The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden has chance to reverse 50 years of failure on child-care policy

New strategy offers prospect of overcoming conservatives’ warnings about families

Children play outside Little Flowers Early Childhood and Development Center in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of Baltimore on Jan. 12. (Matt Roth for The Washington Post)

Senate Democrats are close to finalizing a $3.5 trillion budget plan that would begin the process of enacting an ambitious social agenda that is expected to include historic government investments in child care. This proposal — introduced by President Biden in April as part of his American Families Plan — has faced its share of conservative opposition, as have policymakers’ attempts to tackle child care over the past half-century.

Fifty years ago, President Richard M. Nixon vetoed the bipartisan Child Development Act that would have provided universal care for 3- and 4-year-olds on a sliding scale. He was swayed by critics who framed the policy as governmental intrusion into private family life. That veto produced long-lasting consequences. Today, the United States has a highly unequal and fragmented public child-care system that leaves many families unable to access high-quality, affordable child care.

In many ways, opponents of Biden’s child-care proposal are reviving arguments from the past, with critics charging that such policies harm families. By contrast, today’s advocates of child-care reform are shifting focus from families to women, showing how access to more affordable child care can support women as both workers and mothers — something most proponents were loath to do in the past.

These debates are rooted in the mid-1960s, when Congress began trying to create a universally accessible national public child-care system. The idea was popular. Leaders of the coalition behind what became the Child Development Act (CDA) of 1971, notably Yale psychologist Edward Zigler (who joined the Nixon administration) and lawyer Marian Wright Edelman (who would go on to found the Children’s Defense Fund), imagined the reforms as an extension of Head Start. That program was part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, and it initially provided part-time school preparation programs for lower-income children, particularly those from poor Black families. Nixon recognized this growing consensus that investing in children would address U.S. poverty and improve outcomes and issued a commitment in 1969 to support child development during children’s first five years. The CDA would have created centers to provide high-quality, locally controlled education alongside nutritional and medical services.

But conservative opponents of the legislation in the early 1970s painted public child care as a Soviet-like intrusion, building on decades of Cold War-inspired, grass-roots opposition to any family policies. Sen. James Allen (D-Ala.) asserted that the CDA was “totally incompatible with a free society,” and that “the pernicious thrust of this bill” would be to “undermine the family as the basic unit of society” and “create a gigantic bureaucratic monstrosity with near-complete control over the lives of children.”

Allen misconstrued the legislation, which entailed voluntary participation. But the idea that the state was threatening Americans’ private family lives and undermining parental control had purchase with the growing grass-roots conservative movement. This movement was animated by an anti-communist, small-government politics — including an emerging family values faction that began organizing against perceived threats to the traditional nuclear family, with a mother at home engaged in full-time child care.

Although the CDA passed both the House and Senate with bipartisan support, Nixon vetoed it in 1971 to stop the growing right wing of his party from challenging him in the 1972 Republican presidential primary. His speechwriter, Patrick Buchanan, convinced him that conservatives in the party were angry that he had gone to communist China earlier in the year and had proposed domestic policies, especially his Family Assistance Plan, that were seen as too liberal. Buchanan was sure that a veto message decrying public child care as a slippery slope toward communism would placate their concerns.

Subsequent congressional attempts to create a public child-care system, including 1975 and 1979 proposals, were also stymied by conservative opposition. Even in 1979, with Walter Mondale, who had championed child care as a senator now serving as Vice President, advocates feared the issue would derail the agenda of President Jimmy Carter. The Child Care Act, or Cranston Bill, never made it out of committee that year even though it was much less ambitious than the CDA had been.

Although opponents of these measures argued that publicly funded child care undermined the sanctity of the family, their arguments neglected the fact that an increasing number of mothers, especially as the economy plummeted in the 1970s, needed to work to support their families — and doing so without access to quality, affordable child care harmed their families.

But many coalition leaders were hesitant to make the necessity of women’s work a rationale for increased public support of child care. During congressional hearings in 1971, for example, Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.), a well-known feminist leader and advocate for child care reform who became a particular target of the right, stated the obvious: “Everyone says that this is a children’s bill,” but it is “also a woman’s bill, and that is something no one seems to want to mention.” Feminists like Abzug had been on the forefront of supporting subsidized child care — not only as a means to help children and families, but also to support women’s increased labor, both paid and unpaid, within the home and in the market. Outside of feminist circles, however, most allies in the child-care reform community tended to be more invested in child development and too wary of upending the Cold War traditional family consensus to acknowledge what Abzug had said.

Yet, recognizing that child-care policies and women’s rights are entwined has only gained salience with time. In a 1982 debate, feminist legal scholar Catherine Mackinnon challenged Phyllis Schlafly, a key leader of the conservative family values movement, asking: “Who among us can afford Mrs. Schlafly’s ‘choice’ of exclusive home and motherhood? The privileged few, mostly white and upper middle class women.”

By the late 1980s, President Ronald Reagan’s anti-government rhetoric helped animate opposition to further child-care legislation. In 1988, Schlafly, charged that public support for child care was an attempt to “sovietiz[e] the American family.” A Heritage Foundation report likewise claimed that the Act for Better Child Care (ABC) then before Congress was “a direct attack on the traditional American family” that “discourage[s] American parents from raising their own children.”

George H.W. Bush signed the ABC Act into law in 1990 anyway, over such objections. Rather than directly providing child-care services, the act created a subsidy system that gives low-income working parents a voucher to use in the private market. But it left many gaps. Only 1 in 6 eligible families receive support because of underfunding, and there is little incentive for providers even to accept these vouchers, or more broadly to cut their own profit margins to provide quality care or pay staff a livable wage.

In this environment, advocates may find that reviving arguments about women can help counter the old repetitive conservative arguments about families. Today mothers’ employment is largely an accepted necessity for families that are increasingly headed by single parents or require two incomes to stay afloat. Between 1975 and 2019, the labor force participation rate for mothers with children younger than 3 nearly doubled, with about two-thirds employed before the pandemic.

Even as Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) compares the Biden proposal to the Soviet boogeyman and Republican senatorial hopeful J.D. Vance of Ohio claims that universal day care would harm the stability provided by “traditional” families that follow a male breadwinner/female caregiver model, advocates are making the case that child care is infrastructure. Like the bridges and roads necessary for workers to commute to their jobs, advocates, including Biden, place affordable child care at the center of economic recovery, especially for working mothers, a group whose employment suffered the steepest declines as their access to outside child care diminished during the pandemic.

What was once, at best, a tertiary goal is now a primary goal for child-care reformers, while opponents are still banking on old arguments that reflect long-past geopolitics and demographic realities. The truth is that, for families to thrive, access to high-quality, affordable child care is a must. Biden’s plan may finally offer an opportunity to reverse Nixon’s 1971 veto and launch major investments in child care that embrace mothers’ employment, promote child development and pay livable wages.

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