Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Thinking about: Early Learning and Childcare

I’m back from a week and a bit back in B.C. visiting family and what not, and have ended my temporary blogging prorogation. It’s good to take a break every once and awhile to recharge the blogging batteries. I certainly picked a busy time to prorogue too, with a bevy of on-target Liberal policy stories, some very positive polls, some interesting legal developments, and more channel-change attempts from Conservaland than you can shake a stick at.

It will take a little while to get caught-up and offer some perspective in what I’d say was a very good week for the Liberals, but I did first want to talk about Michael Ignatieff’s comments Monday on Early Learning and Childcare.

Michael Ignatieff won't let the biggest deficit in Canadian history stop him from promising that a Liberal government would make major investments in child care.

The Liberal Leader told reporters yesterday that there is no better way to increase productivity, social justice and equality across the country than by putting money into programs that give children a head start.

Mr. Ignatieff would not put a price tag on the kind of child-care program he envisions, saying that it would depend on the financial situation at the time his party took power.

But, he said, “we will find the money because it seems to me to be an excellent investment.

“[The Conservatives] are saying you can't invest in anything that makes this a fairer country because we have a $56-billion deficit,” Mr. Ignatieff said. “Well, who created it in the first place? I am not going to allow the deficit discussion to shut down the discussion in this country about social justice.”

As the Toronto Star notes, we need both details about the program proposed and pricing information, and I trust both will be forthcoming before we’re into an election campaign. But this is a welcome commitment from Ignatieff for a number of reasons: it reclaims strong Liberal ground, positions Ignatieff to the left of centre countering the traditional narrative on him, and it draws sharp contrasts between the Liberal and Conservatives on an important policy question.

Before getting into the substantive “why” of why a strong commitment to early learning and childcare is important, let’s dispense with the criticisms and the political angles.

The Politics

Sure, the Liberals have long been talking about early learning and childcare, and have been slow to deliver. Fair enough. Let’s not forget though that, before the opposition parties pulled the plug, Paul Martin and Ken Dryden were delivering. The last Liberal government had signed child care agreements with the majority of the provinces that saw hundreds of millions of dollars flow in long-term agreements that created thousands of spaces. The reverberations of the Conservatives allowing those agreements to expire are now being felt across the country, as most of those spaces disappear from a system already short of capacity.

We need to acknowledge our historical failings, but also talk about the impressive progress we have made on this file that these critics decide to ignore, and how we can, and will, do better, and do more. And even if some people are skeptical of our commitment, frankly, why should that deter us? It’s the right thing to do, and that’s enough. Let them doubt us, make the commitment and then, if we get the chance, follow through.

That’s from the left. On the right, the Conservatives will complain of a) the cost, and b) restricting choice. First of all, with few details available on the Liberal plan, to say (as Ryan Sparrow did) that it would restrict parental choices is pure speculation, if not outright fiction.

Indeed, since the Liberals say they won’t kill the Conservatives’ laughable (and taxable) $100 monthly child care cheques, the Liberal program would seem to be adding choice, not restricting it. And with the Conservatives having failed to even come close to creating the spaces they'd promised (actually, we're now further behind) thanks to Stephen Harper parents have less and less choice every day.

On price, mes amis over at the National Post raise an interesting objection:
Mr. Ignatieff hasn't indicated whether he intends his program to cover every family in Canada, regardless of income. If the Liberal leader does intend the plan to be universal, then he's peddling a bad idea: Most of the children who take part likely will not benefit in any statistically appreciable way, and the program will simply amount to a multi-billion dollar transfer payment from government to parents.
Makes me wonder if the Post editors would support a program for low-income families only were that proposed? I suspect they’d find objections too, complaining of all the middle-class families left out. But some people need something to be opposed to.

But assuming it is a universal program (which I’m inclined to favour) let me reframe the question: why would the Conservatives and the Post not favour what is akin to a targeted major tax cut to working Canadian families?

Because that, in essence, is what we’d be talking about. For many Canadian families, child care is a major expense. A government program would sharply reduce or even reduce that expense, potentially leaving families with hundreds of extra dollars in their pockets. The Conservatives are all about targeted tax relief. So change the framing: why would the Conservatives oppose saving Canadian families thousands of dollars a year?

And on the larger issue of balancing the cost of investment versus the budget situation, frankly, that’s going to be a consideration with any policy proposal of import by any party. And certainty the Conservatives have no credible claim to budgetary responsibility. Yes, prudence will be needed and choices will have to be made. But investment cannot stop and, if we’re setting priorities, I’d stack early learning and child care up against Conservative priorities any day of the week, and I think Canadians will too. Some things will always be important, and this is one.

The Policy

To segue more over to the policy side, there are strong arguments to be made for investments on early learning and childcare paying dividends to the treasury anyways. For those families unable to afford childcare today, a program will allow them to return to work, or work more, contributing more to the economy (and generating more tax revenue for the government.) For those parents already working, the money saved can be invested in other areas that can also create economic opportunity and generate tax revenue.

That’s short-term. Longer-term, as I talked about in my Thinking about: Education piece, a healthy and educated person gets a better job, lives longer, creates more economic opportunity and generates more tax revenue for the government. There’s no doubt that investments in education and in early childhood learning are returned in surplus. And it’s important to begin with early childhood learning: a child that gets a good start and gains a love of learning early will have greater success as they make their way through the education system, and have a greater chance of success in life.

Lastly, let me say that as the details of the Liberal proposal are decided, keeping an element of parental choice, and prominently acknowledging the importance of choice, is important. The system should be flexible, and that has been a failing of past Liberal proposals. I don’t propose a payment for opting-out, I wouldn’t go beyond leaving the $100/month cheque program in place there. Flexibility otherwise is important though.

Anyway, as I said more details must be forthcoming, but I like the positioning and the messaging from Ignatieff here.

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Woman at Mile 0 said...

All good points Jeff. Agree with you here completely.

Eugene Forsey Liberal said...

A good serious post that deserved more commentary - hence mine. I hope you do more of this and less squeamish partisan stuff.

rockfish said...

You forget to mention that, from studies, early childhood education/learning programs create more responsible citizens, more active citizens, and also addresses what is one of the CONs big bugaboos - reduces criminality.
Of course, we know Harper really doesn't want to solve the one issue that keeps on giving, right?