there is a rationale for every spending request. Taken in isolation, each may make sense, but the public is always afflicted by empire-building and incremental growth.

Well-considered spending is never on the agenda. That’s how we end up with today’s runaway spending, massive deficits and even larger debts.

Deficits abound at both the federal and provincial levels, and Ottawa has more revenue levers, and the ability to download costs. Experience says that will happen, bringing higher taxes and more liabilities for provinces.

Proponents preach about the benefits to families that will see their expenses fall. In the region, for instance, the median cost of daycare is $1,200 per month. A $10 per day program would greatly reduce that cost to individual families.

Those savings have never been at issue: spreading out the cost to every taxpayer reduces the impact on users of such programs. The real debate has been about the fairness of such a universal program, a battle that quickly becomes ideological – individual rights versus socialism – and pragmatic, given the propensity of politicians and bureaucrats to expand their reach and their grip on the public’s wallets.

The federal government has argued in favour of sharing the cost, dipping into everybody’s pockets for a perceived greater good. By joining in, Ontario now agrees. Just as we all pay for schools whether or not we’ve got children, or our children have left school, a universal daycare system provides a societal benefit that warrants public spending.

Perhaps the best option would have been to target only those low-income or single-parent families where heavily subsidized daycare is the only alternative to social assistance. Neither earlier everybody-gets-a-pittance plans nor the institutional approach is appropriate in that case. Scale it back and make it targeted – the taxpayers will come out ahead.

That’s now how it will be with daycare. We can expect more trips down the same rabbit hole.

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