Prime Time for Child Care – Finally

May 20, 2021


For half a century, U.S. policymakers ignored child care. Families (read: women) were essentially on our own as we struggled to maneuver both home and work responsibilities, with virtually no help from government or our employers.

Your child was sent home from school/day care because she had a fever? Figure it out. The nanny suddenly cancelled? Figure it out. Can’t afford child care but desperately need to work? Figure it out.

Unlike working mothers in nearly all other developed countries that provided public funding of child care, we in America were on our own.

Then the pandemic happened.

Schools closed. Child care centers closed. Millions of women dropped out of the U.S. labor force, largely because of the unexpected caregiving burden.

Suddenly, our policymakers began paying attention. (If President Richard Nixon had not vetoed the bipartisan Comprehensive Child Development Act in 1971, a national child care system would have already been in place.)

Now the issue of child care is, finally, getting prime-time attention. The Biden administration and its allies, says writer Emily Peck, “are pushing the notion that caring for children – and the sick and the elderly – is just as crucial to a functioning economy as any road, electric grid or building.” Sounds right to me, and I’m not alone. Polls indicate there is broad and deep support from the American public for subsidized expansion of child care.

How caring for our children is ultimately funded depends on whether President Biden can make a deal with the Congress. But the idea of government-run child care is not a novel one. Remember Rosie the Riveter? Guess who took care of her kids during World War II? The answer is: Uncle Sam.

“The hand that holds the pneumatic riveter cannot rock the cradle at the same time,” author G.G. Wetherill wrote in 1943. Congress agreed and took the plunge to help fund the cost of group care for hundreds of thousands of children whose mothers were needed to work in the factories for the war effort.

It was the only time in American history, says Rhaina Cohen writing in The Atlantic magazine, when parents “could send their children to federally-subsidized child care, regardless of income. And it was affordable: By late 1944, a mother could send a child of two to five years to child care for 50 cents per day (about $7 in today’s money, adjusting for inflation.) That included lunch and snacks in the morning and afternoon.”

It was a massive program that was administered in every state except New Mexico. Once the war ended, unfortunately so did the program.

Today, one-third of the U.S. workforce, or an estimated 50 million workers, has a child under the age of 14 in their household. So when the pandemic hit in 2020 without a stable form of child care as part of business infrastructure, “the world stopped working for the vast majority of working parents,” said a study published last month in the Harvard Business Review.

The pandemic, that study concluded, “exposed the previously invisible (or forgotten) link between child care and the economy. It is the lifeline for women to stay employed.”

Even before the pandemic, inadequate child care was costing working parents $37 billion a year in lost income and employers $13 billion a year in lost productivity. Working parents know the score and it shows: in 2020, the U.S. birthrate declined for the sixth straight year. While there are other reasons for America’s declining birthrate (rising deaths, leveling-off of immigration, shifting demographics), the difficulty in obtaining and paying for child care needs to be included. Why have a baby when the cost – literally – is so high?

It’s past time for governments – federal, state, and local — to step up. Employers, too, need to do more. Scholars suggest that employers should create more support structures at work, offer flexible work schedules and remote work, increase child care subsidies as employee benefits, and provide on-site or local child care spaces and supervision.

Can’t afford it, you say? We can’t afford not to; the next pandemic, epidemiologists warn, is waiting in the wings.

Jan Collins 2021-circle-crop

Jan Collins is a Columbia, South Carolina-based journalist, editor, and author. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard and former Congressional Fellow in Washington, D. C., she is the coauthor of Next Steps: A Practical Guide to Planning for the Best Half of Your Life (Quill Driver Books, 2009).

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