Michael Ignatieff is honouring the ancient Liberal tradition (it goes back to at least Jean Chrétien's 1993 Red Book) of promising of a national childcare program. Here is an extract from an e-mail I received from an academic whose research touches on this area. (I've added a few footnotes and links for the parts where she refers to things that we both know but which some readers may not):
The problem with the Liberal proposal has always been the basic math: number of kids times cost per child of regulated, licensed child care (high hundreds to $1000 plus per month). So you can't have great child care for everyone (even if we take as a starting point that regulated, licensed child care is great care, which is a debate that I don't even want to go into ).
So how do you keep the costs manageable? Income test spots and give them to single moms on social assistance? Great idea - actually will do more than just about anything else to get single moms back in the labour market - but what about the marginal effective tax rates? And this proposal is hardly about to appeal to the urban young to mid-age female demographic that's the Liberal's core constituency - they aren't single moms on social assistance.
An alternative is the Quebec model - a limited number of spots that go to those organized enough to put their children on a waiting list from the time of conception. There's serious equity issues with that model - those who really need help are probably not the super-organized queuers, plus regulated licenced child care tends to be middle-class hours of 8 to 5, which isn't much use if you're working the midnight shift. It works (to some extent) in Quebec because of strong support for policies that are pro-natalist, and also for policies that tend to integrate newcomers into Quebec society (what's the language of daycare?) But does the key Liberal immigrant demographic really want English-language childcare, or would they prefer home-language home-based care?
Some clarifying footnotes:
- The merits of daycare have not yet been established beyond all doubt; here's an example of a study that finds that daycare has negative effects on children's well-being.
- If a parent's income increases, she risks losing access to the daycare system and finding herself worse off than before.
- See here.
My correspondent added these comments when I asked permission to post her e-mail:
I think one of the Liberal's political problems is that women - I think more than men - get more conservative as they age. The median female voter is now either grey-haired or seriously into hair colouring products.
Now the median female voter's kids are in high school or university, are women altruistic enough to pay higher taxes to support child care for someone else's children? I don't know...