Remembering Rosie, and that time we almost had universal childcare
March 29, 2016
Photo: Carol Highsmith; Library of Congress
For Women's History Month, 31 former "Rosie the Riveters" hit Washington, D.C. recently to visit military monuments and reminisce. CBS News quotes Helen Jedele, who helped build bombers at the Ford Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti: "The fellows were gone. Somebody had to make those planes. We would have lost the war, that's for sure."
Indeed. And that's when the United States did something that made great sense, as Kathleen Davis recounts in "How The U.S. Almost Had Universal Child Care (Twice), in Fast Company."...[T]he government realized that with two parents working outside the home, it was a social responsibility to provide affordable (and high-quality) child care, just as it’s a social responsibility to provide free public school for older children. But aside from that, there was also an economic motivation for the government to subsidize child care: It needed women in the workforce, just as the economy does now."
Yes, 76 years ago, the U.S. built a government-funded child care system for working parents. The Defense Housing and Community Facilities and Services Act of 1940 "funded public works, including child care centers, in communities with defense industries," Davis writes. "Families were eligible for child care for up to six days a week, including summers and holidays, and parents paid the equivalent of just $9–$10 a day in today’s dollars." The centers served families of all incomes. It was a short-lived effort. The war ended, more than half of women who joined the wartime workforce left, and that was the end of government subsidized care.
It wasn't until 1971 that anyone tried again. That year, Congress passed the Comprehensive Child Development Act, which would have "established a network of nationally funded, locally administered child care centers that would provide education, nutrition, and medical services." Davis says Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale viewed the measure as a first step toward national, universal child care. Yet, despite bipartisan support, "President Nixon vetoed the bill because of conservatives’ worries that subsidized child care would undermine traditional breadwinner-homemaker family structures." I know, I couldn't stop laughing when I read that, either.
Today, well ... our childcare system sucks. "To put it in perspective, a 2011 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that two-earner families in the U.S. pay more than double for child care than almost every other country on the list, including Germany, Australia, France, and Greece," Davis notes. Parents are on their own trying to find care that meets their needs and schedules. And quality varies widely.
If we could manage to build a national child care system in 1940, when America's industries needed workers to build bombers, couldn't we at least try to do it again today? Because America still needs workers. And those fairytale "breadwinner-homemaker family structures"? Apparently something "undermined" them anyway, despite Nixon & friends' best efforts.