Guest blog: Women and Living Wages: A childcare connection
The YWCA’s Karen Orser is a long-time VCC contributor and participant in the Living Wage Action Team.
It was only a few short years ago that I needed child care for my two young children, so that I could complete a 600 hour unpaid practicum and finish my Master’s degree. I had just finished my maternity leave, and had a one and three year old. I wanted to finish my degree before returning to work. Unfortunately I was turned down because subsidies are based on previous year’s income as opposed to current income. It took months of faxing, photocopying, letters of appeal, frustration, and phone tag; but I was finally able to access the subsidy, find a licensed day home (not in the same town I lived in however, those two were full), complete my practicum, and finish my degree. Looking back now, I doubt that I would have been able to access it had I not had my own computer, fax, phone, vehicle, and English as my first language. Already a Registered Social Worker with an Undergraduate degree, my well written and articulate appeal letter to the Minister with words such as “social justice”, “barriers for women” and “inaccessible social programs” may have also helped my eventual success with the subsidy process.
My biggest barrier to accessing the subsidy was providing adequate proof of income, and also the lack of available licensed spaces. Although this was my story, many women in Alberta and across the country share parts of it. Some don’t qualify for subsidies because of income, others who do quality cannot find a space in a licensed day home or centre, and many women, especially single mothers earning very low incomes still cannot afford child care even with a full subsidy.
First, here’s how Alberta’s subsidy program works. If parents qualify and are approved for a subsidy (based on their income), child care must be in a licensed child care centre (or licensed day home). Therein lays another problem. There are far fewer licensed child care spaces than there are children who are eligible for subsidy. This limits choice, and creates huge barriers as parents are forced to wait on long waitlists, or travel long distances to reach a licensed centre. Additionally, even a “full” subsidy still leaves low income parents spending a high percentage of their income on the costs of child care.
Let’s take a look again at the budget for a single mother, who is accessing the subsidy. The budget below clearly illustrates the inadequacy of Alberta’s minimum wage, and the room for improvement regarding subsidy amounts and what is considered “full” subsidy.
If you’re unable to view the embedded table, please click here to download: Women_and_LW_blog_table.pdf
Working for less than a living wage, means that people are living in poverty with income levels well below the Low-Income Cut Off (essentially what we use as a poverty line). Poverty is a complex social problem and as such requires coordinated and integrated solutions. Just as we cannot end poverty in Alberta through housing solutions alone, wages and childcare are other important issues that social policy needs to address. Living wages, more subsidized child care spaces, and subsidy levels deep enough to make child care truly affordable and accessible for women and families are important pieces of this puzzle.
In April 2012, the Government of Alberta demonstrated understanding and a commitment to accessible and affordable child care by raising the income threshold for child care subsidy from $35,100 to $50,000. This means that more families are now eligible for the subsidy program. However, as you see in the budget above, receiving a full subsidy still leaves most parents having to spend a huge portion of their monthly income on child care. In fact, next to housing, child care is the second largest expense for most families.
Raising the minimum wage in Alberta to a Living Wage means that as a province we value choice and quality of life for all Albertans. In my opinion, a person working for 40+ hours a week, should at least receive enough income to meet their basic needs (including child care), and fully participate in their communities and lives. Low and inadequate wages means that women cannot access quality child care, and limits the economic and social independence of themselves and their families.
At minimum, we continue to need subsidy programs, and we continue to need more spaces in quality licensed and accredited child care facilities. However, within our current subsidy model, if women are not earning living wages, or being paid enough money to meet their basic needs and fully participate in their communities, then we’re not doing enough for our children and for the women who are trying to provide opportunities for them to thrive and lead healthy lives free of poverty.