The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The two big risks for Biden’s American Families Plan

Why piecemeal and underfunded programs won’t work

President Biden prepares to address a joint session of Congress on April 28. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Wednesday’s address to the nation began the rollout for President Biden’s American Families Plan. The proposal promises to expand tax credits for families, provide funding for prekindergarten education and bolster child care and paid leave. The president hopes to rectify significant gaps in the nation’s social safety net. American women — particularly women of color — have long been painfully aware of the financial and social costs of child care, maternity leave, choosing to stay at home and the thankless tasks of unpaid domestic labor. The coronavirus pandemic has only exposed and exacerbated long-existing tensions.

The United States has never truly undertaken a large-scale program to address these issues. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t historical examples that might help us to assess Biden’s proposal. In the early 1950s, both East and West Germany started programs to try to help women and families in crises dealing with many of the same problems that Biden’s proposal aims to tackle. The lesson: Piecemeal reforms and limited funding could dash whatever hope there is that the American Families Plan actually ameliorates these age-old problems.

On May 8, 1945, the Allies officially defeated Nazi Germany. The four allies — the Soviet Union, the United States, Great Britain and France — quickly occupied the devastated land.

Almost immediately, the Allies became fixated on the “crisis of the family.” During the war, German women had taken on the “double burden” of full-time employment and household labor while their husbands and partners were away fighting. Near the end of the war and into the immediate postwar period, many of these women had to uproot their families while fleeing Allied bombings or the approaching Soviet Red Army, seeking haven elsewhere.

Many men never returned home, leaving their working widows with little relief unless they remarried or entered nontraditional household structures, such as living with relatives. For those who did return home, domestic violence, verbal abuse and marital disharmony were not uncommon, leading to a skyrocketing divorce rate. For many women affected by these upheavals, there appeared to be no end in sight.

A decade later, the political situation in Germany had changed significantly. The outbreak of the Cold War had led to the semi-permanent division of the country into the capitalist, liberal democratic Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany), allied with the United States, and the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany), supported by the Soviet Union.

Yet, the situation was changing much less rapidly on the ground for women and their families. Even when immediate crises of housing and food were resolved, the wartime demographic imbalances, the gendered division of labor and women’s “double burden” remained prominent topics of public discussion in both East and West Germany. Many policymakers and observers argued that without state intervention to right upended gender roles, both East and West German society would remain in upheaval.

Both states therefore pursued piecemeal family policies and new laws designed to help women and families in crisis in the short term, while also reinforcing traditional gender roles and encouraging reproduction in the name of long-term stability.

In 1950, East Germany passed the Law for the Protection of Motherhood and Children and the Equal Rights of Women, which guaranteed women subsidies for each birth (with additional one-time payments for having more than two children), allotted 200,000 more spots in nurseries and day-care centers (and earmarked 40,000,000 Deutsche marks in funding specifically for these enterprises) and offered better maternity care, longer paid maternity leave and other workplace protections. Although lofty in ambition and a signal of ideological commitment to women’s emancipation, the East German government did not follow through, dashing the promise of the law.

The one-party communist government had the political power to push the legislation through but was unwilling to devote a lot of funding to these enterprises. In the early 1950s, the government remained focused on achieving the goals laid out in its Five-Year Plans, namely heavy industrial production, rather than the production of material goods and social services. The government furthermore curtailed rationing and welfare payments for single mothers, raising the overall cost of living and forcing single women — many of them mothers — into wage labor. This failure left East German women to shoulder the burden of full-time employment and child rearing.

Little changed for two decades. The East German government pursued small measures in the late 1950s, such as increasing production of consumer goods, but many women were still frustrated at the absence of major reform and the continuing “double burden.”

In the 1970s, a new East German administration finally reversed course, devoting more money and attention to such matters. It undertook new policies, including up to a year of paid maternity leave and state-subsidized child care — and crucially, fully implemented and better funded these programs. These changes contributed to an extremely high rate of female employment by 1990, when German reunification occurred, forcing East Germany to fold itself — and its gender policies — into the West German system.

In the West, similar debates had occurred. In the early 1950s, West German women’s organizations pressured the Christian Democratic Union-led government and parliament (Bundestag) to change family law and related policies. In 1952, West Germany passed its own Law for the Protection of Mothers.

Much like its East German counterpart, this law expanded workplace protections for expectant mothers, allowing them paid maternity leave before and after birth, prohibiting heavy lifting and dangerous work and limiting night and Sunday shifts. But although the law was supposed to protect pregnant working women from losing their jobs, employers later found ways around these provisions. When the center-left Social Democrats attempted to push through wider-ranging changes, they met resistance from the reigning Christian Democrats. In the end, the Social Democrats compromised on key measures.

Crucially, therefore, the West German law did not lay out provisions for child care or nurseries.

Although rapid economic growth attributed to the adoption of social market economic policies in the 1950s ensured that West Germany prospered, and funding was abundant, this pro-family legislation fell victim to compromise and attempted bipartisanship that ultimately limited its provisions and funding. For West German women, then, the law did little to ensure that hiring practices (particularly for expecting or married women) remained fair or that working women received state aid for child care.

This failure and related policies had long-term consequences. By 1990, only about 56 percent of West German women worked full time. The West German state had long incentivized married mothers to give up full-time employment and stay home by offering child allowances meant to supplement male breadwinners’ wages. Furthermore, other existing barriers, such as the half-day school system, combined with the scarcity of state-funded child care, made it difficult for mothers to work full time without guaranteed care for their children. These failures kept women’s participation in the labor force low relative to their East German counterparts and made life far more difficult for mothers who had to work.

Even as the East and West Germans engaged in Cold War competition, aiming to demonstrate each system’s superior ability to offer quality of life, both systemically underfunded and compromised on proposals aiming to aid women and families grappling with the challenges of child care. Although both developed policies that, had they been fully realized, might have solved the problems of family, they each had crucial shortcomings that dashed these hopes.

This experience exposes the problems with piecemeal reforms and limited funding in addressing the sorts of problems that the American Families Plan aims to solve. Only with adequate funding can child-care programs remove some of the burden from working women. And the limited scope of the West German programs demonstrates that, although political compromise has its benefits, it can create programs with loopholes and weaknesses that leave women facing the same dual burden that plagues them in the United States today.