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Women's Economic Contributions

Caring for Children
Related section>> Alternative Economic Measures & Quick Facts on Childcare

Aboriginal woman feeding baby

Raising children is one of the major reasons why women, as a group, are poorer than men. Children cost money - a lot of it. They need food, clothing, diapers, housing, toys, school supplies, shoes, and lots of other things. But more importantly they need time. And the time and energy that are necessary to raise healthy children makes up the biggest part of the unpaid work performed by women in Canada and around the world, drastically reducing women's ability to participate in the paid workforce. Like other unpaid work, the work of caring for children is often unnoticed and not valued as the important economic contribution that it is.

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Who's responsible?
One does not get paid to deliver a child (unless you are the doctor or midwife!) and the monetary reimbursement for raising a child is minimal if any. Yet life on this planet depends on the renewal of life. For us to continue living, children must be born, animals must give birth, and new plants must grow. We were all children once and every child develops into a contributing member of our society. So why is most of the work of bearing, caring for, and raising children, not counted as part of any country's economic activities? And why does child care remain the unpaid responsibility of individual parents when our whole society depends on it?

For mothers of young children who work outside the home, integrating work and family life is often an extremely stressful endeavour for which they, rather than fathers, are primarily responsible. Many 'working' mothers feel constantly drained and exhausted as if they are working two full-time jobs, one in the home, one outside the home, one paid, one unpaid. As well, more women than men interrupt their jobs or careers to care for small children and respond to family needs; more mothers than fathers will 'choose' part-time work (and part-time pay), and it is more often women who refuse better paying or more rewarding work if it might conflict with family needs. Once again, the situation for single parents is even more challenging. In many two-parent families women's work outside the home helps keep their families out of poverty. In single-parent mother-led families the reality is more more difficult and exhausting.

Aboriginal babyChildcare
In 2008, Manitoba had 27,189 licensed child care spaces for the 174,900 Manitoban children under the age of 12 years - 113,700 of whom had mothers in the paid labour force (for more data, see the Manitoba chapter of the excellent 2009 report, Early Childhood Care and Education in Canada, published by the CRRU).

In order to use a child care space, a parent must pay. Fees are very high - as much as $7,300 per child per year –much more than the usual cost of university tuition in Manitoba. Child care costs can easily eat up half or more of the after-tax incomes of women working typical jobs such as clerical and service work. In many families, child care is more expensive than the mortgage. While the province provides about 9,600 child care subsidies for very low-income parents (2007 figures), the eligibility rate for a child care subsidy is set very low - well below the poverty line, and there are not enough spaces or subsidies for parents who need them. In 2007 the maximum a single parent with one child could earn to be eligible for a full subsidy was $15,593. Even those parents who are fortunate enough (in other words poor enough) to qualify for a scarce subsidy must still pay a portion of their child care fee.

Because our society provides so little licensed child care, most children with employed/studying parents are in unregulated situations - cared for by relatives, older brothers or sisters, baby-sitters or by themselves. Women on reserves, in small towns, and in rural areas experience the greatest lack as most licensed child care spaces are found in urban centres.

If you think child care costs are high, try working in child care. In Canada, early childhood educators who care for our young children are paid even less than parking lot attendants and zookeepers. According to our economic system, taking care of a child is about as valuable as taking care of a car or an animal. Few child care workers can afford to use the care they provide to other people's children.

Leah worked in a child care centre in Winnipeg for six years. She enjoyed her work and the loving atmosphere of the centre where she worked. But these days Leah is looking for anotChild at day careher career. "The main reason I'm switching is because I couldn't afford it," Leah says. "People think child care is just babysitting but it's not. Working as a child care worker is exhausting." Indeed, caring for a child involves many skills and research shows that the best quality care is provided by staff like Leah who have specific college or university level training in child development. Currently Early Childhood Educators starting salary is $15/hour. Although the province instituted a pension contribution plan for childcare workers in 2010, workers are saying that because of the way it is designed and administered, the program is not a valueable one.

Whether or not one or both of their parents have paid work outside the home, most children need some kind of paid care, be it a babysitter, a neighbour, or a child care centre. The need is there. And the benefits are great. Providing quality, affordable, accessible child care to parents is actually a tremendously good investment for governments. A study by economists at the University of Toronto says that there is at least a 2-to-1 long-term payback from childcare. And that is only economic. We all know that healthy children grow up to be healthy adults and parents who can work or study are able to contribute economically and have more life choices. The social benefits of good child care are enormous.

Children at day careThe global picture
In much of the world children are not seen as the strict responsibility of individual parents. Instead children are recognized as the next generation and highly valued and protected. In many cultures children are very visible in public life: strapped to their mother's backs in African marketplaces, attending meetings with their fathers in rural Indian villages. They are recognized as necessary parts of life rather than impediments and interruptions. Neighbours and grandparents, cousins and friends, older brothers and aunties all take their turn parenting children. In most European countries children are seen to be a public responsibility and this is reflected through tax benefits directed at children as well as universal child care programs available to all parents.

Are things changing?
Over the past decade, there has been some progress on childcare in Manitoba, but it has been slow. One reason for this is the federal government – which promised a new national program in 2004 under the Liberal government of Paul Martin, which was subsequently cancelled by the 2005 election of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.

In 2007, the Manitoba Minister of Family Services released the province's second five-year plan for childcare. Called “Family Choices: Manitoba’s Five-Year Agenda for Early Learning and Child Care”, it set out a series of goals for modest improvements.

Nevertheless, Manitoba continues to suffer from a chronic and serious shortage of trained early childhood educators, which is a problem directly caused by low pay and remuneration. Close to one-third of Manitoba’s childcare centres operate with provisional licenses (granted when centres do not actually meet all regulations but are allowed to continue operations) – a figure that has been relatively constant for almost a decade. Recently, the Manitoba government announced a pension program for early childhood educators, but experts point to many problems with the new plan. New initiatives to encourage training and retention have not proved successful enough to solve the problem.

Almost all of Manitoba’s childcare centres are owned and operated by not-for-profit community boards of directors. A strength of our system is that Manitoba has almost no ‘big box’ childcare operators skimming a profit from caring for children. A major downside, however, is that our province relies on parents and volunteers to build and sustain services, something that the Manitoba Child Care Association rightly calls “unrealistic in the 21 century.”

What can I do?
In Manitoba, unlike in Quebec or in European countries, child care is not a publicly-funded service to which all citizens are entitled. If Manitobans want policy change, they will have to make child care a political priority now, and in upcoming provincial elections. To tell the provincial government that child care is important to you visit the Manitoba government's on-line Budget Consultations. You can get involved in the Child Care Coalition of Manitoba, and other groups that advocate for universally-accessible child care.

To find out more:
Visit our Women & Child Care in Manitoba Fact Sheet for more statistics on child care in Manitoba. A wonderful website for learning more about child care across Canada is hosted by the Child Care Resource and Research Unit. To find out more about child care advocacy in Manitoba or to become involved in advocacy yourself, visit the Child Care Coalition of Manitoba. Finally the book About Canada: Childcare (2009, Fernwood Publishing) is available at the McNally Robinson bookstore in Winnipeg.

Woman reading pregancy bookAcknowledgements
Special thanks to Sheree Capar, Susan Prentice and others at the Child Care Coalition of Manitoba. Thanks also to Lynn Skotnitsky, Leah Erickson, and Roberta Simpson for their input in this article as well as to mothers and children at the Family Community Centre for allowing their photos to appear. Finally, thanks to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the University of Guelph Centre for the study of Families, Work, and Well-being for providing valuable information on child care in Canada.

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