Leaving Children Out in the Cold

child knittingApparently people get all subjective when they talk about children. Thank goodness we have economists. Not those crazy “social welfare” people who are “lobbying the state for more resources for families with children.” Real economists. With real facts. Economists like Christopher Sarlo, from the Fraser Institute, who published a real report (The Cost of Raising Children) on the real cost of raising children in Canada.

So let’s talk economics shall we? Let’s talk cost. Let’s talk cash changing hands. Because the primary critique that this report makes of other (higher) estimates of the cost of raising children is that these other reports measure how much parents SPEND, not the absolute COST of meeting a child’s essential needs. The report’s point is that, as parents, we spend money on all kinds of things that aren’t really needed (bigger houses, expensive vacations to Disneyworld). Fair enough.

So what are the basic needs of a child and what is the market value of the goods and services required to meet those needs? Here are the things Sarlo’s report counts as constituting the basic needs of a child for which there is an economic cost: food, clothing, personal care, household supplies, and “personal allowances, recreation, religion, school supplies”. Any other expense is deemed to be either a “lifestyle” choice or a cost that parents would bear even if they did not have children.

Before we get to what isn’t included in this list (housing, childcare), let’s look at what is included and how the estimates are made.

The Fraser Institute report rejects the Health Canada “Nutritious Food Basket” model for the cost of a healthy diet and minimum goods and services. Why? Because “[t]here is no assumption of thrift (no savings strategies, buying and stocking of sale items, no couponing, etc.).” Sarlo, however, does not seem to have a clear idea of what would actually reduce the cost of household goods. For example, “stockpiling” fruit and vegetables seems ill-advised from a health point of view. “Knitting,” another example of thrifty parenting behavior, ignores the fact that the cost of yarn is such that it makes most homemade knit items more expensive than the least expensive comparable store-bought item.

The emphasis on ‘thrift’ continues throughout the report, appearing generally in relation to characterizations of “fiscally conservative” parents and “low income and immigrant” parents. The repetition of these characterizations builds an implicit narrative of a thrifty, fiscally-conservative, low-income immigrant parent who spends even less than the report’s estimated $2500-$4000/year on each child and the middle or high income parent who takes expensive vacations (trips to Paris and Disneyworld are both mentioned), owns a large expensive house, and buys expensive clothing for their children.

There is no demographic data to support this narrative. The only support given for the existence of such fiscallyconservativelowincomeimmigrant parents, is the appendix which reprints anonymous, online comments from websites on which other articles on the cost of child rearing have appeared. Using these anonymous online comments as a basis for accurately characterizing the fiscal behavior of parents in Canada is like using the comments on “Rate my Professor” as basis for evaluating the quality of Mr. Sarlo’s teaching.

Now, on to the two significant costs that are excluded from the report’s definition of the ‘basic needs’ of a child: housing and childcare.

The Fraser Institute report argues that both are optional costs. Sarlo does concede that for a low-income family renting a one-bedroom apartment there may be a need to move to a two-bedroom apartment. However, he concludes that this can be done for no additional cost, because some two-bedroom apartments are less expensive than some one-bedroom apartments.

While this is factually the case, it ignores the initial logic of his own argument: that we should calculate the “minimum level of spending that must occur for the healthy development of the child, regardless of the level of parental income.” In this case, parents with no income (or low incomes) would, presuming thrift, be living in the cheapest available apartment. In every market in Canada, this would be a studio or one-bedroom apartment. And in every market in Canada, the cheapest available two-bedroom apartment would cost MORE than the cheapest available one bedroom or studio apartment. Therefor, there is a minimum level of spending on housing that must occur in order to meet minimum child welfare standards for living conditions.

Now for child care costs. The report argues that few parents have childcare expenses, thus childcare expenses are not a basic necessity. This is nonsense for several reasons. First, it is inconsistent with the logic of the report itself, which claims to measure absolute minimum costs, not spending by parents. Second, counting only what parents spend on childcare is like counting only people with jobs as the total number of people in Canada who need jobs. It ignores all the people who are looking for jobs, who are unemployed, and who have given up hope of finding jobs. Likewise, counting what parents spend on childcare as the total amount of spending needed ignores all the parents who cannot find childcare spots, parents who can’t afford the childcare spots available, and the parents who have had so much difficulty finding childcare that they have given up looking.

Childcare costs, like housing costs, must be included in the “minimum level of spending that must occur for the healthy development of the child, regardless of the level of parental income.” Not to include those costs would be to ignore child welfare laws. Leaving a 3 year old home alone while parents go out to work would almost certainly result in the prosecution of the parents for child neglect and the apprehension of that child by child protective services. Given that over two-thirds of all parents with children age 5 and under work, there is a LEGAL obligation of those parents to provide child care for their child while they are at work. Thus, childcare must be included as an expense.

Further, the argument that childcare costs should not be included because one parent can leave work and stay home to care for the child ignores the economic cost of lost income for that parent. (It also ignores the presence of single-parent families.) A family that forgoes one parent’s income is bearing the cost of that lost income. Further, this represents multiple losses to the economy. There is the loss of an income, the loss of the taxes paid on that income, and the loss of the input into the economy of the funds paid to provide childcare (which in turn contribute to the income of the childcare provider).

The Fraser Institute report does not provide a more accurate and less subjective accounting of the minimum costs necessary to provide for a child. It includes a variety of subjective characterizations of parental behavior (“thrifty,” “conservative”) and attaches them to groups of parents (“immigrant,” “low income”) with no evidence supporting such a linkage. It excludes real costs required to care for a child in a manner that meets the legal threshold required by Canadian child welfare standards. It mixes cost-based estimates with expenditure-based estimates, in spite of dismissing the latter as they appear in other reports.

The impact of the report’s conclusion are potentially devastating to the well-being of families in Canada. Affordable housing is essential to ensuring that parents can provide safe living conditions for their children. Affordable housing can make the difference between abused women and children staying in an unsafe setting or leaving it. And providing affordable and safe childcare? Well, according to those social welfare activists at TD Economics, investing in child care “fosters greater labor force participation”; it increases job opportunities; and it “reduces duration of unemployment if it occurs.” As if that isn’t enough, TD Economics goes on to conclude that investing in child care “can also reduce poverty and help to address income inequality.”

Call me subjective, but I do think that children should have a safe place to live and somebody to look after them while their parents go to work. I think less child poverty would be a good thing. And call me spendthrift, but I actually think a Canada with well-cared for children is worth investing in.

Kate McInturff  is a CCPA research associate and an expert on gender budgeting and women’s human rights. 


  1. i’m sorry, but i have to agree with the Fraser Institute.

    i have three kids – 27, 24, and 6 – and there is NO WAY EVER i paid $12 – $14k/yr on any of them.

    going by “conventional” numbers, nobody on social assistance (a person with one child on welfare makes less than a thousand a month to cover all living expenses, plus dental and medical coverage) would ever be able to have a kid.

  2. They didn’t include child care?! From what I read about the report I determined it was garbage and didn’t bother to go make myself angry by reading it – but seriously… we want people to work, but no allowance for child care. Such logic they have. And such credibility. NOT.

  3. After having raised two children with two very different special needs, I suggest strongly that this report was written by someone who has NO idea of what it takes to raise a child, with or without special needs. I was forced to take one child out of alopathic medicine to save his life because of the politics in Toronto and I was forced to take the other out of the country to save his life because there was nothing adequate or appropriate in Ontario. To say that one can raise a healthy and happy child on $4500.00 annually is dreaming. What about social interactions? What about sports equipment? What about school books and accessories? And if the child is a baby, what about the cost of formulas, baby food, and probably diapers? While he quotes a middle-class income on the suggestion that children do not need to cost approx. $15,000.00 per year, I suggest that most cost MORE. The child raise at the $4000.00 level would be deprived of most activities – school or otherwise and most social inclusion. If this “journalist” is suggesting that he is talking about only basic needs, perhaps he needs to look at the nutritional needs of a child and calculate the cost of food. Then there is the clothing that they grow out of every few months and shoes are NOT cheap unless you want more expenses as the child gets older to correct the problems cause by poor footwear. What was he/they thinking? This is a very biased and incomplete study that needs to be discounted for these very reasons.

  4. Great commentary Kate.
    I’d add that if anyone is looking for a realistic, yet conservative, estimate of what it costs to raise children (including housing and child care costs), they need look no further than the CCPA’s calculation of the living family wage. The latest Vancouver calculation can be found here: http://www.policyalternatives.ca/livingwage2013

  5. I am completely and totally frustrated by the childcare situation in Canada and particularly in Saskatchewan where I reside. Childcare is a NEED and not just a want.
    Let me tell you about my situation. When my first child was 11 months old, I had to go back to work. Having no family nearby who could provide childcare for me, I had had her on every waiting list in a 75 minute radius of our home in Western Manitoba since she was born and I had also posted my need for childcare on several bulletin boards to no avail. Not one person phoned me to say they could watch my child while I worked. I had phoned every childcare provider on the childcare registry but was told that there were no available spots and additionally, that most of those providers did not even use the registry lists as they never had a problem looking for children to fill their spots. I ended up having to quit my job. This led to much financial hardship. My husband was working full-time but his income was only enough to pay rent and utilities and gas to work and for diapers. He lacked the skills or education to get a better job and his work hours were all over the board so it was impossible for me to find a job to work around his schedule. Therefore we had no money for food or clothing. We had to subsist on our local rural food bank and beg money off of family for at least 10 months, and our clothes and shoes were fairly worn out. As the food bank provided us with only about a week’s worth of food and diapers we spread that out as best we could but it didn’t go far and we were often hungry. Throughout those months our lives got worse as our washing machine broke and our pump (we lived on well-water) broke so we also went without water for 5 months because we couldn’t afford to pay a plumber. Our older vehicle continued to break down and we continually had to use our utilities money to pay for repairs so my husband could get to work. Our power was turned off three different times, once for as long as 3 weeks. Things were dire but I finally managed to find an older lady to care for my daughter in her home and I went back to work. After this happened, because our income was doubled, we finally began to catch up and make ends meet. Two years later, with good steady incomes, we had another child. With only 55% of my income (the amount you get on EI while on maternity leave) and my husband’s, money was tight but we had what we needed so things were okay for us. Once my maternity leave for my second child was up, I went back to work and things were good. However, 4 months after that, the lady that cared for my children, suffering from ill health, could no longer care for them and I scrambled to find alternate childcare. I was not able to and I had to quit my job. Suddenly we were back to our old situation. It was completely frustrating. I tried to maintain my income by providing childcare in my own home but in Manitoba you are only allowed to care for a maximum of 4 children at a time, including your own, if you are unlicensed. It was too difficult to get licensed–especially in my home which would have needed thousands of dollars in renovations–so my husband and I made the decision to sell our house and move to Saskatchewan where my family is and where I grew up. My husband and I both found great jobs in Saskatchewan and we rented a house there. At first things were great. My sister-in-law watched my kids but after about 6 months she decided to go back to work and because both my husband and I worked shift work, we could not find a childcare provider who could care for my children during the times we needed. For a while I relied on various other relatives or friends to fill in the needed babysitting hours but most of them worked too and it was a common occurrence for me calling in sick to work because I couldn’t find anyone. I was so devastated when, for the third time in 5 years, I had to quit my job due to lack of childcare. For 2 months I stayed home with the kids but now my husband is getting laid off for the fall/winter so is able to collect EI so I am returning to work. I actually just started my new job 2 weeks ago and so far it is always a mad-scamble to find someone to babysit. It will be that way until mid-September, my husband’s layoff date. There have been a couple days in which my children got traded off 4 different times to various relatives in the course of one of my shifts (ie. an aunt for one hour, then a sister-in-law for 3 hours then a brother for an hour and then a neighbour for 4 hours) but it’s only for couple more weeks so hopefully I won’t have to pull all my hair out before then. The kids have been fairly cranky lately too with all the chaos and lack of stability but then they’ll have daddy looking after them full time until the spring before he returns to work so the frustration/chaos will return then. And despite the fact that I will have eight months to find a childcare provider, I don’t have much optimism in succeeding because I know no one in our area that starts at 6am. So my story is to be continued…
    My point in telling my long story is that often, both parents in a family unit NEED to work in order to provide adequate income to maintain a household and thereby NEED to have access to childcare.
    One other point I wanted to make is that there is often a lack of differentiating between accessibility and affordability in regards to childcare. In many forums online, I hear people all the time talking about the expense of childcare and that is the rhetoric in much of the various lobbing groups’ demands. For me, affordability isn’t as much of a problem as accessibility. If I have to, I’ll pay $1200 a month for childcare (half my income per month) but that means nothing if I can’t even find this expensive childcare to begin with. In other words, expensive childcare is better than no childcare at all.My point in telling my long story is that often, both parents in a family unit NEED to work in order to provide adequate income to maintain a household and thereby NEED to have access to childcare.

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