The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Addressing the child care crisis will take more than the CHIPS Act

The Biden administration has limited options and using the CHIPS Act is clever. But it won’t be enough.

Douglas Emhoff, center, husband of Vice President Harris, reads “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle, to a group of preschool children at Mother Hubbard Pre-School Center on Sept. 20, 2021, in Milford, Mass. (Steven Senne/AP)
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The Biden administration will require manufacturers who receive federal grants through the CHIPS Act to provide affordable child care for their employees. After legislators let broader care priorities — child care, universal preschool, paid family leave, elder care — drop out of President Biden’s Build Back Better Agenda in 2021, creating incentives through other laws remains the only way the administration can “chip” away at its unrealized care agenda.

This creative use of the levers of power reflects the laudable goal of improving upon the dire state of child care in the United States. Manufacturers may build on-site child-care centers for the children of employees, using CHIPS Act funding, which will ease labor shortages and allow parents of young children to enter the labor force.

However, addressing child-care needs through the private sector probably won’t solve the large and systemic roots of the crisis for most families — roots that trace back to the mid-20th century and include a dearth of available centers and qualified staff, and prices that are both too high for families to pay and too low for staff to operate.

The federal government has been down this path before, and history provides clear lessons for us today. The last time the federal government partnered with manufacturers to provide affordable, high-quality child care to families to address an emergency labor shortage, the effects for the larger child-care sector were tangential at best.

During World War II, the Federal Works Agency provided child care grants under Title II of the Lanham Act to “war impacted areas” and industries. Lanham Act-funded child care centers popped up all over the country between 1942 and 1945. By 1944, there were approximately 2,995 Lanham Act-funded child-care centers in the country, serving roughly 108,157 children.

The most well-known examples of this type of center were the Kaiser Shipyard Child Service Centers in Portland, Ore.

By 1943, Edgar Kaiser, son of one the country’s most prominent industrial magnates, needed to staff his shipyards with women after most young men had been conscripted into military service. The trouble was that “Rosie” often had small children to care for at home. Kaiser therefore created child-care centers on shipyard property to care for the preschool-aged children of his employees.

Though Kaiser did receive federal grants to build the centers, he did not use the formal Lanham Act channels to do so. Instead, Kaiser leveraged his wartime production contracts with the U.S. Maritime Commission and added the centers’ costs directly to his bill with that department. This special relationship with the U.S. Maritime Commission allowed him to avoid the delays and red tape that befell other Lanham Act grantees.

Believing that he could attract the best employees with high-end child care, Kaiser hired developmental psychologist Lois Meek Stolz to design and implement the centers. Meek Stolz and her former Teachers College, Columbia University graduate student James Hymes, Jr. used their academic expertise, wide discretion and Kaiser’s deep pockets and direct line to federal agencies to design the centers to meet the highest standards.

Using public and private dollars, the Kaiser Child Service Centers set the gold standard for out-of-home care for small children, providing premier services that seem unimaginable today. Meek Stolz and Hymes recruited child nutritionists, nurses, group supervisors, professionally trained early childhood educators and family consultants to their project. Even the director of food services had a doctorate in early childhood nutrition. Critically, Kaiser paid these professionals well — the same rate that he paid his factory workers.

At the height of their operation the centers enrolled over 1,000 children. The buildings were built and designed specifically for young children. Teachers adhered to a play-based philosophy of care. The centers were open 24 hours a day to accommodate shift work. There was an infirmary staffed by nurses and a pediatrician where sick children could stay and rest while their parents worked. Mothers could purchase premade dinners at cost when they picked up their children so they didn’t have to cook at the end of a long shift. The centers also housed a “pop in and out service” for families who had unexpected child-care needs come up. Staff disseminated weekly newspapers for parents telling of the different classroom activities and provided booklet series on child development and rearing. The centers were even open to employees’ school-aged children during weekends, holidays and the summer months to take further pressure off parents.

As impressive as the centers were, they did not solve the country’s child-care needs. Only employees could take advantage, leaving many people out. And the centers were dismantled as quickly as they were erected. When the war ended, female employees either left or were pushed out of industry jobs to make room for returning servicemen. Kaiser no longer saw a need for the Child Service Centers and promptly closed them. Though they had been specifically designed for small children, the buildings were used as a Naval and Marine Corps Reservist reception center until 1975, when they permanently closed.

After the war, Meek Stolz and Hymes published a 36-page color booklet describing the operations and benefits of the centers. Kaiser sent the booklets to 250 industry leaders across the country. But according to Hymes, none adopted their model or even showed interest in what they had accomplished.

Although parents who had relied on federally subsidized child-care centers wrote letters, organized and protested center closures, it was to no avail. Federal funding for child care dried up after the war. Lawmakers believed child care was a necessary but temporary solution to war-induced labor shortages, not a public good worth permanently investing in.

With meticulous documentation of their work, Meek Stolz and Hymes undoubtedly expanded the field of early care and education. Their work improved the standard for child care and paved the way for some of the guidelines established for lasting federal programs like Head Start. Hymes even worked in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration on the National Planning Committee for Head Start — the next iteration of federally subsidized early care and education.

But the reality is that almost no child-care center has met the standards put in place by Meek Stolz and Hymes, because even with federal grants few had the resources to do so. And very few will, until we drastically reimagine early care and education systems and fund those systems accordingly.

Using the CHIPS Act today will hopefully create more desperately needed, high quality child care centers. It will not, however, do much to fix the larger systemic problems that plague the child care landscape. If lawmakers really want to provide quality, accessible and sustainable child care for every family in the nation who wants it — not just for those who find themselves in the right job at the right time — working through industry alone is not the way to do it.