Ask most parents in America about our current policies for making child care affordable, and they’ll agree: they aren’t working. And it turns out this problem has been around for a long, long time.

During World War II, the government needed women to go to work, so they had to provide assistance caring for kids. They established a national child care program for families involved in the war effort: the Lanham Act; and it applied to families of all income levels. Unfortunately, the Act was dismantled following the war when women were encouraged to “go back home” and leave the jobs for the men. #typical.

Seventy years later, quality, affordable child care is still a need we haven’t fully faced.

The history of child care in the U.S. shows incremental progress throughout the decades, but today the programs in place to serve low-income families are inadequate and grossly underfunded. And the reality is that what we really need is a much larger public investment in our children and families – one that serves both low-income and middle class families alike. Here’s why we don’t have that today:

After the Lanham Act was dismantled, in the 1960s, child care efforts primarily focused on poor families as part of the War on Poverty. President Johnson recognized the impact that early childhood education had on low-income children and signed Head Start into law to provide comprehensive early childhood development programs for three to five year olds in the poorest families.

In 1971, we had the biggest opportunity for major child care progress to date. Sadly, it was thwarted when President Nixon vetoed comprehensive child care legislation despite the strong support of a bipartisan majority in Congress. The bill would have represented a huge step toward universal child care, but “tricky Dick” warned against a “communal” approach, arguing that a family-centered approach, or what we might call a “DIY approach” to child care, would be better.

This unfortunate false dichotomy – that it’s “communal” vs. “family” or “government” vs. “parents,” and really, in some ways, “mom” vs. “anyone else” – has stuck. It has stalled comprehensive progress on child care in the decades following, despite the increasing number of mothers working and serving as co- and primary breadwinners for their families.

Take a look at our video, and you’ll see how the number of women working outside the home continued to increase during the second half of the 20th century, despite our lack of comprehensive child care policies.

 

Yet – thanks to the efforts of persistent advocates and policy makers – as more and more women have entered the workforce, important, if incremental, progress has been made. For example, the first child and dependent care tax credit was enacted in 1976, extending tax benefits to higher income families (and was subsequently expanded several times over the following decades). Four additional federal child care programs specifically for low-income working families and those connected to the welfare programs were enacted in 1988 and 1990 – under Republican presidents.

In 1993, the first piece of legislation signed by President Clinton was the Family and Medical Leave Act, which guaranteed 12 weeks of job-protected leave for caregiving. In 1994, Early Head Start was established for low-income pregnant women, infants and toddlers. In 1996, child care programs for low-income and welfare-connected families were consolidated into the Child Care Development Block Grant as part of welfare reform and funding was increased to help low-income mothers work. In 1998, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program started to provide federal funding exclusively to after-school programs serving low-income students.

And in more recent times? President Obama has made early care and education a priority, pushing through initiatives including the Race to the Top Early Learning ChallengeEarly Head Start-Child Care partnershipsPreschool Development Grants; and reauthorizing the Child Care and Development Block Grant. Yet, women have started dropping out of the workforce, in part, because child care funding has been way too little and progress has been too slow. Which means, for some parents, it’s cheaper to stay home and care for their kids than work and pay for child care.

As the history of child care in the United States makes clear, it’s possible to get bipartisan support for comprehensive child care that helps low-income and middle class families.

What’s even clearer is that American families need this kind of support now: there are more parents in the workforce than ever before, the cost of child care is higher than the cost of rent in many states, and the average paycheck of a child care teacher is lower than a dog walker.

As our history shows, publicly supported child care solutions are a need that has always been with us. Today the need is greater than ever.

For more information about solution’s to the nation’s child care crisis visit: http://www.makeitworkcampaign.org/policies/caregiving/

With special thanks to Helen Blank from the National Women’s Law Center.

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Julie Kashen is Make It Work’s Senior Policy Advisor. She makes it work in partnership with her husband and family, her Google spreadsheet of backup child care providers, great books, and chocolate.

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