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A Modern Day Child Care Solution with 1940s Roots

A Modern Day Child Care Solution with 1940s Roots – History and Context

History tells us that working moms have been a part of the work force with child care needs for centuries. Understanding that creativity is the mother of invention, working mothers have been ever so creative in how they cared for their kids. Native American moms strapped newborns to cradle boards, pioneer moms put their infants in wooden boxes attached to plows, factory workers were forced to leave kids in cars or sibling care, and like moms of today, they worked to support their family and desperately needed child care.

Sonya Michel, Ph.D., University of Maryland, wrote an article, The History of Child Care in the U.S. that succinctly explains how the lack of child care options affected working moms as well as the trials and tribulations of the childcare supports that have come and gone over the centuries. I was shocked to learn that as early as the late 1800s, although racist in its delivery, programs like “widows’ pensions” gave stipends to women whose husbands died so they could stay at home to rear their children. The New Deal created jobs for unemployed teachers during the depression by opening up “emergency nursery schools (ENS)” for parents employed by Works Progress Administration (WPA) relief projects. Thanks to the New Deal emergency nursery schools, there was a foundation for America’s first (and only) national child care system in our nation’s history that came about during WWII.

An image of Rosie the Riveter that appeared in a 1943 issue of the magazine Hygeia (American Medical Association)

A modern day child care solution was created when the 1941 Defense Public Works law (aka the Lanham Act) was passed. The law had three defense mandates, one of which was to provide public works assistance. The largest public works project was providing child care to kids birth to 12 years old for the women who worked in support of the war effort. Federal funds for wartime child care services were available for the construction and maintenance of facilities, to train and pay teachers, and to handle all other operating expenses. The federal government made the largest investment in child care with $52 million under this act from August 1943 through February 1946. Working mom’s contributed an additional $26 million through paid tuition. The Lanham Act established for the only time in our history, child care that working parents could afford because the federal government subsidized it.

There are many more details as to how this worked but in brief, nursery school operators could apply for funds under the Lanham Act if they could demonstrate their program supported wartime work efforts. Layers of bureaucracy did not make it easy but it worked. Lanham Act funded centers had 1:10 ratios for preschool age children, engaged indoor and outdoor play, used educational materials, took naps – sound familiar? Before and after school and full day summer programs were available for school age children. Some programs offered 24-hour childcare so mom’s working day, night, and swing shifts had a safe place to leave their kids, and some were open 7-days a week. Some Lanham Act funded child care centers also provided hot meals for moms to take home after long hours of work to feed their families. Forward thinking, indeed, for a time when society did not support the idea of mother’s working outside the home. Child care during the wartime effort had few if any boundaries for participation. In fact, “The services were open to high-income, low-income, high-education, low-education, married mothers, unmarried mothers, the employed and the unemployed. And access was basically universal: there was no official work requirement and care was heavily subsidized, initially costing parents $0.50 per child per day rising to $0.75 in 1945 (between $9 and $10 a day in 2012 dollars) for 12 hours of care in a center,” as Chris Herbst, an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University, stated. Furthermore, there is ample evidence that the fears and arguments against a universal child care system simply don’t bear out. Herbst notes, as adults, the childcare kids from WWII “were more likely to be employed; if they were employed, they earned more and were more likely to be working full time; they were less likely to be receiving cash assistance; and they were in better health.”

Fast-forward eight decades. Child care needs are greater than ever with not enough supply to meet the demand exacerbated by programs struggling to find qualified staff willing to work for low wages – and this was before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, during the pandemic with unemployment at record levels, our economy shut down, schools and many child care centers closed, without child care, there is no economic recovery. Moreover, without significant state and federal funds child care will not survive the pandemic.

Today’s child care system is comprised of thousands of small businesses that are equally, negatively impacted by the economic disaster as other businesses. Child care programs operate on very thin margins, many do not have reserve funds, and without a significant investment of federal and state dollars, there will be even fewer licensed child care options. Every part of our economy will suffer not just from the pandemic but also from a lack of child care.

We need to take advantage of what we know works from our history. Establish a 21st Century Lanham Act, establish universal childcare, ease families’ burden through this pandemic, and change the economic trajectory for us all.

A Modern Day Childcare Solution with 1940s Roots – A Proposal

The child care system we have today, although not sustainable, does provide the infrastructure necessary for the child care system we need in place to support economic recovery during and post the COVID-19 pandemic.

Using the child care system that was developed during WWII as a model, I am convinced (hopefully I can convince others too) that we can do this again so that businesses and families fare better in the end. If we do this right, we will have a child care system to replace the ineffectual, unsustainable system of child care that we know today.

Here’s what I propose:

  • Licensed child care and family home centers are eligible to participate in the Child Care Assistance and Relief Effort (CARE) – name optional but needed something to use now.
  • All families are eligible to participate in the CARE program.
  • Local, state, and federal governments along with tuition co-pays paid by families will fund the CARE program.
  • Federal funds for COVID-19 economic recovery will be available for the construction and maintenance of facilities, to train and pay teachers, and to handle all other operating expenses.
  • Businesses can support this effort by providing facilities, either new or existing, paying for the tenant improvements, and providing the space free or at significantly reduced lease rates.
  • For business provided facilities, consider tax incentives such as in-kind donation deductions if nonprofit childcare businesses are the providers in those facilities, B&O tax deductions, write-offs on income taxes, etc.
  • CARE will subsidize all child care slots in every program so that fees are affordable for families.
  • The amount CARE subsidizes for each child care slot that is filled will be reduced by the amount of each family’s co-pay. Paying for childcare slots evens out cash flow for programs so their revenue doesn’t fluctuate based on enrollment. It also stabilizes program staffs in that staffs aren’t laid off to adjust for fluctuations in enrollment.
  • The family co-pay is based on a percentage of income (no more than 7% of annual income) up to full co-pay if the percentage of the families’ income is less than 7%. In the current system, low-income families care is more affordable with subsidies, high income families can generally afford the care, but families in between cannot afford care and need help.
  • Funds are distributed in the form of grants such as the grants DCYF administered to programs providing emergency care when economy was initially shut down.

I concede this proposal is overly simplified. I am confident that it lays the groundwork for robust discussion and serious consideration.


The Lanham Act and Universal Childcare During World War II

Who Took Care of Rosie the Riveter’s Kids?

Government Funded Childcare During WWII

Paid Child Care for Working Mothers? All It Took Was a World War

The History of Child Care in the U.S. by Sonya Michel, Ph.D., University of Maryland

We have a child-care crisis in this country. We had the solution 78 years ago.

Here’s What Happened The One Time When The U.S. Had Universal Childcare

Universal Child Care, Maternal Employment, and Children’s Long-Run Outcomes: Evidence from the U.S. Lanham Act of 1940 by Chris M. Herbst

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