When the United States began recruiting women for WWII factory jobs, there was a reluctance to call stay-at-home moms with young children into the workforce. That changed when the government realized it needed more wartime workers in its factories. To enable more women to work, the government began subsidizing childcare for the first (and only) time in the country’s history.
It is estimated that 550,000 to 600,000 children have been cared for in these facilities, which costs parents about 50 to 75 cents per child per day (in 2021, it is less than $ 12). But like the employment of women in factories, day care centers have always been meant to be a temporary measure of war. When the war ended, the government encouraged women to leave factories and care for their children at home. Despite receiving letters and petitions calling for the continuation of child care programs, the U.S. government stopped funding them in 1946.
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World War II highlights need for child care
Before World War II, organized “daycares” did not really exist in the United States. Children from middle and upper class families can attend private preschools for a few hours a day, says Sonya Michel, professor emeritus of history, women’s studies and American studies at the University of Maryland-College Park and author of Interests of Children / Rights of Mothers: Shaping U.S. Child Care Policy. (In German communities, five- and six-year-olds attended half-day kindergartens.)
For children from poor families whose fathers had died or could not work, there were nurseries funded by charitable donations, Michel says. But there were no accessible all-day child care centers for families in which both parents worked – a situation common for low-income families, especially black families, and less common for middle and upper-class families. .
The war temporarily changed that. In 1940, the United States passed the Defense Housing and Community Facilities and Services Act, known as the Lanham Act, which gave the Federal Works Agency the power to fund the construction of houses, schools and other infrastructure for workers in the growing defense industry. It was not specifically intended to fund child care, but in late 1942 the government used it to fund temporary child care for the children of working mothers in wartime.
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The communities had to apply for funding to create daycare centers; once they did, there was very little federal involvement. Local organizers have structured the daycares according to the needs of a community. Many offered care at irregular hours to accommodate the schedules of women who had to work early in the morning or late at night. They also provided up to three meals a day for the children, with some offering prepared meals that mothers could take with them when they came to pick up their children.
“The ones we often hear about are the ‘model’ nurseries that have been set up in aircraft factories. [on the West coast]», Says Michel. “These were countries where federal funding came very quickly, and some of the leading voices in the early childhood education movement… got involved quickly in the establishment. [them] “, she says.
For these centers, the organizers hired architects to construct attractive buildings that would specifically meet childcare needs. “There was a lot of publicity about it, but it was unusual. Most daycares were sort of a fortune. They were installed in church basements or garages.
Although the quality of care varies from center to center, there has not been much research on how this quality relates to the race of children (in Jim Crow South, where schools and recreation facilities were separate, day care centers were probably also separate). At the same time, the United States was making its debut in subsidized childcare, it also incarcerated American families of Japanese descent in internment camps. So even though these daycares were revolutionary, they did not serve all children.
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Subsidized child care ends at end of war
When WWII day care centers opened, many women were reluctant to entrust their children to them. According to Chris M. Herbst, professor of public affairs at Arizona State University, who has written about these programs in the Journal of Labor Economics, many of these women ended up having positive experiences.
“A few child care programs in California have interviewed mothers of children in child care as they leave child care programs,” he says. “Even though they were initially skeptical of this government-run child care program and worried about the effects on their children’s development, exit interviews found very, very high levels of parental satisfaction with child care programs.
When the war ended in August 1945, the Federal Works Agency announced that it would stop funding child care as soon as possible. Parents responded by sending the agency 1,155 letters, 318 sons, 794 postcards and petitions with 3,647 signatures urging the government to keep them open. In response, the US government provided additional funding for child care until February 1946. After that, it was over.
Lobbying for national child care gained momentum in the 1960s and 1970s, a time when many of its advocates may have visited child care during World War II as children. In 1971, Congress passed the Comprehensive Child Development Act, which would have created nationally funded and locally administered child care centers.
It was during the Cold War, a time when anti-childcare activists pointed to the Soviet Union funding childcare as an argument as to why the United States shouldn’t. President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill, arguing that it “would engage the broad moral authority of the national government on the side of community-based approaches to child rearing against the family-centered approach.”
In this case, “family-centered” meant that the mother had to look after the children at home while the father worked outside of it – something the parents could afford or wanted to do. World War II remains the only time in US history that the country has come close to instituting universal child care.