What the US can learn from Canada’s $10-a-day child care effort

A massive social policy experiment is unfolding in Canada to provide families throughout the country with child care for an average of $10 a day. The plan, which was introduced in 2021 amid the turmoil of the pandemic, aims to spend up to $30 billion Canadian by 2026 to bring down child care costs for parents and to create 250,000 new slots.

The federally backed effort brings Canada’s safety net closer to that of other Western democracies that have stepped up on child care, including Finland, Sweden, France, Germany, and Australia, and it could prove an inspiration to other countries whose systems still lag, like the United States.

Almost three years in, Canadian families are already seeing a significant drop in price, paying hundreds of dollars less for care each month than they were prior to 2021. Canada is making “solid progress in offering more affordable child care,” concluded a think tank report issued in October. Five of Canada’s 13 provinces and territories have already reached the $10-a-day child care goal ahead of schedule, while others have reduced their fees by over 50 percent. ($10 in Canadian currency is roughly $7.50 in US.)

In addition to reducing costs for parents, the plan has created about 52,000 new child care spots, and in some provinces, like Nova Scotia, federal funding has helped boost the wages of early-childhood educators.

“This is social infrastructure that will drive jobs and growth,” Canada’s deputy prime minister, Chrystia Freeland, said of the policy in a 2021 budget speech. “This is feminist economic policy. This is smart economic policy.”

Canada is a less populous country than the United States (about 40 million people to the US’s 340 million), and while it has never previously had a national child care policy, it has long embraced a more sturdy safety net than the US, providing its citizens with universal health care and annual family allowances to parents. Moreover, Canada provides parents who want to stay home with their infants partial paid leave for up to 18 months.

Still, the two countries aren’t “radically different,” Elliot Haspel, the author of Crawling Behind: America’s Child Care Crisis and How to Fix It, told Vox, “which is one reason [Canada is] an interesting near peer.” Like in the US, Canadian child care advocates had been organizing with minimal success for decades prior to the pandemic — but unlike in the US, they’re finally seeing meaningful progress.

Consequently, US activists and lawmakers are looking to this dramatic shift in Canadian child care policy for inspiration, and leading congressional Democrats even began this year to incorporate the successful “$10 a day” idea into their own political messaging. The Child Care for Every Community Act, introduced in Congress in February, pledges to cap costs for all families and ensure that at least half of families nationwide pay no more than $10 a day.

The policy shift among Democratic lawmakers is backed by research from the progressive polling firm Data for Progress, which found that when it comes to building support for expanding food assistance, voters were more persuaded when presented with a dollar-per-meal framing compared with a dollar-per-month framing. This fact struck the pollsters, who soon realized the same concept held true when messaging on child care.

“It’s really about drilling down to the smallest dollar denominator that you can to get your point across,” Danielle Deiseroth, the executive director of Data for Progress, told Vox. “You want to avoid having to do mental gymnastics to figure out how much things cost or you’ll be spending. And for child care, we found talking about the actual dollars and cents, especially given how top of mind inflation and high prices have been for voters, was particularly effective.”

Local organizing in Canada helped spur national action

Canada’s national child care plan is on a potentially transformative trajectory, but it didn’t come out of nowhere; rather, years of locally driven organizing proved pivotal in finally moving the needle on the federal level.

Beginning in 1997, the province of Quebec invested in a universal and affordable child care system with the goals of raising public revenue, helping more women join the labor force, and improving child development. While rollout of the effort has been uneven over the last 25 years, researchers found it has helped boost female workforce participation and that the public investments more than paid for themselves. Moreover, when child care centers closed throughout Canada during the pandemic, the publicly subsidized centers in Quebec, which are less reliant on charging parents high fees to operate, were more able to stay open and bounce back to full enrollment. This comparative advantage was not lost on federal politicians struggling to lead Canada out of its economic downturn.

“I’ve been defending private markets all my life. I’m not an extreme leftist. But you also have to be pragmatic,” Pierre Fortin, an economist at the University of Quebec at Montreal, told Bloomberg in 2021. “Child care is an area where private markets don’t do a very good job.”

Advocates in another Canadian province, British Columbia, began organizing for child care under the banner of $10 a day and, beginning in 2016, persuaded the provincial branch of Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP) to embrace the idea too. It became a central and popular legislative plank for the NDP, which identifies as a social democratic party, and helped propel it into government after British Columbia’s 2017 provincial elections.

Carolyn Ferns, the policy coordinator at the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, said advocates in other provinces were wary at first about embracing the $10-a-day mantra pioneered in British Columbia, since for some low-income families, $10 a day is still too high.

“But the simple language made a real difference in getting buy-in from the public and families, especially in terms of retail politics and just being able to explain to people on their doorstep what you’re doing,” Ferns told Vox. “That’s what sold the federal government on it.”

A woman with wavy hair and glasses speaks into a microphone while others stand behind her

Carolyn Ferns of the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care speaks during a press conference at Toronto City Hall.
Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star via Getty Images

In the US, some advocates hope to chart a similar path by organizing landmark state-level child care policy reforms. Earlier this year, Vermont legislators approved a first-of-its-kind package to pour tens of millions of new dollars into the state’s child care system, raising wages for child care workers and reducing costs for families. The path to victory in Vermont involved a concerted 10-year advocacy effort backed by philanthropy and grassroots volunteers.

Similarly, in New Mexico, voters approved a historic ballot measure in 2022 to guarantee a constitutional right to early-childhood education, a political effort that came out of more than 10 years of organizing led by early-childhood educators and parents. National child care advocates heralded the victories in both states and studied the campaigns, hoping to replicate them in other parts of the country.

In Canada, though, child care advocates trace their efforts for a universal nationwide program back well beyond more recent grassroots efforts in the provinces, to the release of a federal report in 1970 that recommended steps to enhance equal opportunities for women throughout Canada.

Martha Friendly, who in 1982 founded the Childcare Resource and Research Unit, a small Toronto-based policy institute, has watched the social movement for child care grow in her country over 50 years. “A lot of the social infrastructure in Canada was developed post–World War II, and child care then wasn’t viewed with a feminist lens, it was established before women were really entering the workforce in a large way,” she told Vox. “Child care was long conceived as a welfare program for the deserving poor, but in the 1980s and 1990s a real movement emerged to reframe child care as an important policy issue for women.”

Advocates like Friendly also credit feminist leaders like Freeland, who is also Canada’s first female minister of finance, and former premier of Quebec Pauline Marois, who served as education minister between 1996 and 1998, with moving government-backed child care efforts forward.

Reducing fees is the easiest part

Not everything has been smooth sailing in the implementation of Canada’s child care plan, especially in more densely populated provinces that have struggled to attract enough new workers to meet the demand for care. Most of the money thus far has gone into bringing down costs for families and not to recruiting and retaining more child care workers.

“The goal of offering child care spaces at $10 a day is not the most difficult part. The difficult part is to create new child care spaces because it requires more people working in the sector,” Sophie Mathieu, an appointee on Canada’s national advisory council on early learning and child care, told Vox. “Currently, child care workers are not very well paid, even in Quebec.”

In November, child care advocates across Canada organized a National Day of Action to demand further public investments. In Ontario, the most populous province, activists drew attention to the thousands of families stuck on waiting lists and the meager salaries of child care workers. To address this, activists are calling for a clearer salary scale, beginning at $30 to $40 per hour for registered early childhood educators and $25 per hour for other staff.

A report issued by Toronto’s economic development committee in late November affirmed that in order to meet its 2017 goal of creating 30,000 new child care slots by 2026, the city will need to add funding and raise wages and benefits “to levels comparable to positions in the public sector.”

It’s not a new problem, even for countries that invest more heavily in their social safety nets; Haspel points to Germany, which is dealing with similar workforce issues. In 2013, Germany declared that all families have a legal right to child care, but then failed to invest enough in funding staff to meet demand. “If you can get your kid into Kita [preschool] you are set, but it’s a huge scramble,” Haspel said.

Friendly, of the Childcare Resource and Research Unit, agrees that more investment into raising wages will be needed but said she’s not too worried overall about Canada’s efforts, as other countries have established comprehensive child care systems through iterative progress over time. “I think building any kind of social program like this is push and pull,” she told Vox. “So it’s not that Canada’s effort is not successful, it’s that we’re in the first phase. In every country that is happy with their child care system, it always took a lot of work.”

Canada’s national child care effort, which prioritizes nonprofit and public day cares, does have some critics, like Peter Jon Mitchell, of the conservative think tank Cardus, who would rather see the government just give families more money directly to spend. “The federal government is trying to entrench an expensive but poor-quality program that serves a minority of programs and that only funds some forms of child care that parents use,” he told Vox. “And they really underestimate the cost and complexity of their plan.”

But Ferns, with the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, rejects this critique and argues it’s been tried before with little success. “We had the conservative approach to child care for over a decade at the federal level under the [Stephen] Harper government, and it didn’t make child care affordable,” she told Vox. “They had universal child care benefits, and child care fees just went up. It didn’t help improve accessibility, affordability, and quality.”

More lessons for the United States

The $10-a-day effort in Canada offers a number of practical lessons that may aid child care reformers in the United States. In addition to the value of working to seed local victories that can potentially be replicated nationally later on, and of simply not giving up, advocates praise Canada’s savvy implementation and straightforward messaging on child care reform.

One feature of the five-year child care implementation plan that Haspel described as “really smart” is the federal government’s commitment to giving voters some immediate benefits as it works toward its larger affordability goal. As an interim step, provinces have already worked to bring average fees down by at least 50 percent. “So you as a politician can say, ‘You were paying $8,000, now you’re paying $4,000,’ and we’re slowly continuing to build these new child care sites online over time,” Haspel said.

Another possible lesson for the US — which, like Canada, faces a shortage of child care workers — is Canada’s openness to immigration. In addition to raising wages and benefits in the child care sector, enlarging the workforce could help create new child care slots. Mathieu told Vox it’s a “very delicate issue,” but it’s one she and her colleagues on the national advisory council have been discussing. “It’s part of the solution,” she said. “It’s one solution among others.”

Advocates in the US also admit there’s something fundamentally more appealing about Canada’s $10-a-day concept than the more complicated advocacy language often used in the US about capping costs to a percentage of one’s annual income. Democrats still use this more cumbersome messaging — it was included in Senate Democrats’ Child Care for Every Community Act, and the Biden administration’s proposed child care rule back in July.

“I like the simplicity of $10 a day,” said Marica Cox Mitchell, a leader with the Bainum Family Foundation, a Maryland-based philanthropy focused on early childhood. “It’s universal.”

Some, however, argue that implementing a Canada-style child care plan pegged to a $10-a-day pledge isn’t the best way to address family challenges in the US. Josh McCabe, the director of social policy at the DC-based Niskanen Center think tank, said he thinks the US would be better off focusing on prioritizing a paid leave policy similar to Canada’s rather than trying to replicate the country’s strategy around child care.

“Canada doesn’t have to worry about supplying nearly as much infant care precisely because the majority of Canadian infants are being cared for at home by their parents for the first year of their life, when center-based care is at its most expensive,” he told Vox. “Another reason to prioritize paid leave over child care is it reduces this problem.”

Many national advocacy groups in the US, including Moms First, Chamber of Mothers, and Moms Rising, reject the idea that politicians must choose one over the other and maintain that, like in Canada, activists in the United States can and should lay the political groundwork so leaders can capitalize on windows of opportunity when they arise.

“Our neighbors to the north have shown it is possible to cut across party lines and invest in a child care system that works for more families,” said Jessica Sager, CEO of All Our Kin, a national group that trains and supports family child care educators. “The vision of a mixed-delivery system, which offers a variety of options to families, is already taking hold in parts of the US. While we can consider Canada’s efforts, we can also find remarkable efforts across our own country.”