VICTORIA - Parents with children in licensed day care programs in B.C. will see their costs drop under changes introduced in the provincial budget that the government describes as a first step towards providing a universal child care program.

The province will spend an additional $1 billion on child care over the next three years to lower costs, increase the number of spaces and improve quality.

Finance Minister Carole James said the changes are aimed at parents with infants and toddlers in child care because the government has heard those spaces are the most expensive and difficult to find.

Beginning April 1, funding will be provided to licensed care providers to provide a $350 a month cut in the cost of a child care space.

The government says the fee reductions will help an estimated 50,000 families by 2020-21.

The government is also introducing a new affordable child care benefit starting in September that will provide up to $1,250 a month per child, which it says will benefit an estimated 86,000 families in three years' time.

It will spend money as well to attract, train and retain early childhood educators.

James said Tuesday the government will also work with school district and municipalities to create more spaces, and provide incentives for unlicensed child care providers to become licensed.

“Parents want quality child care that is safe and gives them peace of mind while they are at work,” James said in her budget speech.

“Businesses also feel the effects of unaffordable child care. They have told us that economic growth is being hampered. That when a parent can't find child care, it means they lose a worker.”

Iglika Ivanova, senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said the child care initiative is the first major new social program in B.C. in generations.

“Not only will this help children get off to a good start, more mothers will be able to work and new jobs will be created, which will boost the economy and increase tax revenues almost immediately,” she said in a news release.

James described her approach as the first step toward a universal child care program.

“We know our vision for universal child care requires a shift that will take time,” she added.

James said the money being spent over the next three years represents the largest amount invested in child care in the province's history.

“I have heard from parents here in Victoria, and across the province, that they are anxious about child care,” she said. “Often this anxiety starts before their baby is even born.”

James said the government's approach will create more than 22,000 new licensed spaces, and families earning less than $45,000 a year “will pay little to nothing for child care.”