Upstream thinking for Generation Squeeze

upstream-thinking.jpgYounger working-age Canadians are being squeezed. Our incomes are lower than a generation ago. We’re struggling to adapt to a changing job market. Many costs of living, and of starting a family, are higher. And we are feeling under-represented in our politics (see here for details)

It is these challenges that have inspired Generation Squeeze – a pan-Canadian movement that aims to bring people of all ages together to create a better intergenerational deal for Canadians.The thorny question is, how can we fix these big, complex and deeply rooted intergenerational problems in our social and economic structures?

Take the example of homelessness. A new study out of Florida suggests that it is actually a lot cheaper to provide housing to the homeless than not to. How can this be possible? Well, because it’s even more expensive to deal with all the medical and policing costs that result from people living in miserable and unsafe conditions on the street.

Put another way, the downstream costs of homelessness are far greater than the price of an upstream solution – providing a home. And these savings in public spending are accompanied by more powerful social benefits, as the pan-Canadian Housing First project demonstrated.

What can GenSqueeze learn from this approach? Well, the failure to “think upstream” is at the heart of many of the biggest challenges facing younger Canadians today. The one that I find most frustrating and discouraging: child care.

It’s widely recognized that Canadian families are struggling with child care affordability, access and quality challenges.

Across Canada, fees for full-day care average around $700 per month for one child, and are usually much higher in major centres. The cost can be prohibitive, especially for infants who require more attentive care. Many families are spending more on child care than on housing.

Part of the reason for the high cost of care is the shortage of spaces. On average, there are regulated spaces for less than 25% of children between 0 and 5 years old. High cost and lack of access create conditions where families must consider putting their kids in care of questionable quality and safety.

So, as a young parent who can’t find child care spots, who worries about the quality of the spots you find, or who faces paying more to put your kids in daycare than you’ll make at work, what do you do?

If you’re really lucky, you can leave the kids with the grandparents, who live around the corner. For two-income families with well-paying jobs, you can probably bite the bullet and pay up. But for many families, it’s a no-brainer: a parent – usually mom – has to stay home with the kids.

The reason there isn’t more, better and cheaper child care is simple: it’s expensive, and we’ve decided in Canada not to prioritize it over other public services. (The major exception is Québec, which provides universally subsidized $7-per-day child care. In 2011-12, Québec was responsible for 60% of provincial child care spending, in spite of being home to only 22% of Canadian kids under 13.)

First, there is a big economic impact, as the lack of care tends to reduce the workforce participation rate of mothers with young children. For instance, 77% of mothers with infants work in Québec, compared with 70% in the rest of Canada. Fewer working moms is bad for businesses and for government tax revenues, which fund services…like child care. Some evidence suggests Quebec’s program actually pays for itself.

Second, we forego the educational benefits of providing child care and early learning – especially when targeted at lower-income families. The “human capital” early learning creates – i.e. more able workers later in life – pays dividends by supporting Canada’s productivity and competitiveness.

Third, it has a huge impact on the careers of parents who stay home (again, mostly women). Not only is it demotivating to go back to the office to find that your office-mates have all been promoted ahead of you, but it limits future advancement and earnings potential. For many career-oriented women, it’s a reason to delay having kids, or not to have them at all.

None of this is to suggest that tackling the child care issue or the broader intergenerational challenges will be easy. But to address the squeeze on younger generations, we need to think harder about root causes and the implications of not dealing with problems, rather than narrowly focusing on the costs.

Check out the GenSqueeze website for more information about how we can call for upstream policies for Canada’s younger generations and demand a Better Generational Deal


André Côté is a co-editor of the Generation Squeeze Blog.


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