Balancing child care and employment has become a growing challenge for households. Families are increasingly dependent upon two incomes. In 2003, more than 75 per cent of two-parent households relied on dual incomes. The challenge for single parents is even more daunting as they seek to balance nurturing, homework and paid work.

Relying on child care has become a fact of life for most families with young children. Addressing parents’ need for access to affordable and reliable high-quality child care that provides a safe learning opportunity for their children has become one of the most important social policy challenges.

Finally, after more than a decade of promises by the Liberals, the Paul Martin government reached agreements in 2005 with most provinces to support the development of more affordable regulated child-care opportunities. Now, Conservative Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has confirmed that the provinces have been told that in March 2007 the Tory government will scrap child-care agreements signed by the Liberals.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper plans to replace the federal provincial agreements with a “choice in child care allowance.” The allowance provides $100 monthly to parents for each child under six years of age. No doubt many households will welcome the additional income. But as the Caledon Institute has recently noted, the actual additional income will be less than expected for many households. The allowance will be taxable and for some households, child-tax benefits and GST credits will decrease due to the allowance.

The Conservative’s program comes at a high price. It cuts the federal and provincial investments that are designed to increase the number of regulated child-care spaces, and replaces them with an allowance to parents that has no direct connection to the development of child-care spaces. Parents will receive the allowance regardless of whether their children participate in child-care programs.

Providing financial supports to families is not inherently a bad thing, but it’s not a child-care program.

Research clearly shows the importance of early childhood development programs to increasing opportunities for children in later life. Canadian and international studies have repeatedly found that child-care programs in Canada are inadequate when compared to those in other industrialized countries.

Rather than develop regulated community-based child-care centres, the Conservatives claim they will be providing funds for families to spend as they choose, “whether that means formal child care, a babysitter, neighbour child care, or helping one parent stay at home.”

Having options is nice, but most parents are not looking to social programs to provide them with babysitters, although they probably appreciate some financial recognition for unpaid child-care work they do at home. Many parents may prefer to look after their own pre-school children at home. However, two incomes are increasingly necessary to maintain living standards at the same level as in the early 1990s and for more and more families, operating on one income is not an option — and is not desired.

As for “formal child care,” which means some form of regulated child care, the $100 family allowance will do little to attract and retain qualified child-care workers, who are the most underpaid workers relative to their qualifications in Canada. And the fact remains there are insufficient regulated spaces to meet the demand by parents, and the allowance will do little if anything to support the development of new spaces.

Moreover, for those who use formal child care, the $100 a month will likely be taken up in increased fees to pay for needed salary increases, infrastructure development and equipment costs that the federal-provincial child-care agreements were supposed to help pay for.

The allowance will not provide the supports sought by women who intend to enter or re-enter the workforce after having a child. Women still generally have lower incomes than men and when faced with the choice as to who stays at home with the children, most families will opt for the lower-income parent.

The proposed allowance sits well with social conservatives. A founder of the Advocates for Child Care Choice recently wrote in The Globe and Mail that “the (child-care) system encourages parents to stay away from their kids” and the “continuation of the day-care deals would actually encourage parents to spend less time with their children.” Implicitly, according to these folks, not only is regulated child care bad, but parents (usually mothers) are being neglectful by not “choosing” to stay at home with their children.

Such caricatures of child care and parents who use regulated child care are not at all helpful. Most parents don’t have a choice when it comes to using child care. The reality is that a child-care program should support parents and families by providing options for families and learning opportunities. The program should support stay-at-home as well as employed parents.

Conservatives like to portray the national child-care agreements as big government interference in the lives of families. This fits nicely with conservatives’ distaste for social programs in general and a preference for market-based solutions to social policy challenges. The truth is that the existing agreements allow for a variety of options, including community-based centres that are directed by parents and programs that allow for part-time use.

The replacement of the federal-provincial child-care agreements will undermine a long-overdue initiative that would support families as they seek to balance paid work and care for their children. The Conservatives would really show some commitment to child care by providing the allowance in conjunction with the existing federal-provincial agreements.