Controversial childcare study. Big implications for election

Aggression and crime among boys have risen faster in Quebec than other provinces over the last decade. This coincides with the roll out of child care services in the province.

These are findings from a new study by my UBC colleague Kevin Milligan, and his co-authors Michael Baker and Jonathan Gruber. A key design feature of the study is that the authors don’t know which children were actually enrolled in Quebec’s child care services. So their findings support two very different interpretations. Both are important for the current federal election.

The first interpretation, emphasized more by the authors, is that the rise in aggression and crime may be among children who have been using child care services. This interpretation would signal that the quality of Quebec child care is insufficient to achieve child development gains commonly found by researchers who examine the benefits of enrollment in high quality services. 

The policy implication in this case would be one of two options.  Quebec could withdraw from investing in child care services.  But by all accounts, research shows this response would sink labour force participation, erode the disposable income of thousands of Quebec families with young children, and compromise gender equality.  The alternative is to invest more to improve the quality of the services so they contribute positively to child development.

The second interpretation of the research findings is that the rise in aggression and crime is among those children who didn’t use child care services in Quebec.  Given existing evidence about child care, it is entirely plausible that children who weren’t enrolled fell behind a now larger group of children benefiting from the services.  Indeed, previous research shows that it is more often middle- and upper-income households that have been accessing the higher quality spaces that exist in Quebec.  The result would then be a greater gap between kids who have experienced child care, and those who haven’t, when they start school.  This gap could then account for increasing aggression and criminal activity among a group of children who start behind a larger portion of their peers. 

The policy response to this second interpretation would be to accelerate the creation of quality child care spaces, with a commitment to maintain or improve quality, and to integrate families who are not yet using the services.

So what does this mean for the federal election?

The Conservatives campaign on a promise not to invest any more directly in child care services.  One interpretation of the latest study about Quebec child care may affirm their confidence in this position. 

But we don’t just need child care services because they have potential to promote healthy child development.  We primarily need them because young adults in their prime child rearing years now earn thousands less for full-time work than a generation ago, start with larger student debts, and face housing prices that are up hundreds of thousands of dollars.  As a result, parents need more time in the labour market, and are harmed when child care services are hard to find, and cost more than a second mortgage.

The NDP recognizes this, which is why they campaign on a promise of $15/day child care. 

Problem is, the NDP has budgeted just $2 billion in annual funding four years from now.  Our research shows a high quality system will cost closer to $10 billion.  The result is a big funding gap, which must be closed if the NDP takes the new study seriously.  Their shortfall in funding will either compromise the quality of spaces, and risk increasing aggression among boys in less than adequate services.  Or the shortfall will compromise the number of quality spaces, and risk increasing aggression among those not getting access to the services.

By contrast, platform background papers show that the Green party would reallocate around $6 billion in funding to child care services from an existing tax credit.  So the Greens would get closer, faster, to paying for a high quality system with enough spaces.

We still don’t know where the Liberals stand on funding for child care. 

No matter which party you support, let’s hope they all begin to better understand the implications of the latest research about underfunding child care.

Dr. Paul Kershaw is a policy professor in the UBC School of Population Health, and Founder of Generation Squeeze (

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Controversial childcare study. Big implications for election
Controversial childcare study. Big implications for election
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