What Happened to Universal Child Care in America?

February 18th 2017

Willie Burnley Jr.

One of the prevailing concerns for new parents in the United States, especially those of low income, is the high cost of child care.

Child care is unaffordable in 49 states and the District of Columbia, with the sole exception being Louisiana.

That's the conclusion of a report by ChildCare Aware, a nonprofit that advocates for child care policies and works with hundreds of state and local agencies.

Things haven't always been this way.

The federal government oversaw a program between 1943 and 1946 that provided affordable child care to parents, regardless of income — the only such program in U.S. history, necessitated by the demands of World War II.

Millions of men entered the military, women went into the workplace in large numbers, and the government helped fund education-based child care through employers and other community-based organizations. Children even went home with premade meals.

After the war, President Harry S. Truman largely defunded the program and returned the state of American child care back to its prewar status quo.

It would be nearly 20 years until President Lyndon B. Johnson would create the Head Start program, which would provide education-based child care for children of low-income families through nonprofit grants.

What about universal child care in the United States?

The closest the U.S. would ever come again to having universal child care was 1971, when Congress pass the Comprehensive Child Development Act on a bipartisan basis.

The bill would have created a network of federally funded and locally controlled child care facilities to provide for children's educational, nutritional, and medical needs. Parents at various income levels would have been able to pay for services on a sliding scale.

But President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill. In a message to the Senate, he offered nine different reasons for rejecting it, including the cost of the program and the sprawling bureaucracy it would have created. If enacted, the bill 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," he said at the time.

Where does this leave us today?

Efforts by Democrats to push for universal pre-kindergarten programs, made as recently as 2015, have gotten virtually nowhere.

In the meantime, the nation has fallen further behind other industrialized countries that have placed a higher emphasis on the state's role in child care.

Progressive voices in the U.S. have largely abandoned the call for universal child care, settling instead for paid parental leave.

The United States is alone among industrialized nations in not guaranteeing paid parental leave.

Given congressional inaction on universal child care and the uncertainty about how many billions of dollars it would cost, the choice to focus on parental leave makes economic and emotional sense.

Study after study shows that early childhood education is crucial to reducing crime, improving the economy, and providing emotional and behavioral benefits for children.