The coronavirus pandemic has drawn attention to the struggle American parents face accessing high-quality and affordable child care for children under 5. Under stay-at-home orders, the majority of child-care facilities have closed their doors — some perhaps permanently — and many centers permitted to reopen are ill-equipped to bear the additional costs of adhering to local and state guidelines. Many working parents, particularly mothers, have been forced out of work to provide care for their children in this absence. The child-care industry is not only essential to providers’ and parents’ livelihoods, but to the economy as a whole.
At the heart of the current crisis in child care is unequal access: Wealthy parents have managed to weather the storm of the coronavirus because of access to babysitters and nannies, while working parents who rely on providers outside their homes have struggled to find care during the pandemic.
Today’s child-care crisis may have been fueled by the outbreak, but it is not new. It has been simmering below the surface for decades and can be traced back to President Richard M. Nixon’s 1971 veto of federally funded universal child care, which created our bifurcated approach to child care that considers the needs of some and not others.
Riding on the perceived success of the 1965 Head Start program, established during the war on poverty to provide preschool services for low-income families, the bipartisan Comprehensive Child Development Act (CDA) of 1971 would have established a national public child-care program. These public child-care centers were universally available to all families on a sliding-scale basis. The centers were intended to provide high-quality education alongside nutritional and medical services and would have been administered at the local level. The CDA passed Congress by an overwhelming majority. One of its cosponsors, Sen. Walter Mondale, later recalled that “because the focus was on children ... I assumed this would not be a controversial bill.” However, Nixon vetoed it, surprising even officials within his own administration.
Despite the broad coalition of child-care advocates pitching the CDA as a universal educational intervention for all children, many viewed public provision of direct child-care services as nothing more than a program for the poor — and mainly for families of color. The right wing of the Republican Party balked at the CDA’s language promising access for all children and the implication that white middle-class women would use it to join the workforce.
Conservatives viewed the bill as a threat to middle-class family life, overstepping what they saw as the government’s proper role of intervening in the private lives of the poor. This perspective pushed Nixon to veto the CDA despite its broad bipartisan support.
But soon Nixon signed the 1971 Revenue Act, which included tax deductions for child-care costs for families with incomes high enough to owe taxes. This created a two-tiered policy strategy that remains in effect today: Affluent families take tax deductions for private child-care costs while the poor have access only to limited, underfunded and inadequate public supports for care.
This two-tiered approach was further entrenched as Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric about the social safety net writ large gained credence. It incorporated a moralistic vision of receiving welfare as a sign of individual failure rather than a response to systemic barriers to economic and social mobility, such as the lack of affordable child care. After popularizing the racially coded phrase “welfare queen” in his primary bid against President Gerald Ford in 1976, Reagan made stigmatizing receipt of any public benefits, including child care, central to his presidency in the 1980s.
Many liberals have also attempted to narrow the scope of the “proper” population to serve, undercutting public support for child-care services for all. In a 1981 Senate floor speech, for example, Joe Biden declared that it would be “bad social policy” to allow benefits for “married couples who neither have the financial nor physical need to put their child in a day-care center.” This rhetoric, and the assumption that the state should only support those parents in the most dire of economic straits, demonstrated how much had changed in the decade since Nixon’s veto. These changes paved the way for Congress to enact a subsidy system in 1990.
The Child Care Development Block Grant was created in 1990 by the Act for Better Child Care (ABC) as a new source of federal grants to states to support child care for low-income working families. Although this provision extended the scope of the population served beyond welfare recipients, it reinforced the two-tiered approach to child-care policy by providing low-income, disproportionately non-White families with vouchers to utilize in a private child-care setting that would serve them. However, it made no provisions to ensure an adequate supply of high-quality child-care providers willing to accept these vouchers. Republicans stripped federal standards out of the ABC bill’s final language and have consistently resisted efforts since to enforce minimum requirements. This left most families without the ability to make meaningful choices.
The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act increased funding for the subsidy system to offset the end to families’ entitlement to cash assistance. At the legislation’s signing ceremony, President Bill Clinton explained, “It should give people the child care … they need to move from welfare to work without hurting their children.” This promise — not to harm children — sets a low bar for our expectations of what child care can provide for families and draws firm lines around the children who should be served.
Although incremental policy gains since the 1990s have expanded assistance to the children most in need, the bifurcated system perpetuates racial and economic inequalities for parents and caregivers. It also disproportionately affects Black and immigrant women, whose labor has been undervalued and unappreciated.
The pandemic has thrown the inadequacies and inequalities of the child-care system into sharp relief. As the paired crises of public health and children’s care show little sign that they will improve without staunch federal action, the next president of the United States will almost certainly confront this dilemma. We have an opportunity to move away from the bifurcated approach that has stigmatized public support and increased inequality, and instead to take public responsibility for creating an inclusive and universal system that provides for all children regardless of need. America’s children, as well as providers, parents and the economy as a whole, deserve better.