Twenty years ago, my children went to an inner city elementary school that served some the the lowest income communities in Ottawa. While sitting with an old friend under a tree in Fundy National Park, I was convinced to become co-chair of the parent council. Not long afterwards, we were caught up in a province-wide school closure campaign that created a massive protest that eventually brought down the provincial government. I learned about the importance of universal social programs first hand.
For social programs to be of high quality and to endure, they must be universally accessible by rich and poor alike. That is why the Gallant government’s approach to providing “free” childcare and “free” post-secondary tuition to some and not to others is doomed to fail, if not now, the next time the austerity knives are sharpened. Hence we will be doomed to continue the revolving door of building and tearing down, building and tearing down.
Universal programs are free, or at least affordable, to all people of all income levels. Healthcare and public education are two examples in Canada; universal low cost childcare in Quebec is another. These programs are of high quality because we all feel a sense of ownership and there is widespread concern when standards slip or when schools or hospitals are threatened with closure. All people who use universal programs advocate for improvements based on the latest advances in medicine or education and hold our public institutions to account.
In my case, I ran for the school board and used my engineering management and marketing experience to bring forward reforms to the public education system that gave us some of the highest quality, most accessible, and financially sound programs around, all within a budget that was not far off that of New Brunswick’s Ministry of Education. We received international attention for many of our reforms and education experts from Finland, Norway and Britain came to find out what we were up to.
Non-universal programs by contrast do not have the same degree of pressure to perform. Families who do not receive subsidies may choose to attend separate non-publicly run programs. Eventually these become of perceived higher quality, like private schools or private health clinics. This undermines the public systems, hires away qualified staff, and can eventually lead to the demise of well-intended programs.
A second flaw in Gallant’s childcare program design is lack of accessibility, both through physical location and capped enrolment. If a family lives too far or does not have a car or access to public transit, they may as well not have free access to childcare. Public programs should be placed where they are easily accessible to people on limited income. When programs have limited enrolment, only people who are well-connected and well-rooted in the community have the means and opportunity to know where and when to apply and how to get through the long waiting lists.
Well-designed universal and accessible programs have the important added benefit of integrating people from widely varying backgrounds both to attend the programs and to unite in common cause. As someone deeply concerned about influencing societal trends towards tolerance and understanding and away from mistrust and blame, this is one of the most important aspects of universal social programs to me.
As the NDP platform is released, we will keep in mind the fundamental principles of universality and accessibility for our day cares, post-secondary education and other social programs so that as many New Brunswick families as possible can benefit from the highest quality most affordable social programs possible.