I am typing this from inside an indoor playground in Portland, Oregon. We are new to town, it’s the tail end of summer and my 4-year-old daughter can’t start her new preschool until next week. It’s also raining, and our house is full of boxes. We took a bus here and paid $11 to enter, and I am now in the awkward semiconscious state of the working parent without child care: looking down to try and remember what I wanted to write; looking up to determine whether the piercing scream is my child, or just my child’s fault. I will not make my deadline, but my daughter will be spared a gloomy afternoon inside the house, and I will be spared the guilt of letting her watch TV all day while I try to earn money.
It is painful, from this vantage, to read a piece in this newspaper, from 70 years ago, describing a different Portland scene: a room for children overlooking the Willamette River, “with windows on two sides to insure proper lighting and walls of pastel shades, in blues, yellows, apricots, depending on the exposure of the individual room.” In this paradise, one of the two new nurseries built by the Kaiser Co. for the children of workers in its Portland shipyards, “the children will have an opportunity to live wholesome, happy lives” — so promises the article, written by the director of the company’s Child Service Department.
The mothers of these children were “welders, clerks, timekeepers and secretaries” many of whom had been recently mobilized for the workforce. The nurseries — a partnership between the federal government and the Kaiser Co. — were open seven days a week, 12 months a year. There was an infirmary for sick children and food was provided. There was even a cafeteria where women could pick up hot meals to take home after work.
But it took a bloody global war, and its production demands on the country’s workforce, for the United States to make such meaningful provisions for working parents.
It is difficult to read this today, when it is widely acknowledged that American parents and caregivers are living through a child care crisis. Ours is an economy in which wages have stagnated and the cost of child care has soared — and, paradoxically, child care providers remain underpaid. In the face of this untenable situation come periodic public callbacks to World War II, when federal funds and partnerships, like the one with Kaiser, provided subsidized child care for hundreds of thousands of working women.
We had universal child care once, the line goes — why not again? I think of the office where I once worked, the mad dash to get to the day care in time to pick up my firstborn: What if I had gone to work knowing she was next door, that she was socializing, that she was fed, that she was surrounded by festive painted walls? And crucially, that I could afford it.
As with any moment in United States history, a closer look reveals a more complex reality. We did not have “universal child care”: we had a gesture toward it — one that benefited a select group of people, and was bitterly contested along the way. But for the families that it helped, it was an incredible, once-in-a-century boon.
The federal government got into the child care game before World War II. During the Depression, the Works Progress Administration ran a collaborative federal and state program of nursery schools, aimed at creating jobs. When the United States entered World War II several years later, the employment situation reversed: With the country approaching “full employment,” every industry scrambled for workers.
The official position of many people in government was that women with young children should be the last people brought into the labor force, but by 1942 it was obvious that more women were working outside the home. Government officials began sharing horror stories about women leaving children locked in cars, and about children bringing their younger siblings to school because there was no one at home to care for them.
A “women’s counselor” at the Bendix Aviation Corp. in New Jersey told reporters that child care was one of the biggest concerns for new employees. “We feel a mother should be with her small baby if possible,” she explained in 1943. “But many of them have to come back. Their husbands are in the service and they can’t get along on his allotment.”
The major source of funding to remedy this came from the Lanham Act of 1940, which enabled a number of social programs during the war years. Beginning in 1942, the Lanham Act funded the Federal Works Agency to provide group child care in areas of “war impact.” But far from instantly setting up a cheerful child care center on every block, the act created a complex patchwork of public and private entities, which in some cases sustained existing centers, and in others allowed communities to set up new ones.
The cost of these centers was to be shared between the federal and local governments, with parents chipping in fees as well. There were a number of steps that came between the authorization of funds and the moment the first children skipped through a center’s doors, which could create bureaucratic snarls. At one summit to discuss the program, the Times reported that in New York, for instance, just “$2.5 million of State funds were allocated for setting up child care centers, only $125,000 of this amount has been used.”
Much like other massive federal endeavors, the program faced enemies and obstruction from the jump. For some, the idea of a collective child care setting following a governmental standard was nightmarish, as was the prospect of women leaving the home. As The Times reported in 1943, “The worst mother is better than the best institution when it is a matter of child care, Mayor La Guardia declared.”
The Times coverage of this period speaks often of working women and mothers, and it is clear that the paper mostly meant white women and mothers. But black and brown women already worked outside of the home — roughly 38% of nonwhite women in 1940 compared to 25% of white women — far predating the tectonic social shift represented by a white Rosie the Riveter. There is, moreover, a robust history of white women using private child care providers, often women of color, even when they did not work outside the home themselves. Black women’s higher participation in the workforce meant that quality child care was even more crucial, though they ironically had less access to it. Lanham funds were allocated without considering “race, creed, or color,” but private employers and their workers did not necessarily hew to that standard. What the Times did not mention about that idyllic Kaiser facility was that it was functionally segregated, the services made inhospitable to black families.
Centers funded by the Lanham Act had reportedly looked after more than 500,000 children over the course of the war. In response to pleas from around the country, President Harry Truman successfully urged Congress to provide additional funding for the centers. But by 1946 — with the war over, and the men returning to the workforce — the federal funds were shut off.
The New York Times published heartbreaking coverage in 1946 and 1947, describing women organizing marches through New York City to protest closure of the centers.
The chairwoman of one of these actions told The New York Times that women wanted the centers so badly that “mothers able to do so, and some who really are not, have offered to raise to the limit of their ability the fees they have been paying.” The welfare commissioner, Edward Rhatigan, “deplored the ‘hysterical’ propaganda” about changes to the state’s plan and shared a sentiment that is perhaps at the heart of all the pervasive opposition to universal child care throughout American history: Many of the mothers, he said, worked only to “satisfy their desire for a career. They do not want relief checks but they will accept a public service at the taxpayers’ expense.”
Many women I know went back to work sooner than they wanted because the American workplace accepts nothing less than total capitulation to its schedule. Others yearned to go back, but simply could not swing the cost of child care. There’s resentment, and then there is tragedy. The news is full of working parents put in impossible situations. Just last July, a 3-year-old whose mother could not find child care drowned at her workplace in a terrible accident.
Almost a century ago hundreds of thousands of working women had access to affordable child care. It only took a war, an exodus of male workers and a dire threat to the economy to make it happen.