Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

For the Children

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Bad Press, Vague Check (Wednesday December 7, 2005 at 7:57 am)

Part of the problem with “just the facts, ma’am” reporting is that presenting subsequent releases of partisan information without context is misleading, at best.

Consider the following. Tories promise $1,200 per annum per child under 6, regardless of whether the money is used for child care or not. Liberals promise to renew a $5billion dollar program with a $6billion dollar extension when it expires.

What’s a voter to do? The Prime Minister claims that the Tory program puts only $25 dollars a week in the hands of parents — presumably, that’s insufficient. The Tories counter that their payments provide freedom of choice — presumably, that’s preferable.

Does the Star column help? Not really, because it doesn’t clarify some important points:

  • According to government figures, there are roughly 2.2 million children under six living with parents
  • The additional funds the Liberals are promising would not increase annual amounts
  • The existing agreements leave the implementation of programs and use of funds largely to the discretion of the provinces. Ontario has, for example, decided to use them to expand “affordable child care”, probably along the lines of the Quebec system
  • The Quebec system includes a $7-per diem charge (far more than $25/week), and many daycares charge significant additional fees for materials, services, and other standard features, within the law of the program

What’s the upshot? Depends.

Despite the numbers quoted by the Star, if every eligible child (under six) applied for the $1,200, the program would cost $2.6 billion per annum, more than double the amount on offer from the Liberals. The comparison the Star offers is unconscionably deceptive, pairing the Tories’ 5-year plan cost with the Liberals’ 10-year plan cost.

Foul play, gentlemen, foul play. You might be tagged as playing favorites.

The Liberal plan could be more beneficial if its effects are targeted to a smaller group. If a given province uses the money exclusively to subsidize daycare for lower-income earners, then it could provide benefits equal to or greater than the Tory plan; but not if spread widely through the middle class.

The difficulty in evaluating the two rests on precisely this point: it’s impossible to say what the effect of the Liberal’s plan will be without knowing in advance how the provinces will use the funds, and that information simply isn’t available. The agreements in place now are regarded merely as “agreements in principle”, isolating them from any genuine enforcement mechanism. What is more, nothing binds the provinces to use the money to create new daycare spaces or opporunities. The federal government’s inability to make provincial governments follow its lead on medicare doesn’t suggest that it has the ability to produce a comparable program for child care.

Similarly, the Tory plan rests on the assumption that such funds, in combination with tax cuts to businesses subsidizing child care, would successfully provide the additional spaces necessary for young children. That’s far from certain. Going by the Quebec results, the $1,200 wouldn’t cover the existing $7/day, let alone additional expenses. But then, the current program doesn’t cover them either.

In this respect, Prof. Friendly of UofT’s comments are right on the money, but in respect of both plans: we can’t evaluate them very well. Neither plan offers real provisions for establishing the effects of the policy.

And make no mistake: this is a policy choice. It’s just that they make it as hard as possible to tell what the policies amount to, beyond vague philosophical statements keyed to “free choice” and “public” care.

If the argument is that this is a fight between “public” child care and “free choice”, then we’re having a stupid argument indeed — one based on gut reactions to terms that only have meaning in the narrow discourse of our political millieu. If the question is which plan will better provide daycare to children, then a bit more needs to be demanded than which label politicians want to give the system (and each other). Some details would help.

In consideration of which, it’s hard to pick a winner between the two. Oh, the strategic implications are obvious: Harper tries to look like he cares deeply about social programs (softening his image), while Martin claims that Harper’s proposal means that he’s against public child care, which is meant to make voters associate the position with an attack on public health care (ah, wascally wabbit).

But who cares about such nonsense? Sadly, far too many people. The point is, which is better?

The wonk’s heart thaws at the thought of freedom, which instinctively makes him prefer the Tory plan. The Liberal plan has the benefit of being cheaper, but the benefits themselves are harder to determine. Moreover, more money going to daycare just seems more likely to ensue from the Tory plan. At least the money under the former can be put directly towards child care spaces — in the latter case, it is far from certain.

Nah. It’s worth waiting to see what the NDP put out before crowning a winner.

Until then, the children will just have to make do with these castles in the air — and we all know how they love them. Sad part is, adults should know better.

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