$3200 per month. That’s not your salary. It’s what you spend on child care for your four young children — including triplets — who are all under five years old. Their father works out of town, so you’re the primary caregiver. You can’t work full time because the care costs are too high. Your financial situation is tight, so you must make difficult choices. You use a line of credit to pay for care, or ask your family to watch the kids as much as possible, or use vacation days from work to care for them yourself. When you care for them instead of working, you’re with the children 24/7, which isn’t healthy for you or for them.
Until last September, Billie MacFarlane found herself stuck in just that situation. The exhaustion and stress took a toll. “My depression increased and I had to change medication to help cope… Being with children five and under 24/7 created extreme loneliness and resentment. A simple outing to pick up groceries or get the mail is a big deal… Grocery shopping online has become my friend.” Billie also had concerns for Sophie, then four years old, and triplets Logan, Ericka, and Naomi, then three years old, because her only other choice would be low-quality out-of-home care.
What a Difference $25 a Day Makes
Billie’s situation improved dramatically when she secured spaces under the Government of Alberta’s $25 a day child care program. After reaching out to two other centres — one had a waitlist, another never called her back — she was finally fortunate to get her children accepted into the Jasper Place Child and Family Resource Society.
When the government program launched in 2017, 22 Early Learning and Child Care Centres were eligible across Alberta, including five in Edmonton that provided 250 spaces. As of April 2018, 1847 program spaces were available in the city.
With the assistance the program provides, Billie saves about a $1000 per month, so she now has “a little money left over” after basic expenses such as food, shelter, utilities, and fuel, and she can worry less about money. It’s also helping her pay down the line of credit she had to use to pay for care and other expenses in the past. Her improved financial situation also benefits society as a whole. “I’m not on welfare or another assistance program where you don’t give back. Working, I am paying taxes, receiving health and dental benefits, paying into Canada Pension, and helping another organization run” at work.
The monetary savings are only one of the positive changes for Billie and her family. Access to affordable quality child care has also reduced Billie’s stress. “I don’t have to worry about the social, mental, intellectual, physical, or emotional wellbeing of my children.” Being part of the program means other personal positives for Billie. “I have more self-esteem by being able to work and contribute to society and have time communicating with adults and earning money.”
Sophie, Ericka, Naomi, and Logan also benefit now and in the future. Billie says, “They are getting educated and cared for by people who are highly educated in the field…. They are also exposed to more crafts and experiences than I would ever be able to provide no matter how much money I had.” She believes these experiences will help them thrive and develop so that they can “contribute back to society when they grow up.”
Quality Care and Child Development
Adine Shuchuk is the Executive Director of Jasper Place Child and Family Resource Society. She has worked in the early learning field for decades, during which time “the importance of quality programs and services for young children and families became more and more apparent.” She explains the main reason for this: Brain science shows that a child’s brain “grows and develops at a pace that is un-paralleled through the rest of the life-span.”
Unfortunately, when access to quality programs is limited, a child’s development can be inhibited, and “negative experiences in a young child’s life can [have] life-long impacts.” Because of this, she says, “We have families calling us in tears because they don’t feel good about where their children are in care or for what is happening in their development.”
Shuchuk says the lack of integrated approach is one factor in lack of access to quality affordable care in Edmonton; another is waitlists — not enough spaces are available for all the children who need them. Another problem parents may face is “finding consistent information about what quality child care looks like” because a high price does not always indicate high quality.
Defining Quality and Affordable Care
Jeff Bisanz is a Professor Emeritus in psychology at the University of Alberta with expertise in child development. He serves on the Edmonton Council for Early Learning and Care, created by EndPovertyEdmonton with other organizations to address early learning and care issues.
Bisanz prefers the term “early learning and care” because it focuses on “the importance of early learning and the importance of professional education and development for frontline workers.” That education is part of what defines quality care, and quality is essential. “We’re not helping children and their families if we provide spaces that are poor in quality.”
Although no single definition of quality early learning and care exists, experts agree on key elements. For example, quality centres must do the following.
Provide safe, healthy, welcoming, adaptive, and supportive environments for children and families from diverse backgrounds.
Employ staff who understand child development, have education in the field, and respond effectively to the personal, social, and intellectual needs of children in their care.
Meet regulations and standards including child:staff ratios, which in Alberta vary by age from 3:1 for infants under a year to 10:1 for 4½-year-olds and older.
As for affordability, Bisanz says it is hard to define it as a specific number. Instead, he says, “The basic idea of affordability is that a family should be able to pay the cost of early learning and care for its children without compromising its ability to cover the costs of other essentials.”
Changing the Game
EndPovertyEdmonton defines poverty as any situation “when people lack, or are denied, economic, social, and cultural resources to have a quality of life that sustains and facilitates full and meaningful participation in the community.” Lack of affordable quality child care is one factor that contributes to poverty, so to meet the goal of ending poverty in a generation, access to this care must increase. As Bisanz explains, that access is a Game Changer for poverty reduction for several reasons.
Parents — typically mothers — who can’t access quality early learning and care for their children are often forced to make stressful compromises such as not pursuing desired education or work opportunities. This can limit their ability to find ways to improve their economic situations.
“Affordable, high-quality child care can help children thrive. … The more likely it is that children will thrive, the less likely it is that they will experience poverty later in life.” Where access is blocked for any reason, parents may be forced to “find alternate means of child care, which can result in children spending considerable time in unregulated care of uncertain quality.”
The costs of providing quality affordable care for all children, especially disadvantaged children, “are often outweighed in the long run by the benefits of better employment and reduced demands on educational, legal, social, and health systems.”
The Edmonton Council for Early Learning and Care
Although the value of affordable quality early learning and care is well documented in the research, obstacles to it currently exist in the city. Bisanz says that we don’t have enough centres that provide it. As well, “we have no coherent system for publicly planning and managing child care in Edmonton, and as a result services are fragmented at best.” To assist with this aspect of the problem, Bisanz says that a main objective for EndPovertyEdmonton regarding this Game Changer has been to “figure out how to implement an integrated system.”
As a result of the 2015 Mayor’s Task Force for the Elimination of Poverty, the Early Learning and Care Steering Committee, co-chaired by Bisanz and City of Edmonton Ward 2 Councillor Bev Esslinger, was set up in January 2017. One of its purposes was to establish a new body to manage and plan early learning and care; that body is the Edmonton Council for Early Learning and Care. Bisanz is a member of the Council, and its partners include the City of Edmonton, provincial ministries and agencies, the Association of Early Childhood Educators of Alberta, the Multicultural Family Resource Society, and many more.
Councillor Esslinger says that although child care is within provincial jurisdiction, the City “does recognize that this is an issue for our citizens. There are specific actions within the EndPovertyEdmonton Road Map, which includes supporting and participating in the new Edmonton Council of Early Learning and Care. The City has also included Child Care within policies… to consider early learning and care space in City facilities and community amenities in new developments.”
Planning and development for the Council, through the Early Learning and Care Steering Committee, has been in progress for the last two years. In March 2019, the Council held its first meeting. Its work on selecting and implementing specific programs and initiatives to facilitate change will begin shortly.
The Way Forward
Adine Shuchuk believes change towards a better system of affordable quality early learning and care must happen in multiple ways. One of the biggest is an attitude shift: “I think if we can move the conversation beyond ‘why should I pay for your day care?’ to ‘this is important for all of us,’ the cause will be addressed.”
Lack of understanding in the general public about the importance of the early years in setting the stage for success later in life is another obstacle. “I wonder if there was a greater understanding about young children [if] there would be a greater push to make a shift.” She says change “can only happen with support from all levels of Government.”
Although the program is currently only a pilot, the Government of Alberta’s $25 a day care plan is a step in that direction. Currently only not-for-profit centres can participate, and the number of spaces in those centres is small compared to the need, but outcomes so far are promising. The contrast between the before and after situations for families like Billie’s highlights the relationship between poverty and the lack of access to affordable quality early learning and care and the significant difference having that care can make.
For Billie, this kind of care for her children is essential. “Without the $25 a day child care, the cost will be more money than I clear each month…. I would not be able to afford to work which means I will be home on welfare and the children will not have access to the education they need.” She also believes that access to such care has advantages beyond individual families. “The more people who can go to work, the more we will have invested back into the economy.” And that benefits everyone.
As Shuchuk says, affordable quality early learning and care “is not just an issue for parents of young children. These young children are the doctors, teachers, and politicians of the future. This issue affects us all.”
For more information on EndPovertyEdmonton’s six Game Changers for reducing poverty within a generation, including affordable and quality child care, visit the Game Changers & Goals page.