A long overdue policy debate about federal assistance for childcare is ramping up in Congress on the eve of our annual Memorial Day remembrances. The pandemic has put a spotlight on the disproportionate weight of childcare on mothers, who left the workplace in large numbers in 2020, and it has recharged a discussion about how best to support families and women in the workforce.
Plans with such goals are trotted out every dozen years or so, yet comprehensive change always fails. The closest we came was 1971 when Congress passed a popular and bipartisan law called the Comprehensive Child Development Act (CCDA). The CCDA would have established a national network of childcare centers, open to all on a sliding cost scale, with meals, medical care and staff training. The program would have been transformative for following generations. However, in a surprise move, President Nixon vetoed the law. His reasons were more cultural than fiscal, and all subsequent policy debates since have echoed similar themes.
But there is one shining beacon in the past eighty years of federally funded childcare efforts: World War II. With men away at war, women entered the workplace out of a sense of both patriotism and economic need. Many were mothers, and the need for childcare far out-stripped what was available at that time. An amendment to the Lanham Act in 1942 established day care centers in 635 communities that contributed to defense production. Over three years, almost 600,000 kids were served in these centers, which were affordable and open to all families regardless of income, and which allowed their mothers to enter the workplace in great numbers.
By all measures, it was an incredibly successful program. Chris M. Herbst PhD, in an abstract published in 2013 by the Institute for the Study of Labor and Arizona State University, found that children who participated in the Lanham childcare program had long-run positive outcomes on educational achievement, family formation and adult employment. And women were able to enter the workplace in record numbers to provide for their families and develop and use their skills beyond the home.
We all know what happened next. The men came home, displaced the women from the jobs they had been doing, and the federal childcare effort fizzled.
Just think of how different our country would be had the Lanham program been sustained or had the 1971 act passed into law. Today, mothers are forced to make calculated decisions when it comes to working. Childcare costs more than in-state tuition in more than thirty states, which forces many women to decide whether working even financially pencils out. And that’s if you can find day care in the first place.
The pandemic brought this into sharp relief. Day cares closed. Schools closed. Women lost their jobs or were forced to cut back hours and leave the workforce to care for their kids. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap report, 5 percent of women lost their jobs compared to 3.9 percent of men and efforts to close the pay and leadership gap have been set back as well.
President Joe Biden addresses some of these issues in his American Families Plan. In addition to direct payments to families with kids and to extending tax credits, the plan would offer two years of universal preschool and two years of free community college, providing wrap-around educational support to our traditional K-12 education. Will it happen? It’s too soon to know whether the momentum coming out of the pandemic can propel these ideas over the finish line. But the policy discussion seems to be more viable today than at any time since Nixon’s veto of the CCDA fifty years ago.