At the new center, the Huckleberry Coast Child Care Society, Petersen’s fees are capped at $200 a month. Without that reduction in fees, Petersen, who works as a social planner for the city of Vancouver, said her family would “be in massive trouble.”
The “$10 a Day” child care initiative, as it’s known in British Columbia, has been life-changing for parents. In the five years since it launched, it has also provided some financial stability for child care programs in the province, which now receive operating funds directly from the government instead of relying solely on family-paid tuition.
This idea — that parents should pay an average of $10 a day for child care and that public funds should underwrite child care programs — is now a cornerstone of a new national child care system rolling out across the country.
During the pandemic, Canada, like the United States, was forced to grapple with the fact that its already unsustainable child care system was on the brink of collapse. In 2021, the country’s leaders committed $30 billion (about $24 billion in U.S. dollars) over five years to the country’s first federally funded child care system — borrowing ideas from a long-standing government-funded program in the province of Quebec as well as from British Columbia’s $10 a Day program. The new Canada-wide system was “very much situated in the context of economic recovery,” said Morna Ballantyne, executive director of Child Care Now, an advocacy association in Canada.
Canada’s national system is nowhere near finished and is hardly perfect; there are staffing shortages in many parts of the country and still far too few seats available for children. But the new national initiative, known as “Canada-wide,” will bring Canada closer to joining the ranks of countries like Finland, Sweden and Iceland, long lauded for providing robust federal support for child care.
As American child care experts call for more federal investment to salvage a struggling industry, Canada’s experience may hold the most relevant lessons on how to make universal child care palatable to politicians and how to design a program to meet the needs of a diverse, geographically sprawling nation. With its new system, Canada has had to strike a balance between upholding the federal vision and allowing local autonomy over details, and between addressing the financial burden for parents while determining how to directly fund child care programs to ensure their stability.
“Canada shows that transformative child care reform is possible,” said Elliot Haspel, director of climate and young children at Capita, an international think tank, and the author of Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It. “I don’t think we can copy and paste what the advocates up there did. But I think there’s some real lessons in thinking about messaging of child care and what’s the actual policy.”
Any way you look at it, America’s child care system is in crisis. After years of underinvestment and the end of pandemic-era aid, the industry is struggling. Child care teachers have fled for higher-paying jobs; parents face yearslong wait lists; and families face insurmountable costs even for mediocre care.
The last major effort to significantly expand federal funding for child care in the U.S. — a proposal in President Biden’s “Build Back Better” legislation in 2021 — was dropped from the final version of the act. Legislation introduced earlier this year that would have provided $10-a-day child care to many American families failed to progress. Although greater investment in child care has some bipartisan support in the U.S., many lawmakers have balked at the cost. Some continue to say the government should have no place in child care, arguing that it is a private responsibility. Others suggest that universal access to child care is a communist policy, or that mothers should always stay home with their children — even though America relies on working parents to keep schools and many services open.
In Canada, experts and advocates were “very effective at conveying the idea that child care is an important part of the overall well-being of the province and the nation,” Haspel added. “They hammered it home over and over and over again.”
The new Canadian system passed Parliament as part of the nation’s budget in June 2021 and has been rolling out over the past two years. Participation is voluntary for provinces and territories. But all have signed on to access the federal dollars, which are presently given with no requirement that provinces invest their own money. Eventually, Canadian officials hope to achieve a 50/50 cost share with provinces and territories, but no money was required at the onset of the initiative. (America, in contrast, requires states to match funds for its current federal program aimed at lowering costs for low-income families.)
Each province or territory has control over many of the details of the Canada-wide program, like setting annual goals for expanding child care spots and early educator pay scales, as well as deciding whether for-profit centers are included in their system. Money flows to the provincial governments, which then have their own systems for providing funding directly to the child care programs. By 2026, the country intends for Canada-wide to be universal in fact as well as name — with 250,000 new spots and parents paying no more than an average of $10 a day for care.
While the system’s biggest effects likely won’t be seen until it expands, there are signs of progress. Nationwide, nearly half of the provinces and territories offer regulated child care for an average of $10 a day, or less. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the federal funds have also supported the creation of a new, full-day, year-round pre-K pilot program. In New Brunswick, the province upped early childhood educator wages. In British Columbia, the federal infusion of funds has bolstered the work the province was already doing to bring more public funding into the child care industry. The province used the federal money it received to pay for 1,271 child care spaces between 2021 and 2022.
Child care programs say there are benefits to having access to more public funds. At Huckleberry, the program Marisol Petersen’s son attends in Gibsons, B.C., the board of directors saw signing onto the province’s $10 a Day plan as an opportunity to lower fees for parents without having to also lower wages for teachers. Huckleberry was also able to get $32,000 in additional funding from the province to hire a program manager to oversee budgets and support daily operations.
About 68 miles east of Gibsons in Mission, a town of about 39,000 in Canada’s bucolic Fraser Valley, child care provider Lorraine Trulsen said $10 a Day has provided much-needed stability. Before joining the provincial initiative, she was begging families to refer others to her program, the Heritage Park Childcare Centre, even offering half off a month of care. Although her tuition, which cost between $650 and $850 a month, was lower than that of centers closer to Vancouver, “it was a struggle to get full,” Trulsen said. Five years after becoming a pilot program for $10 a Day, Trulsen has a three-year wait list. Many of her parents cried when Trulsen announced her new, lower rate. Some couples decided they could have more children, she added, knowing they could now afford care.
The publicly supported initiative in British Columbia “has given us a feeling of security,” Trulsen said. “We’ve actually never been more financially stable than we are right now.”
Despite Canada’s progress and growing support for the national low-cost child care plan, the pain points in Canada-wide’s rollout show there’s no quick way to make child care a public, federally funded service, especially for countries that are late to the game. For example, in Canada, non-licensed, home-based providers have been left out of the system, as have other, more informal kinds of care.
About one-third of Canada’s children are cared for by either a relative other than their parent or by a non-relative in a home, for example. Some provinces plan to tweak their versions of Canada-wide to include more forms of child care in the future, but that is not the case across the country. “We are very concerned that the current plan is not equitable,” said Andrea Mrozek, a senior fellow with the Ottawa-based think tank, Cardus. “Billions and billions are being poured into a system that really helps the few,” she added.
And even some of the programs that have been the biggest beneficiaries of the child care expansion are still struggling with funding. Provinces and territories are financially supporting the budgets of child care programs at levels the programs say are too low. In many cases, the governments subsidize families’ costs, but fail to approve enough new money for child care programs that would allow them to raise teacher salaries. For example, earlier this year, British Columbia rejected a request from Huckleberry for a funding increase that would have raised teacher wages and provided employment benefits for the center’s small staff of two full-time and two part-time teachers.
The Esprit Daycare Centre near Huckleberry also asked program officials in British Columbia for additional funds so it could raise wages. The request was denied. Last year Esprit lost several staff members to a public early learning program that pays more. “The staffing has been the issue,” said Jennifer Braun, manager of Esprit. “Finding enough coverage here is like a unicorn.”
In some provinces, families’ costs were cut dramatically long before many programs had the stability and staffing to handle the subsequent enrollment surge. And while some provinces have upped educator wages in an attempt to attract and keep teachers, others have been slower to make progress.
“I feel like the government is doing things in the wrong order,” said Trulsen, in Mission. “We’re creating spaces and we can’t find staff. We can’t find staff because we can’t offer decent living wages. So round and round you go.”
Canadian experts say their country’s experience has shown what to do, as well as what not to do, to create transformational change in the child care industry. Some American policy makers have proposed addressing the child care crisis here by sending more money to parents or upping tax benefits, rather than providing direct funding to child care programs. Canadian experts who have seen their system’s rollout are wary of such methods. “It’s absolutely clear that if you want to have a child care system, you can’t do it only by giving money to the parents, you have to make sure that you have the supply,” said Martha Friendly, executive director of the Canadian-based nonprofit Childcare Resource and Research Unit, who previously worked on child care policy in the United States.
“If you look at other countries, that’s the way they do it, they fund the operations.” Of most importance, said Friendly, is that countries address affordability, workforce and supply at the same time. “If you want to have a child care system that’s stable … You need to do all these things at the same time, because they’re interlinked,” she said.
In the U.S., some states are likely to balk at the idea of following in the steps of Canada and Scandinavia and setting up a federal “system” of care. Allowing autonomy at a state level is an aspect of Canada’s model America might adopt, said Gordon Cleveland, associate professor emeritus at the University of Toronto Scarborough. “But there also has to be a very strong overall concept,” he said, such as setting goals for parent rates, program expansion or educator wages.
Such a system would be costly: One proposal for a universal child care system by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has also proposed $10 a day child care, estimated the price at $700 billion over 10 years. In Canada, some child care programs have opted out due in part to concern that they won’t have as much autonomy over their operations. And because unlicensed informal care is popular in America and the majority of the country’s young children are in non-center-based care, a system focused on formal programs, like Canada’s, could be a point of contention here as well.
Messaging in support of universal child care in the United States will likely need to differ from Canada’s. While it might seem counterintuitive, Haspel believes expanded government spending on child care should be tied to giving American families flexibility to choose and pursue their own destinies. “It’s about family freedom,” he said. “The number of children you can have, where you choose to live. The time you get to spend with your children should not be determined by the availability or lack thereof of affordable child care, yet for far too many families, it is.”
This story about subsidized child care was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.