Parents who must leave their homes to work at grocery stores, construction sites, nursing homes, restaurants and hospitals face the greatest challenges finding care for their children. But even those who can telework from their living rooms are finding it nearly impossible to parent full-time and meet the demands of their employers — and this is especially true for women.
This is not the first time that the country has faced an extraordinary challenge that demands a fundamental redesigning of everyday life — including new arrangements for child care. When women mobilized during World War II and during President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” the U.S. recognized that expanding child care was essential to our collective well-being and the flourishing of the economy. The results were policies that supported families through dramatic extensions of child care.
These policies involved financial investments and a fundamental rethinking of the responsibility of the federal government. And since women shouldered the primary responsibility for child-rearing and were among the majority of the staff of child-care programs, the initiatives also helped foster greater gender equality. Today we should recall this history and recognize that the government can facilitate a child-care revolution in a matter of weeks. The question is whether we will learn from the past and create more durable solutions.
Until the 1930s, the government did little to help employed mothers. The privately funded day nurseries that had been established to serve the poor held the stigma of “charity” and were seen as a last resort for mothers unable to fulfill their “proper” roles as full-time caregivers. During the Great Depression, as part of the larger federal effort to create jobs for the unemployed, the government established an Emergency Nursery School program. But pressure to provide day care more broadly did not emerge until massive numbers of married women entered the workforce.
During World War II, many of the 6.5 million women who joined the labor force to assist the war effort struggled to make child-care arrangements. With mothers clamoring for help and the media running sensationalist stories of unattended children left in locked cars or roaming the streets, federal authorities acted. In 1943, they amended a 1940 law called the Lanham Act to allow for the establishment of federally subsidized child-care centers.
Working families were eligible for child care for up to six days a week. The federal government provided most of the funding with centers typically making up the difference by charging $9 to $10 per day (in today’s dollars). Most programs provided children with meals and educationally enriching activities. Many offered 12 hours of coverage each day; a few even provided 24-hour care to serve women working night shifts.
To staff the program, the government hired women with experience teaching and caring for children. As demand for services grew, authorities established 10- to 12-week training programs to prepare new staff. Although racial discrimination was rampant in most war industries, some of these child-care centers hired black, Asian American and Native American women. Some centers were racially integrated, while others were segregated. About 259 centers served only black children.
Before the 1940s, day care had been stigmatized due to the widely held belief that white women’s proper role was in the home and raising their children. Yet the provision of federally subsidized child care helped chip away at these attitudes. Surveys revealed that parents were overwhelmingly satisfied with the centers and wanted them to continue.
Yet their opinions did not change the minds of federal policymakers, who considered child care a temporary emergency measure. At the end of the war, the government stopped funding the centers, unwilling to further encourage the employment of mothers. Many feared that if women remained in the labor force, men returning from the war would find it harder to secure employment.
News that the government centers would close incited vigorous protests from mothers and child-care workers. A few cities raised funds to try to keep their centers open, and in California, a coalition of parents, labor unions, early-childhood-education experts, African Americans, women’s groups and Communist Party members convinced state authorities to step in to provide financial support. But the idea of universal federally funded child care was off the table.
During the 1960s, the federal government created a new child-care program for very different reasons. Plans for Head Start emerged as part of Johnson’s War on Poverty, which was a response to civil rights activism, as well as the growing public awareness of the severity of poverty in the United States. Upon learning that 50 percent of people in poverty were children, authorities concluded that early intervention could make a difference.
The Head Start program offered children living in poverty healthy meals and high-quality education from a young age. It encouraged community and parental involvement and offered jobs to thousands of low-income mothers. To avoid controversies over the government’s responsibility for child care for working mothers, advocates described it as an anti-poverty measure that would prepare disadvantaged children to succeed at school.
Thanks to the wives of Cabinet members and members of Congress, Head Start got off the ground within 12 weeks. Applications from communities and sponsors soon came pouring in, filling the bathtubs at the D.C. hotel that served as the program’s makeshift headquarters. The government contracted with 140 universities to provide training programs for teachers, the majority of whom were low-income women. The program soon reached more than 3,000 communities, serving more than half-a-million children.
Claiming that Head Start would remedy the long-term effects of racism and economic inequality, the program’s champions tended to promise much more than it could deliver. Nevertheless, in the past 50 years, studies have shown Head Start’s positive effects on more than 32 million children and their parents, as well as the women who staff the programs.
In 1971, federal legislators built on Head Start with a bill establishing the foundations of a universal federally funded day-care system. The Comprehensive Child Development Act was passed by Congress in a bipartisan vote, with strong support from civil rights, labor and women’s groups. Yet President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill, insisting on a “family-centered” approach instead of a publicly funded solution to the growing child-care problem. This decision gave rise to our current system, in which the government subsidizes a portion of the expenses that parents incur, but only a fraction of the poorest families receive direct child-care subsidies.
Today, in nearly two-thirds of households with children, the parents are employed. In 3 out of 5 states, the cost of day care for one infant is more than tuition and fees at four-year public universities. And in the midst of a global pandemic, many centers have been forced to close or scale back their offerings. Many parents also can no longer count on the public schools to provide consistent care for children in grades K-8, who cannot be left home unattended. Mothers’ employment will be most affected by this crisis, as women remain disproportionately responsible for child care and will be the ones forced to cut back or leave the workforce entirely.
Past solutions will not perfectly suit our current needs. The ongoing public health crisis means that many families can’t safely send children into care away from home and others will require flexible care that can adjust quickly to changing work and medical conditions. If covid-19 cases continue to increase, the federal government may need to shut nearly everything down (including schools) and pay all but the most essential workers to stay home.
Yet our past actions demonstrate that when the federal government recognizes that support for child care is essential, authorities are capable of acting boldly and swiftly to help children and parents. Universal child care is crucial for children’s well-being, women’s equality and economic prosperity. This is particularly true during a global pandemic, and it will remain the case for decades to come.