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Paul Mitchinson is a part-time writer and a full-time father of two. He writes when he can. » more about me

Daycare vs childcare: Cui bono?

September 15th, 2006

UCCB chequeTwo things came to mind after getting my second "universal childcare" cheque in the mail the other day. First, there is numerical proof that I am now more father than writer, more caregiver than historian. It's been a difficult adjustment to make for someone who has virtually lived in libraries and archives, and who has spent far FAR more time in lecture halls than in playgrounds. But the numbers don't lie. I now earn my keep not through my pen, but through my children. And what a wonderful life it is.

The second thing I realized is how little reliable information there is out there about the Universal Childcare Benefit (UCCB): whom it benefits, whom it disappoints. The Toronto Star has lavished much hostile attention on the UCCB, but it has exercised impressive restraint in asking actual parents with young children what they think. (Its coverage of parental reactions to the UCCB announcement in the Conservative budget last May, for instance, consisted of two stories — one before and one after the budget came down. The reporter spoke to two families. In total. The same two were used in each story.)

For non-Canadians, a quick primer: the UCCB is a program introduced by the new Conservative government to support parents with young children. Instead of financing a system of universal state-subsidized daycare (as in the province of Quebec), the Conservatives chose to provide direct cash payments of $100/month for each child 6 and under. This money can be used to defray the costs of any kind of childcare arrangement — not just institutionalized daycare. (It can also be used to buy beer and popcorn, of course, but that's another story.)

Let's start with what is really bad about the program. First of all, the name. I was willing to hold my tongue when the Conservatives first dubbed their program the Universal Childcare Benefit, since it seemed plausible that the "universal" referred to the "benefit" rather than the "childcare." But now we have the official website, universalchildcare.ca, that exposes this little game.

The other major problem is that the UCCB is, in part, a shell game. The $1200/year UCCB was implemented at the same time that a similar $249/year benefit (the Canada Child Tax Benefit's Young Child Supplement) was axed. This is simple dishonesty. What's more, by replacing an income-tested benefit (the Young Child Supplement) with a universal benefit, higher-income earners benefit disproportionately. This stinks. It should be fixed.

But the bigger problem, according to the UCCB's main critics, is the program's overall tax design. Since the UCCB is considered income taxable in the hands of the lower-income spouse, it results in certain disparities among different kinds of families. The progressive Caledon Institute think tank has spent months focussing on modest-income ($30,000/year), dual-earner families as the "biggest losers " in this regard. Losers? How much income was snatched away from them? In February, Caledon claimed such families would benefit $460/year from the UCCB. In April, they adjusted this figure to $199/year. In May, they admitted the net benefit was actually over three times this — well over $600. So the "biggest losers" are actually winners — just not as big winners as other families, particularly single-income families.

Is this a problem? Well, equity is a laudable goal in tax design. Caledon's Richard Zuker got it just right when he opined in one recent paper that:

Regulated child care is clearly not the preferred or only acceptable method of child care for many parents in all circumstances. If the federal government is going to financially support the provision of child care, it is difficult to see why parents should not be treated equitably in exercising their choice.

Unfortunately, it's a little late in the day for Caledon and other "progressive" critics to be complaining about tax "equity" for parents. The system has been broken for some time.

This fact deserves emphasis: Dual-earner families reap massive tax advantages under the current tax system — particularly if they send their children to day care. While the Caledon Institute furrows its brows over a $100/year "inequity" that advantages single-earner couples, they remain conspicuously silent on the thousands of dollars that advantage dual-earner couples under the current tax system. Consider the following table, outlining how much tax an Ontario couple with one child could expect to pay in 2005:

Family income Tax burden (with no child in daycare) Tax burden (with $6,000 annual daycare expenses)
$30,000 single-earner couple $3,117 $3,117
$30,000 dual-earner (20/10) couple $2,254 $1,091
$50,000 single-earner couple $9,313 $9,313
$50,000 dual-earner (35/15) couple $7,270 $5,959

Just so we're clear here: If you're a family making all of $30,000/year, and you wish to raise a young child at home instead of leaving her in a daycare, the government considers this choice so absurd and socially irresponsible that it will confiscate $2,000 of your annual income. For a family making $30,000/year, that is a serious chunk of money. What if you're part of a family making the princely sum of $50,000/year (still well below the median)? Well, for the privilege of keeping your child out of daycare, you better pony up another $3,350.

The Canadian government, in other words, has already conferred massive tax subsidies on daycares or, to put it differently, tax penalties on those parents who persist in raising their young children at home.

It is this reality that highlights the incoherence of the advocates of universal state-sponsored daycare. Probably the most popular argument for this position is that families need two incomes to keep a household going today. Having one parent stay home to raise one's young children is "not a choice" for most couples today; it is a "luxury" reserved for only the most upper-income families.

To the extent that this is true (and there is definitely some truth to this position), what should a government do? Well, if these critics mean what they say about the restriction of parental choice due to falling family incomes, then the answer is clear: Expand these choices. If raising a child at home is a "luxury" — and thus presumably desirable but unattainable for many parents — why not work to make this "luxury" available to all? As things stand now, far from helping to enable this choice, the tax system is a significant factor in discouraging it. A multi-million-dollar universal daycare scheme would merely exaggerate the already massive tax incentives (and penalties) that have turned child-rearing in the home to be such an unthinkable "luxury."

Quebec daycare statsBut thanks to Quebec, which has already established its own universal daycare system, we now know that the critics of the UCCB are advancing an argument that is as robust as a soggy diaper. The notion that daycare is a social program designed to help lower-income families is a fraud. As careful research has shown, precisely the reverse is true. (Hat tip: economist Stephen Gordon over at breadnroses.ca) According to research completed by Mathieu Grenier, an MA student at Université du Québec à Montréal, the wealthiest 25% of families are more than twice as likely to send their children to daycare as the poorest 25%. (Click on the table on the right.) Wealthy families also enjoy childcare subsidies over twice as large as poor families. If this is an example of a successful social program designed to help the poor, I would hate to see a failure.

Ikea2 Wish I could help! How's this for a start?

"Avoid piling up large boxes and mattresses that completely obstruct access to your 'Help us improve!' station."

Garth TurnerIs Garth Turner on a secret mission to destroy my sanity?

During the last federal election, I offended friends and family by announcing my intention to vote for Turner, Conservative candidate for Halton. Why? Now it's true I liked the Conservatives' childcare plan — certainly as opposed to any nationalized system of daycare as proposed by the Liberals and NDP. But it came down to a very simple issue. Halton's sitting Liberal MP, Gary Carr, had voted against the Liberal bill to recognize same-sex marriage. In doing so, he forfeited any chance of getting my vote again. True, the Conservatives promised to reopen debate on the bill, but Turner vowed that he would never vote to repeal the legislation. And in comments on his blog, he vowed to me that he would be a prominent advocate of same-sex marriage rights.

In this issue and on all others, he has proven to be a man of principle and conviction. I've never been prouder of voting for any candidate. He has courageously criticized the David Emerson appointment, for instance, though this meant being blacklisted by his own Party members.

Now, seven months after the election, he is in a nomination battle. Gathered against him are religious opponents of same-sex marriage, orchestrated by Rev. Charles McVety, President of Canada Christian College. Or, as Turner dubs him in his always entertaining blog, the "Pat Robertson of the North."

Unless I can be convinced otherwise, I'm pretty sure I have only one morally defensible plan of action. Since I voted for Turner specifically on account of his position on SSM — and lobbied others to do the same — I am obliged to defend his nomination against those who would replace him with a candidate opposed to SSM. So I am now $10 poorer, and the Conservative Party coffers $10 richer. And the Party has just gained another member solidly in favour of same sex marriage. 

Headline The Toronto Star has been doing a fine job of self-parody recently.  Today's story, on the horrific terrorist attacks in India, is, well, absolutely breathtaking in its solipsism:

questforheroes.jpgI'm hardly the first to notice that public libraries throughout North America have become increasingly hostile to books. It seems at times that libraries are deliberately designed to prevent, rather than foster, the act of reading. High school kids shoot the breeze while doing "homework," mothers and nannies exchange gossip over a cup of Starbucks, computer games — sorry, educational programs — bark out commands and sing inane ditties to three-year-olds with glazed eyes.

So it was with some hope that I greeted Ontario's "Summer Reading Club," now prominently on display at all the province's public libraries. Similar clubs spring up annually in North American libraries. Staffed by high school volunteers, the club aims to provide some motivation for kids faced with two long months of unstructured time. Goals are set. Rewards offered. My four-year-old loves the stickers and tattoos, even though she doesn't have any problem motivating herself to read.

Unfortunately, libraries seem unable to stop apologizing for their practice of dealing in books. And so, despite offering a program devoted to encouraging children to explore the imaginative world of books, they have convinced themselves that the notion is so outlandish, the pleasures so paltry, that the only way they could ever conceivably sell such a ridiculous notion is by getting inspiration from something that has never appeared in any actual book: the comic book superhero. "Quest for Heroes," blares the poster, which depicts a couple of kids wearing the modified costume of Superman, probably the least interesting superhero ever created.

Yes, yes, I know. The graphic novel is an art form. And I actually know people — accomplished writers — who learned to read by skimming comic books. (And let's not forget that virtually all children's books are replete with illustrations, making them kissing cousins of the comic book.)

Yesterday, when I brought my two-year-old to the children's section of our local library branch, I was struck by the scene. There were ten children there, and I was the only adult. Four kids were planted in front of computer screens, playing "educational" games. Two were playing checkers. One was surfing the Internet. Another two were playing with toys provided by the library — my son was busy with the train set. Not a single book was being read. In the middle of it all stood the "Summer Reading Club" stand, with its contest prominently displayed: "Create Your Own Comic Book! Win Prizes!" Is it any wonder that kids find the world of books so unappealing, if adults can't even be bothered to show enthusiasm for it?

Bird Brains

May 20th, 2006

An article in last Friday’s issue of Science got predictably hysterical coverage in the media. Written by Ezekiel Emanuel and Alan Wertheimer, a pair of "bioethicists," the article addresses the important issue of vaccine rationing in the case of an avian flu pandemic. If there’s not enough vaccine to go around — a virtual certainty — then who should be first in line to get jabbed?

The authors invoke what they call a "life-cycle principle," which is based on the idea that  "each person should have an opportunity to live through all the stages of life …. to be a child, a young adult, and to then develop a career and family, and to grow old — and to enjoy a wide range of the opportunities during each stage." They then balance this with an "investment refinement," which "gives priority to people between early adolescence and middle age on the basis of the amount the person invested in his or her life balanced by the amount left to live." And finally they assert a "public order principle," which focuses on the need to ensure the proper functioning of the social infrastructure — police, hospitals, etc.

Bottom line? Vaccinate health workers first, then move on immediately to folks between 13 and 40. Or, as one typical newspaper headline puts it, "Should pandemic vaccine skip kids, elderly?"

But it is one thing to invoke ethical principles in such a scenario, and quite another to formulate a plan of action based on them. The first step is entirely abstract, while the second requires a sophisticated understanding of the science behind vaccination and pandemic flu. The authors seem to be working under the assumption that a vaccine is like medicine — it helps only the person to whom it is administered.

But this is far from the case. Consider the case of elderly nursing home residents. Studies have shown that the best way to protect the elderly from the flu is not direct vaccination. In terms of alleviating symptoms, vaccinating the elderly is strikingly ineffective — some estimates suggest that only a third of flu cases are prevented using this tactic. But vaccinate nursing home workers and those statistics are markedly improved.

In other words, if the ultimate goal of bioethicists is to have the greatest number of 13-40-year-olds live long and productive lives (a goal I’ll leave unchallenged for the purpose of this discussion, though it strikes me as ethically challenged), that doesn’t necessarily mean the most effective way to do that is to immunize that group specifically. In fact, the footnotes in their own paper suggest a rather different approach. Near the end, they claim that a recent paper by M. Elizabeth Halloran and Ira M. Longini confirm that their own vaccination priorities would "save the most lives." This is preposterous. Longini’s research does not focus on 13-40-year-olds, but on schoolchildren, aged 5-18, a rather different approach.  His conclusion is that a "combination of vaccinating schoolchildren and older adults would be most effective for reducing influenza deaths. Results from influenza simulations that we have conducted indicate that vaccinating just 20% of the schoolchildren would do more in reducing overall mortality in adults over 65 years old than vaccinating 90% of the adults over 65 years of age."

This is important information that anyone responsible for public policy (or ethical decisions) has to take into account. But it is only barely seeping into the consciousness of the public — or, for that matter, of "bioethicists." There are reasons for this, which I hope I’ll be able to get into in a later post.

What Is Your Dad Worth?

May 18th, 2006

Salary.com recently published its annual assessment of the unpaid labour performed by the typical stay-at-home mom. Its assumptions are laughable, of course — and I say this as someone who actually knows something about what it takes to raise pre-schoolers at home, and finds it infinitely more gruelling than any actual paying job.

So how to respond to such nonsense? My natural inclination is to be petty and insulting. Maybe point out that the same folks who prattle on about how moms should be paid $500/day think nothing of shelling out (say) $50/day to the daycare worker who watches their kids.

Fortunately, my dear parents were visiting from the west coast, and my father offered his usual blend of sardonic wit and non sequiturs. My letter to the editor of the National Post, published today, is his voice entirely: 

So, a typical stay-at-home mother performs US$134,121 worth of unpaid labour. As a stay-at-home father of two pre-schoolers, I figure my own unpaid salary should be somewhere around US$174,183. Women earn only 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man, after all.

Stravinsky : The Second Exile: France and America, 1934-1971The final volume of Stephen Walsh’s biography of Igor Stravinsky has just been published, and it’s really a model of the biographical form. Walsh makes an observation in one of his footnotes about Stravinsky’s legendary musical concision, and compares it unflatteringly to the author’s own wordiness. But the books feel too short rather than too long, in my opinion. Highly recommended.

My review appears in the latest issue of The Nation, without, alas, the headline I asked for above.

The audience at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées was spoiling for a fight. Gathered to hear the much-anticipated Paris premiere of music by Igor Stravinsky, many were determined to stop the performance with a noisy demonstration of their opposition. Shortly after the music began, catcalls and shouts rained down on the performers. The shouts turned into whistles. Someone pounded so loudly with a hammer that the performance broke down completely, and the orchestra had to start again. It’s unlikely that anyone heard much of the controversial music that evening, but scandal-hungry Parisian newspapers still managed to vent their outrage in articles with headlines like "Enough of Stravinsky."

But the story is not as familiar as it sounds. For the year is 1945–not 1913, when the Paris premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, with its jaggedly displaced accents and eerily inhuman melodies, famously provoked a riot. And the work in question, far from hailing the shock of the new, was an amiable piece of orchestral fluff titled Four Norwegian Moods. Naturally, the protesters were different too. Instead of a bourgeois subscription audience horrified at a musical and visual spectacle, the 1945 protesters were conservatory students incensed at what they considered the reactionary hegemony of Stravinsky. It had been a long thirty years: Igor Stravinsky, once the enfant terrible of the musical world, was now démodé. …

Saving Professor Fitzpatrick

April 12th, 2006

For Russians, World War II is known as the "Great Patriotic War" [Великая Отечественная Война]. Anyone who has visited Russia or spoken with Russians can appreciate the sentiment behind this. World War II was unimaginably brutal — and brutalizing — even for a population who had endured Stalin’s Great Terror just a few years before. But however comforting the phrase may be, it is a serious historical distortion. Russia’s role in World War II did not begin in 1941 with Hitler’s invasion of Russia — as is implied by the phrase. It began in 1939, when the Soviet Union, in concert with the Nazis, invaded Poland. It continued with the Soviet invasions and annexations of the Baltic states. Unfortunately, though these events are indisputably part of World War II, there was nothing "great" or "patriotic" about them — nor did they have anything to do with the fatherland.

As I say, I can appreciate why Russians would want to embrace this self-flattering description of their role in World War II. What I can’t understand is why Western historians collude in this little fairy tale. In last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Sheila Fitzpatrick, the doyenne of Russian "revisionist" historiography, reviewed a magnificent new book by Catherine Merridale in the New York Times. It’s a sour little review that deliberately avoids engaging Merridale’s central argument about the "myth" of the Great Patriotic War. When Merridale openly acknowledges the limitations of her research, and the counter-intuitive responses of her interview subjects, Fitzpatrick sneers, "So much for debunking."

But I was bewildered when I read this line from Fitzpatrick’s review:

For Russians the war began horrifically, with a chaotic retreat before the German invasion of June 1941.

Did Professor Fitzpatrick even read the title of the book she was reviewing? It is Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945.

Milosevic as Scapegoat

March 16th, 2006

Anyone wanting insight into Canadian elite-think could do worse than reading yesterday’s Op-Ed in the National Post by James Bissett, Canada’s ambassador to Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Aptly headlined Scapegoat, R.I.P., the article is a frankly revisionist account of the policies and character of Slobodan Milosevic.

He has been described as the "Butcher of the Balkans." He is accused of masterminding four wars, of committing genocide and ethnic cleansing. These charges have been repeated so many times that they have become part of received wisdom. Yet the facts tell a different story.

Just so we’re clear: Bissett believes that Milosevic was not a butcher, did not mastermind four wars (how many then? three? two? none?), did not commit genocide, and — most incredibly — did not engage in ethnic cleansing.

So just who is to blame for the Yugoslav catastrophe? Why, the Slovenians, of course:

But it was not the Serbians and "Slobo" who started the wars in Yugoslavia. The fighting started because Slovenia, then a Yugoslav republic, declared unilateral independence and used force to seize customs posts along the Austrian border.

One wonders why Louise Arbour was wasting so much time persecuting Milosevic when she ought to have been congratulating him for exercising such admirable restraint — as Bissett boasts of doing. Arbour would have spent her time more productively prosecuting those awful Slovenians for engaging in the horrific practice of (gasp!) seizing custom posts — by "force," no less!!

Now this might seem to be a rather extreme view of the conflict, to put it charitably. But in fact, it perfectly encapsulates the position taken by many in Canada’s political, military, and media elite. In brief, the view was this: Milosevic and his Serbian allies in Bosnia and Kosovo might have committed "excesses," but all sides were equally to blame.

The classic formulation was spelled out by Major-General Lewis MacKenzie, former Chief of Staff of the United Nations Protection Force in Yugoslavia. In his book, Peacekeeper, MacKenzie highlights this quote on the back cover:

If I could convince both sides to stop killing their own people for CNN, perhaps we could have a ceasefire.

This was not just a throwaway line. According to a famous article in the New Republic, MacKenzie was the anonymous source for a widely-publicized London Independent story claiming that Bosnian Muslims were bombing themselves. (MacKenzie himself later backed off the claim.)

This, of course, is the ultimate endpoint for anyone who has ever complained about "media bias" against Milosevic and the Serbs. It is never really about denouncing the war crimes committed by all sides in the Yugoslavia conflict — an admirable position passionately embraced by anyone of principle. But blithely asserting that "both sides did it," and all are equally to blame, is a travesty of history. And it inevitably leads to trivializing Milosevic’s crimes and blaming the victims.