A Brief, Shameful History of Childcare in the United States 


Elizabeth Warren unveiled a universal childcare proposal earlier this week that aims to give all parents access to free or subsidized child care. As one of the first major actions of her primary campaign, the announcement felt something like a mission statement: Hillary Clinton released a slate of more modest proposals around paid leave and childcare in 2016, and Bernie Sanders has also campaigned (and proposed legislation) on universal childcare and preschool, but Warren was signaling a willingness to make it a centerpiece of her campaign.

Although the cost of childcare is unaffordable for most American families, the United States has done very little to expand access for all families. The Head Start program, founded by President Johnson and administered by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, serves children up to five years old in families with low-incomes but still falls short of what’s needed. As Taryn Morrissey, an associate professor of public administration and policy at American University, wrote in 2018, the programs available for poor and low-income families are both underfunded and difficult to navigate:

[…] only 40 percent of 4-year-olds from poor families attend Head Start and only 4 percent of infants and toddlers from poor families attend Early Head Start. In 2012, only 25 percent of eligible children received child care subsidies. In 2016, 20 states had waiting lists or frozen intake for child care assistance, and many low-income families remain confused about eligibility requirements and the application process.

Warren’s proposal would partner with locally run child care facilities, including in-home providers and preschool facilities, and subsidize the cost of care on a sliding scale between zero to seven percent of a family’s income. Her plan also requires providers offer standardized care for which they are compensated at rates matching public school teacher salaries, which moves toward addressing the problem of poverty wages for childcare workers. The plan, which would be paid for by a tax on the super wealthy, is progressive but has its possible shortcomings. Still, it’s an incredibly big deal.

And now that we’re here, it’s worth asking how something so fundamental to women’s basic participation in society got politically sidelined for so long? (Sexism!) Still, in 2019, it is mind-boggling that one of the world’s richest countries doesn’t offer any form of paid family leave, and lags behind what other similarly wealthy countries offer on affordable child care (In some states, the average cost of childcare for young children is more expensive than the cost of a college tuition).

Now that we’re here, it’s worth asking how something so fundamental to women’s basic participation in society got politically sidelined for so long?

The number of households headed by women is also increasing: According to the Center for American Progress, as of 2015, 42 percent of mothers were the sole or primary breadwinners in their families and nearly one quarter of women were co-breadwinners, bringing home between 25 percent to 49 percent of the family’s income. Yet despite being central to how parents, and particularly women—who are still responsible for the majority of child care–can function in the world and the workplace, the idea of universal child care has been ignored for a very long time.

“This is really historically unprecedented,” Sonya Michel, Professor Emerita in the University of Maryland’s Department of History and author of Children’s Interests/Mothers’ Rights: The Shaping of America’s Child Care Policy, told Jezebel. “It obviously has to do with the fact that so many women are running for the Democratic nomination. This is an issue that is very important to women and less so to men because the responsibility for child care, either doing it themselves or figuring out some substitute, falls disproportionately on women.”

In the 1800s, the “prevailing norm,” according to Michel, was that white women should not work outside the home (the social norm around women’s participation in the work force never accounted for the labor of black women or other women of color). The first child care centers, called day nurseries, catered mainly to white women who had to work because they didn’t have male breadwinners. Decades later, as more women entered the workforce, the government established mothers’ and widows’ pensions to support poor, single (still mostly white) mothers. Michel says the pensions “confirmed the idea that women should not work outside the home” and also established the idea that child care was a need for the poor—as opposed to a universal need for all families.

This could have been a turning point in history, but it wasn’t: “When more and more women were going into the labor force, if there had been more public support, that would have established a precedent” for a universal child care system, Michel said, “But instead, we got a pension, which really took public policy in a different direction, and reinforced the idea that women should not be working outside the home.”

America did offer universal child care, albeit briefly, and only when it essentially became a national emergency. During World War II, when more than 350,000 American women joined the workforce out of necessity, Congress passed a bill funding public services that included child care. Under the Lanham Act, families, regardless of income, were eligible for high-quality child care six days per week at a daily cost equivalent to $9-$10 today. The program was a resounding success with both immediate and long-term benefits, reflecting higher earnings and high school graduation rates for families living in places where the country invested heavily in child care. But as soon as the war ended, so did the program. There remained a “strong cultural bias against anything that will facilitate a woman’s employment,” Michel says. Women, meanwhile, continued to enter the workforce in increasing numbers.

In 1971, a year after 50,000 women marched through New York City to demand free abortion access, equal rights in employment and education, and the creation of 24/7 childcare centers, America came very close to having universal child care. The 92nd Congress, which also passed Title IX and the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, passed the Comprehensive Child Development Act with the support of 219 Democrats and 55 Republicans. (Notably, even Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, who recently resigned, offered a proposal for day care). The bill would have created a network of government-funded, locally operated child care centers around the country, offering kids medical care, education, and food. In 2013, the Atlantic pointed out that Congress allocated five times the amount than the 2012 federal budget for Head Start.

In America, child care is heavily dependent on where a family lives and what they can afford.

But President Nixon vetoed the bill, invoking the Red Scare and saying that the bill would “commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach.” Since then, the political discussion on child care has remained toxic, mired first in anti-communist propaganda, and later, in the 1980s and 1990s, by the racist and misogynistic idea that only neglectful mothers leave their kids at day cares. (The crisis was further compounded by Bill Clinton’s destructive welfare “reforms” in 1996.)

Warren’s proposal around universal access to high-quality childcare is important for another reason: in America, child care is heavily dependent on where a family lives and what they can afford. That means the quality of care varies dramatically, with rich parents often buying better care.

This isn’t the case in Western European countries like Denmark, where couples spend about 10.7 percent of their income on child care costs, and single parents spend much less (2.9 percent), child care is provided and regulated by the government. Parents pay only a percentage of the cost. As a result, families with young children are guaranteed child care regardless of their income. “Families residing in rich neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods, in high-and low-minority neighborhoods, and in urban or rural areas can expect to find early care and education programs at approximately the same level of quality,” Chris Herbst, an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University and a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Labor in Bonn, Germany, told CNN.

Herbst contrasts this with the U.S. system: “Whereas in the United States, the provision of child care has traditionally been viewed as being primarily the responsibility of the family,” he said, adding that “wealthy families in the United States can buy their way into really high-quality child care, while low-income or middle-income families are likely to be priced out of the high-end market.” Warren’s proposal, Michel says, “is very much placing child care in a different context,” reframing child care as a human right.

While our culture at large has moved past the point of forcing women to stay at home, there remains an underlying bias that a woman’s primary role is to rear and care for children. Without affordable child care and paid family leave, which address the economic realities and needs of women and their families, the work place continues to be a male sphere where women are tolerated but not accommodated. Universal child care should not be a revolutionary concept, but it’s significant to see a major Democratic candidate leading with the policy. Though the 2020 election is still far away, Warren’s policy proposal, and others like it, offer hope that America is inching towards a future in which something so basic doesn’t depend on being rich.

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