Newfoundland and Labrador experiencing child-care crisis despite government claims

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Appeared in the St. John's Telegram, May 23, 2024
Newfoundland and Labrador experiencing child-care crisis despite government claims

Recently in the House of Assembly, Krista Lynn Howell, Newfoundland and Labrador minister of education, trumpeted the Furey government’s “efforts to improve access to early learning and child care,” which “have been recognized in a recent report by the Atkinson Centre for Society and Child Development, which ranks Newfoundland and Labrador fourth in the country amongst all provinces and territories when comparing governance, funding, access, the early learning environment, and accountability.”

But the Atkinson Centre report is a curious one. Its scorecard for ranking provinces includes little criteria on the accessibility or quality of child care but instead mainly awards points for imposing more regulation and government control. For example, Newfoundland and Labrador is graded better because its Early Childhood Education and Care curriculum framework is mandatory in regulated child-care programs, and because of professional development requirements for Early Childhood Educators (ECEs).

When it comes to actual child-care accessibility and outcomes, however, Newfoundland and Labrador is shockingly bad. According to Statistics Canada, in 2023 the percentage of families in the province who had difficulty finding child care (among those using it) was 67.2 per cent—worse than any other province and double the 33.5 per cent that had difficulty finding child care in 2019.

At the same time, the percentage of children aged 0-5 attending child care in Newfoundland and Labrador remained below the national average—52.2 per cent versus 56.1 per cent nationally in 2023. And the number of children attending child care in the province has steadily declined from 15,240 in 2019 to 12,100 in 2023—a drop of about 20 per cent in four years.

While massive government spending, including more than $346 million from the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador child care agreement (from inception to 2025-26) has inflated demand and increased the taxpayer burden, supply has not kept up. Thus the dire statistics on child-care accessibility in the province.

Stories on the ground similarly reflect a child care crisis. For example, earlier this year CBC reported that “for months, parents in Newfoundland and Labrador have been lamenting the struggle to find child care, while some workers in the industry have highlighted a stark reality of low wages, few benefits and high turnover.”

In fact, a survey of ECEs in the province published in March found 45 per cent are considering leaving the field due to a lack of professional recognition and 42 per cent plan to leave the field because of low wages. Underlining the crisis, a representative with the non-profit Child Care Now said in a recent interview with NTV that the shortage of ECEs is the biggest issue with child care in Newfoundland and Labrador. “That is the main problem, and the failure to address this workforce shortage is squarely on the shoulders of the province,” she said.

The shortage is likely to persist. On top of the fact that many ECEs are looking to exit the field, according to a study by three University of Toronto economists, Newfoundland and Labrador needs more than 400 new ECEs graduates to staff the number of full-time spaces the province has promised by 2025-26. Unfortunately, the province is currently graduating fewer than 30 per year.

Predictably, some activists want the government to fix the shortages by pouring more money into its existing child-care strategy. But all across Canada, increased government control has been deleterious to the child-care sector as taxpayers don’t get benefits commensurate with what they pay. Reducing regulation and increasing families’ purchasing power (by taxing and spending less of their money) is the better solution. That way, the number of child-care workers (and their wages) would align more with their market value and what families demand, as opposed to arbitrary government decisions.

The child-care crisis in Newfoundland and Labrador—the worst accessibility of any province, attendance down 20 per cent in four years—is nothing for the Furey government to boast about, whatever the Atkinson Centre report might suggest. Neither the status quo nor increasing the taxpayer burden are desirable policy paths. The path forward is to reduce government influence over the sector and hand control back to families.

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