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Revive Guaranteed Child Care As Progressive Policy


Despite my, how shall we say, somewhat tense relationship with the major writers and editors of Jacobin, the magazine does still occasionally publish good policy pieces, such as this one by Daphna Thier on the history of federal child care legislation. That our present child care situation is a disaster hardly needs stating again; incredibly high costs for parents, incredibly low pay for workers. It’s really the worst possible scenario. I’ve often discussed the late 60s/early 70s attempt to get federally guaranteed child care passed until Nixon vetoed it, the override attempt narrowly failed, and it sadly disappeared from the progressive agenda for a half-century. Thier mentions another point in this history, the Lanham Act.

In 1942, the US government passed the Lanham Act. The law was designed to assist communities with water, housing, schools, and other local needs connected to industry expansion during the World War II war effort. One of those provisions was a universal childcare plan for any community that proved they had absent fathers and working mothers — the only instance in American history of a federally administered program that served children regardless of family income.

The centers were required to meet very high standards. The teachers were well-trained and provided fully funded university-level education. They were well-compensated. The number of children per teacher was limited to ten, a number that is lower than the limit in many states today. Centers were clean. They had a clinic with a nurse and doctor for daily checkups before children entered the space. They offered meals. Center staff bought a mother’s grocery list while she worked to pick up at the end of the day. Center cafeteria workers prepared dinner for mothers to take home at night.

The cost: around $3–4 a week ($50–60 in today’s money), or half the actual cost per child. The rest was covered by the government, which overall spent $1 billion on the program.

At its peak, the Lanham Act provided for over 635 communities in every state but New Mexico, caring for over half a million children. And while some centers in this pre–Civil Rights Movement era inexcusably provided for white families only, some were desegregated, and an additional 269 centers accommodated black families only. In contrast to most other well-paid sectors at the time, women of color were hired as well.

The program was discontinued in 1946 after only three years. The government argued that with the end of the war, women would leave the workforce and resume their traditional roles. They were wrong: women wanted (or needed) to stay working, and they required childcare to do so. The program was extended a full year after the war ended because of its popularity. As the New York Times reported at the time, protests across the country continued well into 1947 to try to save it. In some places, multiracial grassroots mobilizations and unions applied pressure and won some federal support for childcare, but failed to win a universal policy.

In 1947, Ruth Pearson Kushok surveyed the developmental records of five hundred children who attended a federal center. And she interviewed parents and teachers to find out how successful they thought the Lanham centers were. She found that 80 percent of the children had made good or excellent progress physically, emotionally, socially, and mentally, according to the program’s metrics — and overwhelming approval rates among all participants.

In fact, in one group she surveyed of 173 parents, 100 percent said that their children enjoyed the nursery. Parents and teachers especially noted that children learned to play better with each other. And, in contrast to the argument of the day that day care centers and working mothers would weaken family relationships, the program was found to have a net positive impact on home life and family relations. Imagine that: give people more resources to raise their children and earn a living, and everyone seems happier.

Thier goes on to reasonably critique Biden’s limited childcare platform, which probably won’t be implemented anyway. But it’s worth noting what was, what could have been, and what could be. The present disastrous childcare situation is not irrevocable. We can indeed have better things. Actually placing them at the front of our agenda is a good first step to see it happen.

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