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Parents finding daycare more affordable now, but that doesn't mean they can find it: data

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New data from Statistics Canada shows that while child care is getting more affordable for parents, actually finding it is getting more challenging.

In a release Tuesday, results from a national survey found that fewer Canadian parents had difficulty finding child care within their financial means, falling to 41 per cent from 48 in 2019.

Average parental expenses on full-time child care also fell to $544 per month, from $649 last year, most visibly among child care centres such as daycares and preschools, for which average full-time expenses have fallen by roughly 23 per cent since 2022.

According to a separate federal announcement this week, six Canadian provinces and territories have begun “delivering regulated child care for an average of $10-a-day or less,” with the remaining regions nationwide cutting their child care costs at least in half since 2021.

The price cuts, the announcement read, flow from the Canada-Wide Early Learning and Child Care System (CWELCCS), a $27-billion investment introduced in the 2021 federal budget to achieve daily child-care costs averaging $10 a day for regulated centres across the country by March 2026.

“The roll-out of the [CWELCCS] continues to be a success,” said Jenna Sudds, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development. “We will continue to work collaboratively with provinces and territories to ensure that affordable child care becomes a reality for all Canadian families."

But as service costs have eased, more Canadians report that they struggle to find an available slot for their children in the first place.

The StatCan survey found that more than 60 per cent of parents using child care reported that they were facing difficulties finding available slots, up from 53 per cent in 2019. As a result of child care difficulties, roughly one in three struggling respondents said they had to change their work or study schedules, take on fewer working hours or delay their return to work.

Among parents with children aged zero to five who weren’t in child care, just over one in four reported that their child was on a waiting list, up from roughly one in five the year prior. For parents of infants, that proportion was 47 per cent, up from 38 in 2022. These totals do not include the territories.

A separate StatCan survey found last year that nearly 80 per cent of responding child care centres had an active waiting list.

Also mentioned in the CWELCCS announcement was a target of 250,000 new spaces for child care services between 2021 and 2026, with a total of 82,000 such spaces announced to be created to date.

“Each new space created brings us closer to our goal … and has a great impact in the community it serves,” Sudds’ statement read. “Access to early learning and child care programs and services is a priority for our government.”

EXPERT: STILL A ‘LOT OF WORK’ TO DO

To Rhonda Breitkreuz, head of the University of Alberta’s Gender, Family and Policy Research Initiative, the federal commitment to child care is a “significant breakthrough,” but even with 250,000 new spaces, there remains “a lot of work” to be done.

“We’re still not going to make child care accessible to all families that need it with that number of spaces,” she said in an interview with CTVNews.ca. “But it is headed in the right direction.”

Breitkreuz and other researchers point to complications ahead in meeting the goal of coast-to-coast child care. Notable among them is to properly support the workforce that provides it.

“The capacity to train those workers, to pay them a decent wage so that they’re interested in being involved in that sector, to attract people into that sector; I think, are ongoing challenges,” she said.

She’s not alone in those concerns.

A University of Toronto study published in September found that Canada’s early childhood education programs are not producing enough graduates to meet the expected demand.

“If the federal government's commitment to a $10-a-day child care system meets its five-year target, we will need far more graduates than we are currently producing,” it read. “We can expect a deficit in the number of qualified candidates to fill the spaces intended across the remaining provinces.”

“Efforts should be taken to significantly bolster college-level enrollments in early childhood education programs,” the study continued. “On the other hand, communicating early childhood education spaces as a viable pathway for university graduates (with appropriate incentives to balance the higher cost of a university education) could be another avenue to ensuring that the supply of early childhood education professionals is able to meet labour demands.”

CHILD CARE USE NEARING PRE-PANDEMIC LEVELS

As of Tuesday’s published results from StatCan, 56 per cent of Canadian children under the age of six were in some form of external child care this year, up from 52 per cent in 2020 and approaching the 2019 pre-pandemic baseline of 60 per cent.

Centre-based child care has grown the fastest, reaching just over one in three children this year, and surpassing the 2019 proportion of 31 per cent. Home-based arrangements, meanwhile, have seen slower growth, up to nine per cent from eight in 2022, and below the 2019 rate of 12 per cent.

As the proportion of Canadian children in care nears its pre-pandemic level, Breitkreuz underscores the opportunities not just for expanding child-care access within its current structure, but also to rethink the structure itself.

“Should we require that child care is an entitlement, the way that education from K-12 and healthcare is in this country? We value those two things,” she said.

“If we’re going to really commit to quality, accessible, affordable child care, we need to build that system … Not only because we have significantly increased labour-force participation rates of mothers, but because there’s an opportunity with child care to provide a high-quality experience for young children that could be enriching for them.”

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