Reality Check: Progress on Child Care in BC, 2012-2020
In the early days of the current BC election campaign child care took centre stage when NDP leader John Horgan recommitted his party to fully implement the $10aDay Plan1 if elected on October 24. Public discussion and commentary followed in the media and from other parties. Questions were raised about the progress achieved on child care over the three years since the NDP and Green parties formed a minority government, in comparison to the progress achieved by the previous Liberal government leading up to the 2017 provincial election. The analysis in this report uses publicly-available data to clarify the record on child care in BC.
Over the last few decades, multiple studies2 confirm that the longstanding, market-based and privatized approach to child care in this province—and across much of Canada, outside of Quebec—results in care that is largely unaffordable (due to high parent fees), unavailable (with spaces for less than 20% of young children in BC) and of inconsistent quality (due to low educator wages and levels of education). The research also identifies consistent solutions: public policy with sufficient investment and accountability for substantially lowering and capping parent fees; supporting the early childhood educator profession, and; making inclusive, licensed spaces available for all who choose them.
The analysis presented here assesses progress on these building blocks of effective child care systems using three key evidence-based indicators:
- Parent fees, including measures to support lower-income families;
- Total number of licensed spaces and per cent of young children with access to a licensed space, and;
- Early childhood educator (ECE) wages3.
Most of the data (see Table 1) is sourced from annual performance reporting published by the BC Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD).
The BC Liberal Party held majority governments consistently from 2001 through early 2017. After the May 2017 election, the BC NDP and BC Green parties cooperated in a minority government. This analysis uses available data from 2012 to early 2020 to compare the progress on child care over the final years of the Liberal government to the progress achieved over the first few years of the NDP minority government, with some additional analysis and commentary.
1) Parent fees, including measures to support lower-income families
BC’s long-standing approach to parent fees did not change in the Liberal government’s final years: fees were set by individual operators and income-tested fee subsidies were available to support some lower-income families.
Table 1 shows that the monthly average number of children whose families received fee subsidies dropped by 23% between 20124 and 2016, from 24,287 to 18,715. Median parent fees across BC increased by 3% per year over this time period, on average, while inflation increased by an average of 1%5 per year.
In April 2018 the new minority government began implementing its Childcare BC6 plan to invest $1 billion over three years7 to improve affordability, accessibility (availability) and quality. Childcare BC included two affordability measures: an expanded subsidy (Affordable Child Care Benefit) and the Child Care Fee Reduction Initiative. New child care funds from the federal government supported additional investments, including the conversion of more than 50 child care facilities across the province to $10/day prototype sites.
MCFD reports show that the monthly average number of children with subsidized child care grew by 66% between 2016 and 2019, reaching 31,072 by December 2019.
The Child Care Fee Reduction Initiative provides licensed programs—both centre-based and home-based—with funding to reduce parent fees for all families by up to $350 per month for children under age three and up to $100 per month for children aged three to five years. Operators are allowed to offset these fee reductions with annual inflationary increases.
Table 1 shows that this initiative resulted in a 7% reduction in median parent fees in centre-based programs across the province for children under age three between 2016 and 2018. The Initiative also stabilized parent fees for families with children aged three to five years in centre-based programs, as the fee reduction appears to have fully offset fee increases over these two years.
A September 2020 BC government news release8 provides additional and updated statistics on parent fees, noting that “since September 2018, more than 32,700 children have accessed child care for no more than $10-a-day through a combination of these initiatives and our $10-a-day prototype sites.”
The analysis in this study confirms that these initiatives have led to measurable improvements in affordability, yet more work is required to achieve affordable child care for all.
Families have shared concerns about fee increases in several child care programs, which have reduced the benefit they receive from the province’s fee reduction initiative. Consistent with media reports in BC9 a 2019 national study of child care fees in major Canadian cities suggests that this concern is particularly significant in relation to for-profit child care, where fees are likely to be higher. Parent fees in the five BC cities studied (Burnaby, Kelowna, Richmond, Surrey, Vancouver) were between 29% and 71% higher in for-profit programs than non-profit programs.10
Access to affordable child care is even more urgent now, as families struggle with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. In its BC Budget 2021 submission11, the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC recommends that the BC government move now to expand $10aDay programs province-wide, where families pay a maximum of $10 per day, with no parent fees for families earning less than $45,000 annually.
2) Total number of licensed spaces, and per cent of young children with access to a licensed space
The pattern of annual growth in licensed spaces shown in Table 1 reflects the approach to capital expansion used exclusively by the BC Liberal government and substantially by the BC NDP government. This approach relies on individuals and organizations to independently create new spaces, requiring them to identify and confirm the community need, find the location and develop a funding application. Once public funding is approved, it takes a few years for them to complete the construction process and open the facility, at which time the new spaces are reflected in the data.
During the 2013 provincial election campaign, the BC Liberal Party committed to adding 13,000 new spaces over eight years.12
The subsequent two years (2014 and 2015) showed minimal growth, followed by an increase in the third year, bringing the total increase in spaces to 7,398 prior to the 2017 election. An additional 5,210 spaces came online in the election year, likely reflecting this pattern of delayed opening of facilities previously approved for funding. Attributing the 2017 election year increase in spaces to BC Liberal government brings the total increase to 12,608—close to fulfilling their 2013 election commitment, ahead of schedule.13
Building on the NDP 2017 election commitment, Childcare BC committed to creating 24,000 licensed spaces over three years, starting in 2018. MCFD data is available for the first 1.75 years of this commitment. Table 1 shows that 6,431 new spaces have opened, more than double the growth rate of the first two years after the 2013 election year.
The NDP government’s September 2020 news release indicated that “more than 20,000 new licensed spaces have been approved for funding.” However, most of those spaces (or others) will have to open by March 2021 to fulfill the 2017 election commitment on time.
BC’s longstanding individualized, market-based approach to space creation has generated several critiques, along with proposed solutions.14 Of particular concern is the ongoing provision of public funds to support the creation of privately owned child care centres.15
Notably, MCFD data shows that the percentage of young children with access to a licensed child care space grew by only 3% between 2012 and 2019. Clearly a different method of creating spaces is needed.
The Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC has proposed an approach to creating high quality licensed spaces more quickly and affordably. The Coalition recommends that the province “establish a child care capital budget and work with communities to plan, fund and build new publicly owned child care facilities—beginning with the immediate bulk purchase of custom-designed, high-quality modular child care buildings to be located on public land across the province.”16
Recently, the NDP government began to partner with municipalities and school districts to plan for and create new spaces at a local level, rather than individually. This is an important step forward, yet more action is required to cost-effectively and efficiently create spaces that meet the diverse needs of BC families.
3) Early childhood educator (ECE) wages
While MCFD does not publicly report on ECE wages regularly, it has stated that the median wage for ECEs working in licensed child care centres in 2016/17 was $18/hour.17
ECE wages were not addressed by the previous government. Starting in 2019, the NDP government introduced an ECE wage enhancement totalling $2/hour over two years, as part of its Childcare BC plan. Effectively, this wage enhancement raised the median ECE wage to at least $20/hour by 202018.
The information provided by MCFD was integrated with data extracted from other public reports and analyzed in a national study published in June 2020.19 The study includes a comparison of median ECE wages in BC to median wages for all employees in the province from 2012 through 2020 (p. 18). The comparison shows that ECE wages fell relative to all wages under the previous government, and that the introduction of the wage enhancement in 2019 reversed that trend. However, the wage enhancement paid to date is not enough, on its own, to restore median ECE wages to the same level relative to all wages experienced in 2012.
The report confirms that “ECEs in Canada generally earn low wages,” even with wage enhancement and related provincial initiatives in place. As a result, there are significant recruitment and retention concerns, “compounded by the fact that the federal and most provincial and territorial governments have established child care expansion goals, with targets for creating new licensed spaces.” (p. 17)
The national study concludes that “competitive, publicly funded ECE wage grids are key to solving the ECE shortage” in Canada (p. 4). The report makes specific recommendations for BC, including a starting ECE wage of $26/hour.
For decades, studies have concluded that child care in BC and much of Canada is generally unaffordable (high parent fees), inaccessible (few licensed spaces) and of inconsistent quality (low ECE wages). There is a strong consensus in the research that the solution requires moving away from the privatized, market-based approach utilized in many provinces, to varying degrees, and by the previous BC government..
The research shows that a publicly-funded system is most likely to achieve high quality, affordable, accessible child care for all who choose it. In 2018, the BC NDP minority government, working with the BC Greens, began taking some of the first system-building steps recommended in the research literature. While the BC election is happening early in the implementation process, it is important to assess the preliminary progress on child care system-building and compare it to the progress achieved under the market-based approach used by the previous government.
In sum, based primarily on data publicly reported by the BC government, this analysis shows that:
- Over the last five years of the BC Liberal government (2012 to 2016), the number of children with subsidized child care dropped by 23%, parent fees rose faster than inflation, and real ECE wages declined.
- Over the first three years of the BC NDP minority government for which data are available, the number of children with subsidized child care increased by 66%. Parent fees for infant and toddler child care centres decreased by 7% and remained stable in centres for children aged three to five. The decline in real ECE wages was reversed.
- In 2013, 16.7% of young children had access to a licensed child care space. The individualized, market-based approach to space creation utilized by both the BC Liberal and BC NDP governments increased access by only 3% over the entire timeline, reaching 19.5% by 2019.
While much more work is required, early findings show measurable improvement under the publicly-funded system-building approach introduced in 2018. Given the compelling research confirming the social and economic benefits of broad access to high quality, affordable child care, these results suggest that the next BC government should continue to build on this progress by further reducing and capping parent fees, raising ECE wages and expediting the creation of publicly-owned licensed spaces. The broadly-supported, community-developed $10aDay Child Care Plan provides an evidence-based blueprint, and the ongoing pandemic highlights the urgent need for action.
(Childcare BC Year 1)
|1. Parent Fees, including measures to support lower-income families|
|Median Monthly Fees, child care centres.|
|Infants||965||995||1000||1050||data not available||900||data not available|
|3 to 5 years||720||750||755||780||780|
|Average annual change (%)|
|Infants||3%||data not available||-7%||data not available|
|3 to 5 years||3%||0%|
|# of Children with Subsidized Child Care, mthly average||24,287||24,397||21172||19,340||18,715||18,383||22,794||31,072|
|Total change, under each government||-23%||66%|
|2. Number of licensed spaces, and per cent of young children with access to a licensed space|
|Total # of licensed spaces||96,688||98,432||100,001||101,391||105,830||111,040||113,672||117,471|
|Annual growth in spaces – Liberal government||Baseline||1,569||1,390||4,439||5,210|
|Annual growth in spaces – NDP government||Baseline||2,632||3,799|
|# of new spaces created, 2 years after election||2,959||6,431|
|# of licensed spaces/population of children under 12 (%)||16.7%||17.1%||17.2%||17.8%||data not available||19.5%|
|Change, 2013/14 to 2019/20||3%|
|3. Early childhood educator (ECE) wages|
|ECE median wage ($/hour)||17||18||19||20|
|ECE wage as % of all employees||68%||65%||62%||63%||64%|