Why the NDP’s childcare proposal has irritated all the right people
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Sid Shniad
2014-10-19 04:26:23 UTC
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*Ricochet October 18, 2014 *
Why the NDP’s childcare proposal has irritated all the right people
*The proposal is modest, but the debate is illuminating*

*Michal Rozworski *

The NDP’s universal childcare proposal has the right wing up in arms.
Political opponents are playing up the spectre
of big government. Their mouthpieces in the media are also predictably
upset. The proposed program will be big spending
freedom limiting
and unaffordable
they say. Social media too has lit up with the pundits out in force, trying
to score gotcha points

This reaction is wholly unsurprising, even when in reality the NDP’s
proposal is modest.

The program is designed to be universal, but the provinces will decide how
to deliver it. Parents who use it will pay up to $15 per day. It will be
implemented gradually. Yet with the welfare state slowly withering away,
even this relatively barebones social-democratic reform considered
elemental in many Northern democracies is a big ask.
The right talks the language of equality

Much about universal childcare rankles the right wing, some of whom have
recently taken up the torch of equality to defend us against the horrors of
childminding for all.

Specifically, much has been made of the fact
that in the first two years of Quebec’s $7-per-day childcare, use of the
program went up according to income. Around half of all households with
children in the top three-quarters of income distribution used the program,
yet only a quarter of those in the bottom 25 per cent of income
distribution did so. (There is no data, but certainly the very richest
percentiles were less likely to use it; they can afford nannies or the best
of private care centres.) In one sense, this equality talk shouldn’t cause
surprise. The unequal distribution of the costs and benefits of programs
such as universal childcare reflects on the grossly inegalitarian society
in which we live. The lowest paid have the most precarious work, often
part-time and at odd hours, while subsidized childcare is primarily 9 to 5.

As inequality ratchets upwards, the heyday of the welfare state falls
farther into the past. Government expenditure as a percentage of GDP has
recently fallen to record lows not seen since the 1940s, continuing a long
downward trend started in the 1980s. Even the Quebec childcare program,
while nominally universal, actually covers just 68 per cent of childcare
needs outside the home.

In essence, the right wing is using the effects of neoliberalism to argue
against any attempt to reverse long-term cutbacks to public services.

In fact, using equality as a defence *against* universal childcare ignores
evidence that elsewhere it has worked to alleviate some long-term
inequality. For example, a study of universal childcare in Norway
<http://www.econstor.eu/bitstream/10419/36832/1/62740314X.pdf> produced a
very interesting finding. The authors tracked two groups of people into
adulthood, those born in municipalities that had childcare and those born
in municipalities that didn’t. At first, the authors found that average
salaries in cities with childcare were a bit lower. Looking more closely,
however, they saw that working- and middle-class adults in cities with
childcare were getting a sizeable earnings boost. The average effect was
close to zero because those at the top experienced the opposite. In short,
universal childcare worked to, as the authors write, “level the playing
Missing the target

Overall, the experience of 20th-century welfare states shows that public
services have a far greater chance of sustaining broad popular support if
they are universal and funded enough to achieve high quality. Otherwise, as
Petter Nilsson writes
<https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/09/sweden-without-illusions/> in relation
to Sweden’s threatened welfare state, they become a “‘fall back alternative
in a dull grey color’ and the system collapses.” A strong universal service
today would necessitate a wide coalition of the middle and working classes,
ready to tolerate some inequities to accomplish a broader, long-term
political goal.

In the meantime, the right wants exactly the opposite. Targeted programs
that seek to provide small-scale solutions to the most “deprived” are their
measure of choice — ideally privately provided on the market. This is the
liberal model that fills the gaps caused by a shrinking welfare state,
rather than expands the welfare state to equalize society.

Indeed, some of the main forms of delivering new social services under the
most recent Conservative and Liberal governments have been transfers as
well as tax credits, rebates and exemptions. Such measures are the basis of
the current patchwork childcare system, but they merely support incomes
rather than directly provide services. This includes the Conservatives’
main childcare policy: the monthly $100 transfer for every child under the
age of six (rumoured to soon include all children under 13). Incidentally,
this transfer is universal — so much for targeting.

Transfers and tax measures have their place, but they are not in themselves
transformative of the conditions that generate inequality. So Quebec, for
example, has a tax refund for those who do not use subsidized childcare
that is slowly clawed back with higher incomes, but this is on top of a
universal program.

If the right is so suddenly concerned about equality, there are lots of
measures to advocate for, including those that could help fund universal
childcare. The list is long: from not squandering billions on income
to fully taxing capital gains (such as labour income) to reversing
corporate tax cuts and more.

While caring for children is an essential task, it is also an unequally
distributed chore according to gender and made difficult by unequal
material circumstances. A universal system of childcare would at least give
more mothers more choice about how to use their time and facilitate their
participation in the workforce if they choose. In addition, and especially
if it were publicly delivered, it could improve working conditions for
childcare workers, standardize curricula and levels of care and increase
efficiency via economies of scale.
Idealism right and left

For the moment, the NDP proposal fits the times. It is expansive in form
with limits on content. The leeway given to provinces to design their own
systems means that they could simply fund spaces at for-profit childcare
centres. The $15 per day will still pose a struggle for some families.
Keeping the $100-per-month Universal Child Care Benefit put in place by the
Tories will assuage that, but the question is whether it is worth keeping
the credit rather than increasing funds for direct public childcare
delivery to augment quality.

None of this detracts from the need for a universal program. Even with
these limits, the challenge to implement any universal program will be
political, not technical. It will be much harder to build a large
constituency of support than a final policy document.

Indeed, when the right talks about the need for funding targeted at those
with the lowest incomes, it is they who are being the most idealistic.
Where is the political constituency to provide an expensive
$1,000-per-month subsidy to only the lowest income families? Employers, for
the moment, appear happy to gain more workers and manage labour costs via
means other than getting more women into the workforce.

Altogether, any struggle for a universal program in the present is bound to
be contradictory. The challenge that the growth in inequality poses for
motivating and implementing universal programs is a symptom of something
deeper. The lopsided recovery from the financial crisis is but a scene in
the ongoing restructuring of the Canadian economy — one featuring uneven
development in commodity extraction and real estate, benefitting not only
business and the wealthy, but also sections of Canada’s working and middle
classes, which makes broad coalition-building harder.

Yet if we reflect on ideals beyond these difficulties, then we will find
plenty that can underpin universal public programs. Here are just two:
increasing democratic control over important social services and moving
aspects of life outside for-profit market logic.

That such arguments are largely absent from public debate is another
measure of the conscribed political space today. But within that space, the
NDP proposal has sharpened the debate. It has irritated all the right
people and should be pushed forward. We need all the breathing room we can
Michal Rozworski is an economist, writer, researcher and organizer.
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