Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a longtime champion of subsidized child care, and freshman Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) reintroduced legislation that would provide “high-quality, affordable child care and early learning opportunities” through a network of “federally-supported, locally administered child care options.” In this description, the legislators touch on two complementary aspects of out-of-home child care: custodial (young children need to be cared for while parents work outside the home) and educational (there are documented benefits for early-childhood education).
But here’s the thing: The first aspect of the program — the need for affordable child care — has long been used to undermine support for the second. Parents with means could make private child-care arrangements or opt to have one parent stay home, so they were easily swayed by politicians who often disingenuously argued that the benefits of early-childhood education were relevant only to poor families.
This stigmatization of early-childhood education has long advanced deep-seated negative stereotypes pertaining to the home lives and parenting abilities of poor working families and families of color. And it exposes an important lesson for the policy conversation today: An ambitious program to provide universal child care may garner support only if policymakers can be convinced that early-childhood education is good for all children, not only poor children.
In 1971, Sen. Walter Mondale (D-Minn.) and Rep. John Brademas (D-Ind.) championed the Child Development Act, which would have created a national network of subsidized child-care centers. Congress fiercely debated the proposal, which garnered bipartisan support. After politicians wrangled over how community action principles would be incorporated into a system of federal oversight, the bill ultimately passed in 1971. And yet, a significant conservative backlash followed, as did a massive letter-writing campaign. Critics claimed the bill was an attempt to “Sovietize” American society by providing collective care and weaken American families.
At the core of this debate was a perception of who benefited from day care.
Policymakers, as well as many researchers, believed that federally funded programs such as Project Head Start helped children — many poor and with Black and Latino backgrounds — by removing them from their homes during the day. In her support of Project Head Start, Lady Bird Johnson described low-income children as so deprived that they “didn’t know a hundred words because they had not heard a hundred words” and didn’t know their names, as their parents had failed to teach them. Viewing such homes as lacking intellectual stimulation, policymakers worked to place these “deprived” children in child-care centers where teachers could fulfill the role of the “good” middle-class mother. Psychologist Lois Murphy wrote, for instance, that the “kind of things a ‘good’ mother does with a year-old baby,” such as naming objects and colors or flipping through books, could be beneficial for an older child from a “deprived” background.
Other researchers argued that an “ideal” day-care program provided the child-rearing equivalent to that provided by middle-class mothers. In this way, day care was touted as a form of compensation for the perceived inadequate parenting that characterized the home lives of poor families, primarily families of color. As such, it was seen as “compensatory” education — compensation for the poor parenting and inadequate home lives that policymakers imagined characterized low-income, Black, Latina and immigrant homes.
In his veto, President Nixon cited the “fiscal irresponsibility, administrative unworkability, and family-weakening implications” of the proposal. Why? Because he subscribed to these perceptions about child care. He rejected the very idea that early-childhood education might benefit all American children. Rather, he considered child care a benefit suitable only for poor Americans, many of whom, he argued, already benefited from programs such as Project Head Start, the Social Security Act and the accessibility of preventive care through Medicaid. Further expansion of child-care benefits was not necessary for this group, he contended, and out-of-home care was not beneficial to middle-class children. And so, in place of comprehensive legislation, Nixon swiftly approved extensive tax deductions for child-care expenses so that if custodial child care was necessary, mothers could make private arrangements and receive a tax credit for it.
These ideas confused poverty with parenting inadequacies and portrayed a valuable government-funded resource — high-quality early-childhood education — as an indication of parental failure. This resonated in a political culture seeped with anti-government sentiment. Politicians’ choice to portray valuable social services as a fallback for poor or failing families, rather than as a universal good, was deliberate. In this way, they shaped public sentiment and neutralized public expectation of robust governmental social support.
When Nixon vetoed the Child Development Act, all of America’s children lost out on an opportunity for universal early-childhood education. Instead of a universal approach, early-childhood education policy was replaced with a two-tier system: highly stigmatized and inadequately available publicly funded options for low-income families and a tax benefit for the middle class — one nowhere near enough to cover the rising costs of child care over the ensuing decades.
This policy debate also advanced negative stereotypes of low-income homes and perpetuated deficit-based views of low-income children and children of color — all of which have continued to shape attitudes, policies and practices in education. For example, popular programs that give out books to children are rooted in deeply flawed views of deficits in language development, rather than in the simple and universalist idea that books are beneficial for child development.
In short, policymakers highlighted the exceptional and stigmatized nature of the benefit rather than stressing its potential as a universal program. Indeed, this has been the dominant trend when dealing with social welfare programs. For instance, while Medicaid offers low-income Americans access to preventive health care and lifesaving treatment, many states have opted not to expand these benefits under the Affordable Care Act to a slightly larger pool of low-income Americans, using the disingenuous argument that this benefit could be harmful. In explaining Texas’s decision not to expand Medicaid, Lt Gov. David Dewhurst quipped: “You give them their first hit free, and then they’re hooked for years and years.” Decades of stigmatization and racialization of social welfare benefits, from “welfare queens” to harmful images of “lazy” Americans refusing to work and collecting pandemic-related unemployment insurance, have led conservatives to reject measures that would undoubtedly serve their constituents.
It is therefore no surprise that Senate hopeful and venture capitalist J.D. Vance tapped into this history, tweeting that “universal day care is class war against normal people” — pitting the interests of working-class families against those of presumably White, middle-class families, who, per Vance, would not be well-served by a universal program.
And yet, research and economic analyses suggest that a universal child-care plan, which would offer both a custodial solution for working parents and high-quality early-childhood education, would benefit millions of families. This pandemic has demonstrated how crucial child care is to support working parents, particularly mothers, and the inadequacy of the private marketplace to meet these needs.
Perhaps some first steps can be for working parents to vocally express their solidarity with all working parents and to eschew politicians who cynically exploit societal divides to convince middle-class Americans that government support will serve only the poor.