Ken Boessenkool: Why the tepid response to the crisis of childcare?
No, you're not imagining it. Our governments really don't seem to be prioritizing daycare and school re-openings.
By: Ken Boessenkool
I am growing increasingly sympathetic to the idea that the tepid response of governments to the pending pandemic crisis in childcare and schooling goes beyond the weakness of any particular government and is due to something bigger. Though most conservatives are loath to use the word, I have to concede that the problem may, in fact, be systemic.
It’s not like bells weren’t ringing early and loud. For the past several months, an impressive cadre of prominent women (@ldobsonhughes, @jenniferrobson8, @tammyshirle, @francisdonald and @nishaOttawa to cite a few prominent Twitter handles) have been raising the alarm about the collapse in female workforce participation due to widespread school and daycare closures.
Yet governments dawdled.
On the surface, this was understandable. From mid-March through April, Canadian governments moved at astonishing speed. Fear of mass death, economic collapse, and an alphabet soup of new government programs — and the wrinkles they created — distracted policy makers at all levels.
But that’s not a full explanation.
Dr. Tammy Schirle 🍺 @tammyschirleSpent some time today on media questions about women’s job losses, one asked about the focus on reopening schools. I’ll repeat one point here: I find the lack of investment here incredibly surprising…. 1/n
First, Canadian governments typically have three “central agencies” to oversee the work of their governments. These include the apparatus around the premier or prime minister (the Privy Council in Ottawa and cabinet secretaries in provinces); a treasury board responsible for financial management and audits; and finance department responsible for macroeconomic management and setting departmental budgets.
If these agencies were three people, you’d have a politician, an accountant and a (macro) economist. Two out of these are primarily concerned with numbers, not people. To put in another way, there is no central agency in our governments prioritizing social policy.
Secondly, this “pause” recession is unlike the typical recessions governments have faced. Most recessions are caused by anxiety about the future, which causes people and businesses to clutch their wallets and squeeze their pennies, constricting economic activity. The response is for governments to either make the future more attractive (by lowering interest rates) or replace the lack of private spending with public spending (by running deficits to build roads or replace lost income).
This recession isn’t like that. Economic activity ground to a halt because we can’t stand, sit, eat or work close to each other. Any economic activity that requires us to stand, sit, eat or work close to each other needs to adapt to this reality — until we get a vaccine, we need to erect barriers between us, whether distance, masks or plexiglass.
Lowering interest rates, building bridges or replacing income isn’t going to erect these barriers. And until we figure out how to erect and pay for those barriers, some activities are going to have to be seriously scaled back for a while. This includes things like eating out, going to bars, and putting our kids in childcare or schools.
Getting out of this recession will require that governments pick which activities are the highest priorities and then figuring out and paying to erect those barriers. As Jen Gerson has written on The Line, “Close bars. Open schools.”
Third, among the 25 ministers overseeing the three central agencies, five are women. Canada has no sitting female premiers. Only B.C., Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and P.E.I. have female finance ministers. Quebec alone has a female minister of the Treasury Board (most provinces combine these roles).
And not to get all ageist, but nearly all of these premiers and ministers are more likely to look after grandchildren than babies of their own. Having a baby while in office is so memorable because it is so rare (Liberal MP Sheila Copps, former B.C. Premier Christy Clark and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern all had babies while holding elected office).
A shortage of females at the centre of our governments keeps issues like school reopening and childcare further down the priority list.
Lastly, Canada has a long and sorry history of policy confusion between levels of government. When it comes to childcare I think it ought to be rather simple. The federal government provides tax support and cash benefits to parents and cash transfers to provinces. The provinces regulate childcare and fund the construction of spaces. Yet during this pandemic we’ve seen the federal government try to get into provincial jurisdiction cheered on by commentators who want the federal government to crowd out the provinces and build, house and staff a national system of warehouses for our preschoolers.
This jurisdictional confusion isn’t helpful. Dr. Jennifer Robson and I have made some suggestions on how this might be done here.
Despite much ink being spilled, the response from Canadian governments on childcare and school re-openings has been, well, tepid.
I’m not quite ready to invoke the word “systemic” to explain this, but I won’t correct others if they do.
Ken Boessenkool is a Research Fellow at the CD Howe Institute and a consultant. He has worked Preston Manning, Jim Flaherty, Stockwell Day, Stephen Harper and Christy Clark, among others.