Publicly funded childcare — we had it once, why not now?

During World War II the federal government subsidized child care centers so that women could work in industries needed for the war effort. PHOTO: Gordon Parks / Library of Congress
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Of all the issues exposed during the pandemic, lack of childcare has the most crucial impact on workers, families, children and society. School shutdowns left many parents scrambling to find any source of childcare. Parents, mostly mothers, were forced to leave the workplace to care for their family and millions did not return to work. Roughly 3.5 million women with school-age children either lost jobs, cut their work hours, or left the workforce altogether because of Covid.

Some people working remotely took on the extra responsibility of caring for their children during office hours and homeschooling was added to that workload. Many children, more specifically children of color, fell behind in their academics during this time. Yet childcare is still being pushed to the bottom of the priority list even though it is such an essential part of living a healthy life.

It’s not a fantasy. Access to free quality childcare is not a utopian dream. Matter of fact, access to 24-hour federally-funded childcare centers was implemented during World War II to enable mothers to work. While men were at war, the bosses were in urgent need of workers, and women’s labor was central to the economy. The Lanham Act in 1940 funded over 3,000 round-the-clock childcare centers for several years. But when the men returned, women were ousted back into unpaid domestic labor. Capitalists once again got two workers for the price of one!

Then in the 1960’s a wave of feminist groups like the Action Childcare Coalition in Seattle, Washington, fought for free quality childcare. As a result, in 1971 the Comprehensive Child Development Act was passed by Congress — but President Nixon vetoed it. He was influenced by the religious right, which argued that children would be brainwashed in “communal” childcare centers. Women, they said, should stay home and uphold “family values.” Today, childcare is still mostly an individual family responsibility.

Broken promises. During Biden and Harris’ presidential campaign, they promoted their signature piece of legislation — a once-in-several-generations effort that is supposed to strengthen families’ economic security — the Build Back Better (BBB) Act. It could be a big step forward, but nowhere near what’s needed. However, Democrats are compromising away more than half of the $3.2 trillion package they promised. Negotiations are placing parents and workers in a position to give up paid parental leave in order to get access to childcare.

Even with the full BBB Act in place, it would only solve the issue of affordability and access to childcare for half of all parents. Funding is limited to families with incomes at or below 100% of state median income. The BBB Act program expires in ten years, and it excludes after-school care. Decades of underinvestment mean it would take years to develop preschools, and leaving the implementation up to the individual states just won’t work.

Lack of access to 24-hour quality childcare directly affects all women, most particularly women of color. With an average monthly cost of $1300 for one child, childcare is more expensive than rent or college tuition! Women make up 95% of childcare service owners and workers, and 42% of those are women of color. Underpaying early education and childcare workers disproportionately affects families of color and exacerbates the structural racism in the economic system.

Today, childcare is still considered an isolated private issue. And once again right-wing protesters oppose using tax money for childcare for the same reasons they did in the 1970’s. They are some of the same people who oppose reproductive rights, queer and trans rights, and racial justice. The religious right is even fighting for the legal ability to discriminate in hiring based on “values,” which is just a code for bigotry.

Childcare is a basic right. Access to publicly funded universal childcare would give all parents the opportunity to work outside of the home, but also give time off to parents who choose to be the primary childcare provider for their families. Therefore, childcare is essential for all parents. It would allow more women to enter the workforce, go to college, learn a trade, or participate in political activities.

Children should have equal opportunities to receive early education regardless of class status. Education is a public responsibility for those age 5 to 18 — and it should also be for those younger than 5. Research shows that children who are exposed to early education grow up to be more successful contributors to society. Childcare and early education is not only a worker’s right but also a child’s right to live a prosperous life.

While the majority of us are barely getting by, the ultra-wealthy are getting richer and traveling to space. Moving the heaviest tax burden to the rich by replacing unfair, regressive taxes is a first step to economic justice. Closing tax loopholes and eliminating taxpayer subsidies for big business would go further. And redirecting military spending into early education and childcare would solve many issues. The $778 billion military budget for 2022 would pay the entire BBB Act annual cost with plenty left over!

Women have played a vital role throughout labor history, providing countless hours of unpaid and underpaid work. Capitalism relies on women’s unpaid labor, whether that’s caring for a loved one or carrying the brunt of the emotional labor in running a household. Winning access to childcare will take organizing a stronger feminist movement and building a united front with labor to energize this fight.

Miriam Padilla is a mother, worker, and political activist. Send feedback on this story to miriamxpadilla@gmail.com.


Subsidized during the 1940s, childcare now costs most US families over $10,000 a year.

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