Opinion

Baby Boxes: Too Good an Idea to Adopt?

They’re premised on the idea that all kids are equal. Is ‘families first’ BC ready?

By Crawford Kilian 16 Jan 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

According to BC Stats, almost 33,000 British Columbians die every year, and about 44,000 British Columbians are born. By 2030, more of us will die than will be born, and by 2040 we’ll lose 15,000 more people than we replace.

For those born since 1970, that will be a problem. Who will look after them when they retire? Who will be working and paying taxes to pay for the caregivers?

Maybe the millennials will be glad to move back upstairs to look after their parents, but I doubt it. Maybe we will see a tsunami of climate-change refugees eager to change Grandpa’s diapers. Whatever happens, B.C. and the rest of Canada will need as many capable workers, immigrants and native-born, as it can produce.

Finland has pointed out one small way to achieve that goal, but it is almost too good to ever come true. In the 1930s it was a poor northern nation, still recovering from a vicious civil war and with Europe’s last famine in the 1860s still a living memory. Finnish child mortality was high, especially among the poor.

The government came up with an idea: give every poor expectant mother a box full of items she would need for her new baby. All she had to do was show up in a clinic or doctor’s office by her fourth month, and she could go home with diapers, blankets, clothing and other items — all in a sturdy cardboard box her baby could sleep in.

It worked. Child mortality dropped, and mothers’ and babies’ health improved (the government uses the box as an incentive to encourage parents to get health checkups). New generations grew up to be educated in an equally sensible school system. In 1949, the box was given to everyone, not just the poor. The baby box is still a part of Finnish motherhood, and Scotland’s government has recently begun to provide boxes to its expectant mothers.

At least one company is also producing baby boxes for anyone with 399 euros (C$558) — close to the cost of a Finnish box. A “Moomin edition” is yours for 599 euros (C$836).

Not just a fashion statement

This misses the Finns’ point, however; such a baby box becomes a fashion statement for people who can afford it. The original Finnish baby box goes to everyone, regardless of income. (You can also, if you’re crazy, accept a cash grant of 140 euros instead of the box — just under 200 Canadian bucks.)

The box is a classic example of an old principle: tax what you want less of, and subsidize what you want more of. Finland wants more and healthier kids, and gets them. According to World Health Statistics 2015, Finland’s rate of mortality among children under five is 2.6 per thousand; in Canada, it’s 4.6.

Suppose the “families first” government of Christy Clark decided, like Scotland, to follow Finland’s example. What would it cost?

If each of B.C.’s annual 44,000 newborns got a box at Finnish prices (C$558), it would cost taxpayers $24.5 million a year. That would be an increase of 1.68 per cent in the current $1.45-billion budget of the Ministry of Children and Family Development. In practice, the government should be able to get huge discounts from producers of baby wear. Some would be delighted to take a loss, just to get such a market share. And the boxes might well reduce spending on items like child safety, family support, and children in care services.

And what would each baby get? For starters, a mattress, mattress cover, undersheet, duvet cover, blanket and sleeping bag or quilt, with the box itself making a crib unnecessary. A snowsuit, hat, mitten and booties. A light-hooded suit and knitted overalls, plus socks, mitten, knitted hat and balaclava.

In addition, the box would have bodysuits, romper suits and leggings in unisex colours and patterns; a bath towel, nail scissors, hairbrush, toothbrush, bath thermometer, diaper cream and washcloth; a set of cloth diapers (the Finns frown on disposables); a picture book and teething toy; and bra pads and condoms.

Showing up at a clinic or doctor’s office would also give the health system a chance to examine the expectant mother and spot any potential problems. Each mum-to-be could go home with a literal treasure chest — and the sense that the rest of us value her pregnancy and want her baby to thrive.

The value of scarcity

We might then reflect on the demographic fact that each new B.C. baby, for the foreseeable future, is going to have the value of scarcity. With so many old boomers now tax absorbers, we’ll need young workers paying taxes on high-income jobs.

The idea of allowing a fifth of B.C. kids to grow up in poverty, therefore, should be an instant non-starter: Poor kids generate no taxes.

Poor kids tend to be sick kids, they don’t stay in school as long, and they are more likely to end up in low-wage, low-tax jobs. Affordable child care would enable more parents to go into the job market and thereby keep their kids out of poverty. Again, Finland guarantees a spot in daycare for all children under age seven. Monthly fees range from zero for low-income families to a maximum C$404 for affluent families. That’s about 10 per cent of the cost of supplying the service.

The kids are then ready to start public school at age seven with as many advantages as possible — including free public education all the way to a PhD, if the kids can qualify. And when they graduate, they’re equipped to go into high-income jobs. Paying high taxes in Finland is a status symbol, a way to show you’ve made it — and to subsidize the next generation.

That’s what happens in a country that regards its kids as assets, not as liabilities. And it all starts with something as simple as a cardboard box and 500 bucks’ worth of baby items.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Rights + Justice

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