The slowly rising number of stay-at-home-dads notwithstanding, women’s liberation is inextricably tied to accessible and affordable childcare. The choices and careers of women are to a great extent determined by whether they can access affordable, high-quality childcare.
When women are repeatedly financially and professionally disadvantaged by motherhood, even childless women end up suffering from the lag in women’s equality at home and in the workplace. Childcare, or the lack thereof, affects us all.
The proposed income-splitting scheme (inaccurately dubbed the Family Tax Cut) and changes to the Universal Child Care Benefit concern me because they highlight how far Canada has to go before we see childcare prioritized as a vital equality issue.
The Family Tax Cut will allow families with children under 18 years old to split income of up to $50,000. Despite its annual cost of an estimated $2 billion, it will be of no use to half of families with children: 20.1 per cent of families, those headed by a single parent, will see no benefit from the tax break, along with 28.9 per cent of families where both parents are in the same tax bracket.
It will benefit high-income families with a stay-at-home parent, where the earner’s income is high and the stay-at-home partner brings in little to no revenue. These families will benefit from a substantial tax break. Before income splitting, there was already immense pressure for one parent to stay at home or work part-time to take care of the kids. No matter the tax bracket, that someone is disproportionately female. Women are paid less than their equally educated male counterparts and childcare is prohibitively expensive and difficult to find in this country, with childcare centres and subsidies both having long waitlists. So when it comes down to who is going to quit their job or reduce their hours to take care of the children, women are the first to step out of the public sphere and back into the shadows.
It could be argued that pay equity would help improve the issue of childcare. However, childcare is one among many factors that could help reduce pay inequity.
If she stays at home, a mother becomes deskilled by not maintaining a presence in the ever-changing workforce, and loses out on the promotions, networking and ongoing training that her male counterparts enjoy. If and when she dares return to the workforce, she will be penalized for the gap in her resume, making her less likely to be hired back into her old position, and more likely to be hired in lower-paying, entry-level work.
And part-time work is hardly any better. It does not offer opportunities to take leadership roles, rarely provides benefits, is paid less, has no opportunity for advancement, and does not look good on a resume. Hello, glass ceiling.
This monetary loss and professional setback, especially early in life, causes a substantial professional and economic loss — sometimes called “the mommy tax.” This hurts gender equity in Canada.
If she stays at home, a woman misses out on income that would pad her bank account should she ever want to leave the relationship. A working woman is more likely to be willing and able to leave an abusive partner. Rather than letting her marketable skills stagnate and personal income disappear, she can be empowered by being able to work if she chooses to, pay inequity notwithstanding.
As much as this tax break may be covertly designed to keep families together whether they like it or not, it’s statistically likely that marital unions will end in divorce. Assuming that a couple with a stay-at-home mom has a 50 per cent chance of divorcing means that she is gambling on a 50 per cent chance of being single and professionally stunted in her future. Those are high stakes and frightening odds. Again, access to childcare plays a vital role in enabling women to continue or start to work in the case they become single parents.
Unfortunately, our government appears not to understand that access to childcare is a need, not a want. The Universal Child Care Benefit will increase from $100 to $160 per month for every family with a child under 6 years old, with an additional $60 thrown in for children ages 6 to 17. But in big cities and in Ontario especially, childcare can cost between $40 and $60 a day. These increases unfortunately will make no difference to the choices families must make about whether childcare is a viable option for them, especially economically disadvantaged families. And the increases do nothing for Canada’s deep need for more licensed childcare centres.
Licensed daycares across Canada have waitlists while unlicensed centres pick up the slack. Across Ontario 823,000 children are cared for in unregulated settings, but concerns have been raised about the safety of unlicensed daycares. Quality depends on well-trained, fairly paid staff, yet early childhood educators in Canada earn 55 per cent of the wages of comparably educated workers. Many leave the sector altogether.
On the bright side, equity pays.
We can look at Quebec’s investment in a $7-a-day child care program as an example. It increased the number of women in the workforce by 3.8 per cent, pumping an additional $5.2 billion into the Quebec economy and boosting the province’s gross domestic product by 1.7 per cent. The relative poverty rate of single mothers dropped by 39 per cent and the number of single mothers on welfare declined by more than 50 per cent. Mothers continued their careers and increased their earning potential, rather than the other way around.
Sadly the current Liberal government in Quebec seems intent on gutting this program, despite its international renown and massive economic benefits, to say nothing of its effect on women’s lives.
If we care about gender equity, we need to look at how women can be empowered to live their lives as economically equal to men as possible, at all stages of life. This includes the time when women become parents, as most of them will. Accessible, affordable, quality childcare can help do that.