Throughout history, childcare has been presented to American mothers as either a last resort or an unnecessary luxury, a shameful and potentially dangerous choice, and one that American parents—and particularly mothers—should bear the costs for entirely, the price of failing to take personal, hands-on responsibility for their offspring. U.S. Senator and 2020 presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren’s proposed childcare policy opens a new chapter to that history, although it is not, as some seem to think, the first or even the second time the idea of government-supported childcare has been proposed, and she would do well to learn from past failures.
The fact that the U.S. remains the only developed country without government-supported maternity leave makes for a satisfyingly shocking point about where this country’s supposed “family values” lie, but for most working families it’s not taking time off in the weeks or months after the birth of a child that leaves a lasting impact on household income or the careers of women so much as the years of expensive and unreliable childcare that follow. Just think about how many times you’ve heard a woman say something like, “childcare is so expensive, I feel like I’d just be working to pay for it, it doesn’t make sense.”
And that’s if you’re lucky enough to live in a place with a variety of quality daycare options, unlike more than half of American families. Like the public school system, the childcare system in the U.S. generally operates under the assumption that every family has at least one full-time parent, but this has not been the case for the majority of American families for quite a while. Two-thirds of U.S. children who have not started school have all parents in the workforce.
Warren proposes to provide completely subsidized childcare for those living at or below 200% of the current poverty level, or less than $51,500 a year for a family of four, with families making above that level paying fees based on their income, but never more than 7 percent of their net income. Those fees will help to pay for care, and the rest of the costs will be covered by Warren’s proposed wealth tax (a 2% tax on Americans whose net worth is above $50 million and a 3% tax on wealth above $1 billion.)
The average cost of childcare per kid for American families is $7,000, with some families paying as much as $22,600 a year. For a family with two kids under the age of five, paying the average, that’s $14,000—well out of reach for a family of four making $59,039, the median income for a U.S. family. Childcare currently outpaces the cost of in-state college tuition or rent in the U.S., and it’s a problem that disproportionately impacts low-income families, who are more likely to live in a childcare desert and less able to shoulder the costs. Here again, ideally we’d have both leave and childcare subsidies, but while leave has been the focus of policy conversations for a long time, the long-term benefit of childcare seems to far outpace that of leave, and to go farther to close the income inequality gap.
Despite all the squawking about cost that has already begun, and will no doubt grow louder in the coming months, it’s also cheaper than subsidizing leave. If someone makes $200,000 a year, for example, and gets six months of full-time paid parental leave, that is a $100,000 benefit, versus someone making $60,000 a year whose leave costs $30,000. Childcare, on the other hand, might be more expensive in a wealthy neighborhood, but would be unlikely to triple in price.
Still, to sell her idea, Warren will need to combat not just the funding challenge, but also the country’s long history of pathological ideas about childcare. Progressive Era maternalist reformers started the country’s first “day nurseries” in cities in the late 1800s as a way to help women who earned so little and worked so much that they would otherwise have to leave their children in almshouses, in orphanages, or with family. Before the emergence of the day nurseries, there was a point where there were more American children in orphanages with living mothers than those who were truly orphaned, just in case you were under the impression that this country’s lack of regard for working families was solely the result of late-stage capitalism. The nurseries were a godsend for poor working-class women, but one that came with a large heaping of morality: day care leaders shamed mothers for using the nurseries and actively discouraged their use, undermining the system they were in the process of building. Josephine Dodge, president of the National Federation of Day Nurseries for three decades, repeatedly and publicly said day nurseries were a crisis solution only and that in the ideal situation, mothers would be at home with their children. That line of thinking persists today, with day care centers being seen as a sort of necessary evil or stopgap for families in crisis, and at least one big media story per decade highlighting the negative impacts of day care on children.
This country also built and dismantled a nationwide childcare system during and after World War II, when companies began complaining that mothers with young children were simply skipping work if they couldn’t find someone to watch their kids. In mid-August 1945, once victory in Japan was assured, the government announced the end of Lanham Act funding of childcare centers as soon as possible, and no later than the end of October 1945. A month later, the Federal Works Administration (FWA) reported it had heard from twenty-six states and the District of Columbia (1,155 letters, 318 wires, and 794 postcards and petitions signed by 3,647 individuals, according to the Congressional Research Office), urging continuation of the program and citing the need of servicemen’s wives to continue employment until their husbands returned, the ongoing need of mothers who were the sole support of their children, and the lack or inadequacy of other forms of care in the community. The state of California protested loudest—it was home to about 25 percent of federally funded day care kids—and its lobbyists eventually helped to secure an additional $7 million that allowed the program to continue until February 1946. By July 1946, less than 1,000 of the more than 3,000 wartime childcare centers continued to operate, and by 1960 there were fewer than 350 childcare centers receiving federal funding.
We nearly had a federally subsidized childcare system again in the 1970s when Congress passed the Comprehensive Child Development Act, cosponsored by Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale and Indiana Representative John Brademas. It was a bi-partisan bill with enviable approval ratings. Nixon’s administration had even helped to draft the bill, and its only vocal opponents just wanted to see the budget reduced. Then, in a surprise move, Nixon vetoed it, warning that it was a “leap in the dark” that 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.”
Again, the initiative was torpedoed not by a lack of funding or even political will, but by the persistent notion that children ought only to be the responsibility of their parents (remember that next time a politician wrings their hands about the declining birth rate and its impact on the economy). Nixon was listening, of course, to his advisor Pat Buchanan, a child-less man who was convinced that providing childcare was a slippery slope to communism and the demise of the American family.
Like that 1971 bill, the idea of universal childcare is wildly popular with the American public, across all party lines. But Warren can’t get too comfortable: Historically, solving this country’s childcare issue has been a matter not of funding or policy but of psychology and deeply entrenched ideas about what women, and particularly mothers, should and shouldn’t be doing. One way she might be able to safeguard a new childcare policy against that old bugaboo? Expand Universal Childcare to Universal Care—including elder care—would make it a benefit for nearly every American, and might just make it relatable to the large number of Boomers in office.
Amy Westervelt is an award-winning business and environmental journalist and author of the book Forget “Having It All”: How America Messed Up Motherhood—and How to Fix It, (Seal Press, 11/13/18). Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Popular Science, Elle, and other outlets. She is the producer of Gaslit Nation, a top-ranking podcast.
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