Equitable, affordable child care key to ‘she-cession’ recovery
Efforts to rebuild Canada’s economy that do not also address systemic racism will continue to leave people behind
The writer and feminist Audre Lorde said in 1982 that “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not lead single-issue lives.” Today, this idea must be central to Canada’s COVID-19 recovery efforts as we look toward building our economy back better.
Women in Canada have been disproportionately affected by the economic fallout of COVID-19, particularly women who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour (BIPOC). One solution to mitigate this gender inequality is a national affordable child–care system, which experts agree will help boost women’s labour force participation. But the outsized impacts of COVID-19 on BIPOC communities underscore that any recovery policy, including a child–care program, must simultaneously address systemic racism.
The ‘she-cession’ and the need for affordable child care
Many women have faced an increased burden of care work during the pandemic, leading some to cut their paid work hours or drop out of the workforce. On top of this, women have experienced disproportionate job loss because women-majority sectors, such as retail and hospitality, have been the most affected by COVID-19. As a result, women’s participation in the Canadian labour force reached its lowest level in over three decades this summer (RBC Economics, 2020). BIPOC, especially BIPOC women, are now facing higher rates of unemployment and financial insecurity than those who are white (Statistics Canada, 2020). Such circumstances have led many to deem this recession a “she-cession.”
Experts agree that we need an affordable, safe and high-quality child–care system to ensure an effective and equitable economic recovery (Bezanson et al, 2020; Yalnizyan, 2020). Currently, child care is prohibitively expensive across most provinces and territories: the median cost of preschool-aged child care per month is around $1,000 or more in cities such as Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver (Macdonald and Friendly, 2020). Child–care advocates have recommended that the government contribute at least 1% of the country’s GDP (about $17 billion) each year to create an early learning and child–care system with more affordability and higher capacity – an OECD benchmark that other countries have already surpassed (Friendly, 2015).
Some may balk at this 1% benchmark, but there are crucial social and economic benefits to increased investment in this social infrastructure, not least of which is that affordable and accessible child care is proven to boost women’s participation in the labour force. Mothers still shoulder the majority of care work in Canada: they spent an average of 68 hours per week on child care prior to the pandemic; during the pandemic, this number rose to 95. Fathers’ child–care hours only increased from 33 to 46 (Johnston et al, 2020). Further, those who are Black and Indigenous are more likely than those who are white to have had to give up looking for paid work in order to carry out their increased unpaid work (Oxfam Canada, 2020).
Steps career professionals can take to advocate for this issue:
- Commit to learning more about how child–care responsibilities and systemic racism pose significant and intersecting barriers for the careers of your employees, clients or others you work with, especially if they are women and / or BIPOC.
- Keep apprised of the government’s plans for a Canada-wide child–care plan. Have conversations about why it’s important within your networks and in your workplace.
- Partner with or support organizations working toward racial equity, affordable child care and / or equitable recovery from the pandemic.
- Advocate for policies on anti-racism and flexibility for caregivers within your workplace.
Affordable care would remove some of this care burden from women, especially BIPOC women, and facilitate their return to paid work. This translates to better economic outcomes across society: It is estimated that each additional percentage point of labour force participation for women aged 25-54 would add $1.85 billion to Canada’s GDP (Bezanson et al, 2020).
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An increased investment in the care sector would also create much-needed jobs. One study from the United Kingdom showed that investing 1% of a country’s GDP in child care would create almost three times more jobs than an equivalent investment in construction (De Henau and Himmelweit, 2020). Care jobs are “green” jobs – the care sector does not contribute heavily to carbon emissions or environmental damage, but to a healthy population with educated children (Cohen and Macgregor, 2020).
More investment in child care could further ensure that care workers are better paid and protected, which would draw more people into the sector and result in higher–quality care. These workers, many of whom are women and / or BIPOC, make an average of between $25,000 and $37,000 a year, despite the essential services they provide (Child Care Now, 2018).
What does systemic racism have to do with affordable child care?
Enduring systemic racism in Canada means that BIPOC need targeted recovery policies. BIPOC make up a disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases: In Toronto, they comprise 83% of cases despite representing about half of the population (City of Toronto, 2020). Part of the reason for this, and for why BIPOC are facing relatively high unemployment rates and financial insecurity now, is because they are more likely to hold low-income, unprotected jobs that lead to vulnerability, such as cleaning and personal support work. They also experience limited access to opportunities and services that many mistakenly believe are equally available to everyone, from health care to housing.
Early learning and child care are no exceptions here. Indigenous children face numerous barriers to accessing quality early learning programs. There is a lack of funding and infrastructure for Indigenous child care, particularly in remote communities, as well as a lack of cultural relevancy within these services (Preston, 2008). Black parents have reported that their children experience racial profiling and other discrimination in early learning and throughout their schooling (Maynard, 2017). Black and Indigenous students in the school system are disproportionately expelled or suspended compared to other students (James and Turner, 2017).
A national affordable child–care system will boost our economy and contribute to gender equality. But it will not be fully effective if BIPOC parents are not able to access this service because it does not meet the needs of those in underserved areas. It will not be fully effective if BIPOC children continue to experience discrimination within it. And it will not be fully effective if new jobs are created, but employment discrimination keeps BIPOC women at the bottom of the ranks of the sector. The implementation of anti-racist training and policies across the system, as well as ensuring targeted services and funding for BIPOC communities, are some ways to address these problems within a new national child–care program.
Policy solutions to the gender inequality that has arisen from the pandemic require commitment and action to ensure that all forms of discrimination, including racial discrimination, are tackled head-on. Without this lens, we risk implementing solutions that continue to leave people behind.
Carmina Ravanera is a Research Associate at the Institute for Gender and the Economy. She is also the co-author of A Feminist Economic Recovery Plan for Canada: Making the Economy Work for Everyone.
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