andrew yarrow is a former reporter for The New York Times.
Published June 2, 2021
President Biden’s temporary expansion of the Child Tax Credit under the American Rescue Plan has been hailed as a bold initiative to make child care affordable and ease mothers waylaid by the pandemic back into the workforce. It is certainly a step forward. But there is an irony here: nearly 80 years ago, Washington promoted an even bolder approach — a heavily subsidized national network of government-funded child-care centers.
No, Congress was not flirting with building a welfare-state nirvana; the driving force was the exigencies of total war. During World War II, some 3,000 centers in 47 states were established with federal funding to provide care for 600,000 children, all thanks to legislation that was never intended to do anything of the sort. But I get ahead of myself.
The obvious question is whether this dive into state-supported care offers lessons for today. Certainly the problem is a daunting one. The average inflation-adjusted cost of child care has risen nearly 50 percent just since 1993, to about $16,000 a year ($34,381 in Massachusetts), which is more than in-state tuition at many state universities. Probably most relevant here, $16,000 is more than the wages of a full-time worker who is paid the federal minimum. Partly as a result of these crippling costs, women’s labor force participation has drifted down over the past two decades and birth rates had begun to fall long before they cratered in the Time of Covid.
Could the country’s baby bust, combined with long-term declines in labor force participation, rouse the nation to step up on child care once more? Or without the threat of Hitler and Tojo to frighten them, is another taste of socialism just too much for Americans to stomach?
The Mists of History
Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that public child care in the U.S. actually pre-dated World War II. The Works Project Administration, the tip of the spear of the New Deal during the Depression, operated free “emergency nursery schools” for low-income families that employed out-of-work teachers. The scope was relatively small, though, and the primary goal was to create jobs rather than to care for kids.
But during the months after Pearl Harbor, as war industries hired millions of women to replace drafted workers to ramp up production, the need for more centers was clear. Earlier in 1941, the federal Children’s Bureau had convened a conference on the Day Care of Working Mothers, and the agency’s chief, Katherine Lenroot, called for expanded facilities.
“America’s women must supplement men in the manpower of this nation,” she wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 1942. “The federal government, states and communities must be prepared to meet the child-care problem, in order that children of the nation be spared gross neglect.” Of the 5 million women who entered the workforce during the war, about 1.5 million were mothers of children under 10.
But not everyone was sold, and cash to subsidize centers was scarce. Hence the serendipitous existence of the 1941 Defense Public Works Act (less formally, the Lanham Act), which offered open-ended assistance to communities gearing up for war on the home front. That June, The New York Times called Lanham Act funding “golden keys to tend to children in war industries.”
This was not what Texas Rep. Fritz Lanham had in mind when he sponsored the bill. But then reports began to come out that working mothers were leaving children in cars and movie theaters, chaining them to trailer homes, or leaving them with house keys hanging around their necks (hence the phrase, “latchkey children”). The need for day care was widely acknowledged, and the Federal Works Administration (FWA), which included the WPA, re-interpreted public services to include child-care centers and began allocating money for that purpose in August 1942.
In 1965, six years after the enactment of Head Start, a bipartisan bill to establish national child-development and day-care centers was passed by both houses of Congress, only to be vetoed by President Nixon, who dismissed it as “family weakening.” A half-century later, there is still is no broad-based federally supported child care.
The first “Lanham Center” opened almost immediately, in New Haven. A parallel “extended school services” program, run by the Office of Education (a branch of the Federal Security Agency, another New Deal creation) provided after-school supervision for older children.
When the WPA was disbanded in June 1943, the Senate unanimously approved funding for child-care center grants to be administered by the Children’s Bureau and the Federal Security Agency. The need for wartime unity notwithstanding, turf battles ensued, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to personally intervene in July 1943. He declared that the FWA’s War Public Services division would be in charge.
Communities had to apply for grants, navigate the bureaucracy and prove that they could not fund centers on their own. Localities were supposed to cover half the cost, which they mostly ducked. The feds wound up paying for about two-thirds, with the other third coming from parents’ fees. Centers were established in 635 cities and towns and were open six days a week — some even stayed open 24 hours a day to match the nonstop manufacturing effort for the war. Children over 2 could attend, and fees were initially capped at 50 cents a day — roughly the equivalent of $8 today.
However, grants were generally small. One notable exception was the subsidy for child centers at the Kaiser Shipyards in Portland, Oregon. These included a highly trained staff and on-site medical care; the cost to shipyard workers was $5 for a six-day week.
This doesn’t mean outside daycare was universally accepted. Psychologists supported them, and the National Council of Jewish Women sensibly warned: “If a community does not provide proper care for its children, it will shortly be faced with even greater problems of disease, illiteracy, and delinquency. … We are protecting our investment in postwar America by caring for today’s children.”
But John and Joan Q. Public weren’t so sure. Before the war, child care was seen as a last resort, a charity for the poor. Some experts and many Americans worried about “maternal deprivation.” An upstate New York child care center administrator recalled: “There was hostility with a religious undertone. ‘It wasn’t the way God intended.’”
Given public ambivalence, legislators became reluctant to appropriate additional funding. Some communities opted not to apply for funds out of fear that they would be seen as encouraging mothers to leave their homes. Even in those that did, it was often hard to find space near factories and recruit child-care workers. At peak capacity in 1944, only 130,000 children could be accommodated during the school year, although enrollment grew during summer vacations, when older children were eligible for care.
The demand for child care thus far outstripped supply. Many centers had waiting lists. One study found that grandmothers and other relatives took care of one-third to one-half of kids of working mothers.
It’s not surprising, then, that the days of subsidized child care were numbered once the war ended in August 1945. The FWA announced that it would stop funding centers. But with millions of fathers dead, disabled or stuck overseas, their wives needed to keep working. President Truman persuaded Congress to continue funding through February 1946. However, attempts to make federal support permanent were unsuccessful, as Americans waxed nostalgic about women’s place in the home.
Given overwhelming pressures to forget about Rosie the Riveter and rejoice in the postwar baby boom, it was easy to ignore studies like one in 1947 that found that the Lanham Centers had “strengthened family relationships in a period of complex strains.” A longitudinal study published in 2014, using Census data to track what had happened to Lanham Center children, found that kids who had been in day care were somewhat more likely to graduate from college and their average annual earnings in the 1990s were 1.8 percent higher than the earnings of others of their age.
The impulse to give mom (and her young children) a break did live on, albeit modestly. In 1965, Head Start was enacted as part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiative, providing child-development centers for pre-kindergarten children from low-income homes. Six years later, a bipartisan bill to establish national child-development and day-care centers was passed by both houses of Congress, only to be vetoed by President Nixon, who dismissed it as “family weakening.” A half-century later, there is still is no broad-based federally supported child care. All branches of the military do offer subsidies for child care. But the program is hardly on the scale provided by the Lanham Act.
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When the Lanham Centers began closing, Eleanor Roosevelt mourned their passing in her syndicated newspaper column. Sounding generations ahead of her time — as she often did — she concluded that “these children are future citizens, and if they are neglected in these early years it will hurt not only the children themselves, but the community as a whole.” Today, tens of millions of parents who have been cooped up with small children during the pandemic get the point that we shouldn’t wait for the next world war to institute affordable child care for all who want it. The big question is when, if ever, a majority in Congress get the point, too.