The US government once offered widely affordable child care: NPR

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The pandemic-induced child care crisis has exposed the system's long-standing fragility and sparked debate as to why it can't be better.

Rachael Shannon becomes nostalgic when she thinks about the life she lived in Germany until just a few years ago. While she and her husband worked, their children spent their days at daycare, creating great crafts, building pillow fortresses, and going out to farms where they gathered potatoes.

“It was like wow 10 times,” says Shannon, who worked for a US government contractor.

For this highly imaginative full-time care for two children, the Shannons paid about $ 750 per month, or about a quarter of the cost of comparable care in the Washington, DC area where they returned in 2018.

Today, in the midst of the pandemic, Shannon is one of millions of parents on edge over the lack of good child care options here in the United States. Safe and reliable child care was already expensive and difficult to obtain before the pandemic. Now it is even more true. With cost increase due to social distancing and sanitation requirements, many daycares have been forced to close.

The pandemic-induced child care crisis has exposed the fragility of the system and sparked debate as to why it cannot be better. Why do parents in the richest nation in the world pay such a high price to have both children and a job?

“I wish more Americans would know how parents live in other countries,” said Rachael Shannon. “I am jealous and I am angry.”


Rachael Shannon with her children JoJo and Nora in Filderstadt, Germany, in 2017. The Shannons returned to the United States the following year due to a job change.


Photography Joseph Shannon

The heavily subsidized German childcare system is the norm through Europe. It might seem like a utopian option to many American parents today, but the United States government came up with its own version 77 years ago.

During World War II, as men went to war, women were called upon to help run factories and do all kinds of other work. But it was clear that it would be impossible to get by without the children being taken care of. Child custody was considered a matter of national security.

Under the Lanham Law, child care centers, funded with federal and local dollars, have opened in war-affected communities. In 1943, families were paying 50 cents a day, which works out to $ 7.70 a day now.

“The main priority was to bring women to defense factories,” says historian Sonya Michel, author of the book Interests of Children / Rights of Mothers: The Formation of US Child Care Policy.

More than half a million children were taken into care during the war, says Michel.

There was a lot of opposition to the effort – some argued that separating children from their mothers for long hours would lead to psychological damage. But he was overcome by the promise that government-funded child care would be “for the duration only.”

The scene in 1943 at a war workers’ nursery in Oakland, Calif., Where children were served cod liver oil and tomato juice in the morning, a nutritious lunch at noon, and milk and afternoon crackers.

Ann Rosener / Library of Congress


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Ann Rosener / Library of Congress


The scene in 1943 at a war workers’ nursery in Oakland, Calif., Where children were served cod liver oil and tomato juice in the morning, a nutritious lunch at noon, and milk and afternoon crackers.

Ann Rosener / Library of Congress

“What that meant was that as soon as the war was over, mothers had to go home. And of course, federal funding would be withdrawn,” Michel said. “As soon as the war ended, almost all the centers closed immediately.”

Decades later, in 1971, the United States moved closer to a universal child care system, where the poorest children could attend for free and others on a sliding scale. Congress passed such a bill, but there was a veto by President Richard Nixon, who wrote about the “family weakening implications of the system he envisions.”

Until today, the United States does not massively subsidize child care, and the subsidies that exist only reach 1 in 6 eligible children. Most parents in the United States bear the high costs of childcare on their own, say analysis from the Center for American Progress.

As a result, parents in the United States pay too much, and educators earn too little, says Ashley williams, a senior policy analyst at the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California at Berkeley, and herself a former preschool teacher.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, female educators earn a median salary of $ 11.65 per hour. Their jobs, which are normally grueling, are now more stressful than ever, putting a strain on a person. Workforce it is almost exclusively women and 40% people of color.

The pandemic has clearly highlighted the need for more investment in the system, Williams says. “Parents need a place for their children to be safe and cared for so they can engage in the economy.”

But there is one employer in the United States that makes child care viable for families and workers: the military.

The Ministry of Defense Child Development Program originates from the end of the project. The army was no longer made up of single men in barracks. A force of volunteers meant there were now women and children to consider.

“There was a saying at the start – you recruit the soldier, but you keep the family,” says MA Lucas, an early childhood educator who was hired in 1980 to set up a formal child care system for the U.S. military.

Even with the experience of WWII, it was not an easy sale. For the first two years, she avoided talking about children. “That didn’t mean we weren’t thinking about the kids, but we didn’t talk about the kids. We talked about the impact of the lack of child care on the military force,” says Lucas, who was her. even a military wife.

She focused on preparation and, through anonymous polls, demonstrated the immense need.

“I asked soldiers at all levels, officers and enlisted, if they were wasting time from their jobs because of the lack of child care,” she said. “It was an amazing revelation to find the high number of people who admitted it.” Twenty percent of the workforce reported wasting service time.

Lucas set to work, guided by a mission statement that remains largely unchanged today: Reduce the conflict between parenting and the military mission. She spent 31 years on the project.

Under Lucas’s leadership, the military built daycares on bases for easy pickup and drop-off and kept them open for long hours to accommodate work shifts. Like other jobs in the military, there was a training program for caregivers, and they were paid competitive salaries. The fees were billed on a sliding scale to make care affordable.

But running child care centers in this way is expensive. The Ministry of Defense spent over $ 1 billion a year for child care.

“It shows that the federal government can do it whenever it wants,” says historian Michel. But despite the proof of concept, Americans remain allergic to the idea of ​​funding such programs outside of times of need.

“Maybe Congress and the government will rise to the occasion in an emergency, but does it last afterwards? That’s still the problem,” says Michel.

Currently, a bill that would dramatically increase federal child care subsidies is inactive. The fate of the Child Care Act for Working Families will probably be determined at the next Congress.

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