Research suggests that women have disproportionately felt the economic impact of COVID-19, so when Ontario’s budget was announced last week, many were anxious to see how the province would respond. Now, some policy experts are concerned that the government hasn’t gone far enough.
Included in the $45 billion budget is a two-year, $30 million investment for providers in the social-services sector, such as women’s shelters. It also promises $180.5 million over three years in job-skills training programs. There is financial support for families, too, and a commitment to create new child-care spaces.
However, critics say that, despite this, the budget misses an opportunity to provide a truly gender-responsive approach that addresses the unique difficulties women and racialized communities are facing during the pandemic. “Any recovery measures should ensure that they’re taking into account the systemic forms of inequality and discrimination that occurred that have led people to have very different experiences of the pandemic,” says Carmina Ravanera, a research associate at the University of Toronto’s Institute for Gender and the Economy.
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In a section of the budget dedicated to including women in Ontario’s economic recovery, the government promises a plan to help women acquire in-demand job skills by gaining so-called micro-credentials. (A white paper from June by the Institute of Public Policy and Economy defines micro-credentials as “digitally administered and competency-based certification focusing on specific knowledge, skills or competencies” and lists accounting and data management as examples.)
Asked about the commitment, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Finance tells TVO.org that the government allocated $43 million, announced in August, to expand youth-training programs that will help young women and their peers learn more about job opportunities, including those in the skilled trades: “We are creating a micro-credentialing program, as a part of our broader skills plan, that benefits many women who are employed in the hospitality and tourism industries, amongst others, to help them get certified for new jobs while their former careers experience a downturn.”
But many say that how the program is implemented is what will really determine whether it supports women economically. “There’s a big difference between what’s available and what’s accessible,” says Claudia Dessanti, senior policy analyst at the Ontario Chamber of Commerce and author of The She-Covery Project: Confronting the Gendered Economic Impacts of COVID-19 in Ontario. If programs take place after 5 p.m., for example, women may have to pick up their children, she notes; concentrating programs in Toronto could be another barrier. “I think looking at the barriers to programs for different groups is going to be really important,” she says. “Maybe just as important as how those programs are designed in the first place, because what we risk doing is creating lots of pathways that are only more accessible for groups that already have an advantage, and that just increases the inequality.”
For women who have lost their jobs in particular industries affected by the public-health crisis, there is also a question of whether training programs will put them in a position to earn what they were earning pre-pandemic. “If a micro-skills training program is also a de-skilling program with associated lower rates of pay, then I think that could be a policy that could at least maintain — and potentially exacerbate — the gender pay gap,” says Sheila Block, senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. (De-skilling programs can involve training individuals in trades that are lower-skilled and, ultimately, lower paying.)
According to a September report from the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, in March, women between the ages of 25 and 54 lost more than twice as many jobs as men, and the labour-force participation rate for women had fallen to its lowest level in 30 years.
Experts note that access to affordable child care will be a key determinant of economic recovery for women post-pandemic. “I think the pandemic has really shown us that child care has, in some ways, never been more important — and has also never been more vulnerable,” says Kate Bezanson, a sociology professor at Brock University.
Child-care centres have been hit hard during the pandemic. According to Carolyn Ferns, public-policy coordinator at the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, 142 child-care centres have closed since March, and, for the first time, more child-care centres are closing than opening. “Enrolment is too low,” she says. “And so we have child-care centres that are really teetering and could be facing closure.”
In response, the government announced more than $2 billion to support accessible, affordable, and high-quality child care. The Ontario Child Care Tax Credit, for example, provides about 300,000 families with up to 75 per cent of their eligible expenses for child care in centres, through home-based care, and at camps or other educational institutions. The budget also announced plans to open 30,000 child-care spaces over the next five years. But, according to Ferns, the announcement contained nothing not already covered in the pledge made by the government last October.
“The government is taking an inclusive approach to help families succeed and remains committed to providing child care options to meet the diverse needs of the people of Ontario,” the Ministry of Finance spokesperson writes, noting that, in 2019–20, the number of licensed child-care spaces across the province increased by more than 16,000: “Moving forward, the government will continue to deliver on its commitment to create up to 30,000 new child care spaces in the next five years.”
Ferns notes that child-care centres have been able to access federal support through the Safe Restart Agreement: the hope, she says, is that the provincial government will focus on affordability, access, and safety.
“Child-care fees are as expensive as they ever were, and we know so many parents are hard hit by the pandemic — by the economic recession it’s created— that they cannot afford that,” says Ferns. “Especially if every time their children get the sniffles, they have to pull them out.”