Child care advocates are blaming bureaucratic bungling for failing to get daycare subsidies to Manitoba families in need.
In February, an estimated 12,000 more daycare spaces qualified under the expanded Manitoba Child Care Subsidy Program. It was part of the Stefanson government’s promise to achieve the federal goal of $10-a-day child care by 2023, and a 50 per cent fee reduction by the end of the year.
However, one Winnipeg daycare operator says she’s sitting on more than $100,000 she can’t distribute to parents in need because of bureaucratic red tape.
"I’ve done this for 40 years — I can tell you this is the worst ever that I’ve ever seen, ever (in terms) of how the government is handling all of this and the communication and the whole accounting," said the operator, who didn’t want to be named.
Manitoba joined the federal government’s $30-billion universal child care plan in August 2021, to the tune of $1.2 billion over five years.
In February, Manitoba altered its formula so households with a net income of $37,116 (or below) qualify for a full subsidy, while households with a net income of $82,877 could qualify for a partial subsidy. The change is estimated to save families an average of about 30 per cent in out-of-pocket child care fees.
“I’ve done this for 40 years ‐ I can tell you this is the worst ever that I’ve ever seen, ever (in terms) of how the government is handling all of this and the communication and the whole accounting.” – Daycare operator
Three months into the expansion, the Winnipeg operator said the onus has been put on daycares to distribute funding, despite many parents not even being aware they qualify, due to a lack of government messaging.
Rather than directly cut costs, she said, the province is instead forcing parents and operators to jump through hoops to possibly receive subsidized child care.
"Nobody has sent anything out to the parents, the only communication has been the daycares themselves. And really, it’s not up to us to do this, because it’s not our money, it’s the parents’ money… and they’re dumping it on to us," she said.
"But they’re also leaving it sort of very open, because I really don’t know at this point how we’re going to account for all of that."
Meantime, already overwhelmed daycares are forced to take time normally used for operations to "launder (the province’s) money," the operator added.
Manitoba has some of the lowest child care costs in the country, and is receiving more money than ever to be spent on child care, but the barriers to access are causing a "death by 1,000 cuts" situation, according to University of Manitoba Prof. Susan Prentice.
“Nobody has sent anything out to the parents, the only communication has been the daycares themselves. And really, it’s not up to us to do this, because it’s not our money, it’s the parents’ money… and they’re dumping it on to us.” – Daycare operator
"All of it is what in my biz is called ‘administrative burdens;’ they’re inefficient, they require management, they cost money to monitor and maintain and it’s a very different approach from a nice, clean fee reduction, lower fees for everybody," one of Canada’s leading child care experts said.
"What’s really important to understand is that in Manitoba, the price of child care is not changing, and the price of child care is changing in every other, Quebec aside, in every other of the provinces and territories."
Prentice said she hasn’t heard of any other province deciding to expand subsidy eligibility — rather than more directly lower the price of child care.
Prentice criticized what she called "a much less inclusive, generous and, in fact, less efficient approach to child care" because parents are forced to prove they’re still eligible for the subsidy several times a year, and can lose the subsidy if their income situation changes.
"When things are only made accessible to parents because they meet certain quite punitive assumptions… what the province is functionally doing is saying, ‘See, all these new parents will get a subsidy and so they will pay less money, and so the amount that parents pay will go down and so it’s (like it) dropped the fees,’" she said.
“You’re not a consumer with rights on a subsidy, you’re kind of a supplicant.” – Prof. Susan Prentice
"Except it’s really quite different. Because you’re not a consumer with rights on a subsidy, you’re kind of a supplicant."
The child care subsidy being paid to facilities on behalf of the parents is standard practice for the Early Learning and Child Care program, a spokesperson from the province said, adding facilities have received funding in advance to ensure they remain stable while families apply for subsidies.
"Manitoba is using the subsidy threshold increase as a first step towards reaching the average $10 per day parent fees," the spokesperson said in an email. "This approach allows for more lower- and middle-income families to pay fees related to actual net household income levels."
The spokesperson noted there is a three-month advance available that allows facilities to waive parent fees while waiting for applications to be processed.
In Saskatchewan, licensed facilities receiving funding from the government put it directly toward parent fees without the parents having to apply.
"We looked at lots of different options, and the one we landed on was the one we thought was fair to all the parents in the province, that would reduce the child care costs for everybody," assistant deputy minister of education Gerry Craswell said.
Jumping through Manitoba’s hoops was an "atrocious" process for mother of two and chairwoman of the Fort Rouge Child Care board Lori Isber. Both of her children use daycare and while Isber learned she wasn’t eligible for the expanded funding, it took her hours and more than one try to get there through the online application program.
"I work in web design and the user experience is pretty bad. It hasn’t been improved in a long time, and that’s sort of what’s creating a bottleneck," she said. "A lot of people start and then just give up."
Her concern is people who aren’t as digitally-savvy or possibly speak English as a secondary language or are newcomers won’t be able to navigate the subsidy process at all, meaning funding is going untouched by those who may need it most.
"I can’t believe that it isn’t front and centre, why people aren’t out championing it. I just don’t understand why they’re being quiet and hush-hush."
The province said plans are currently underway to improve the application process and increase messaging about the subsidy.
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.