Will Biden Reverse 50 Years of Failure on Child Care Policy?Roundup
tags: welfare state, womens history, Child Care, social welfare
Anna K. Danziger Halperin is the Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow in women’s history and public history at the New-York Historical Society. She is writing a book on the history of child care, motherhood and race since the 1960s.
Senate Democrats are close to finalizing a $3.5 trillion budget plan that would begin the process of enacting an ambitious social agenda that is expected to include historic government investments in child care. This proposal — introduced by President Biden in April as part of his American Families Plan — has faced its share of conservative opposition, as have policymakers’ attempts to tackle child care over the past half-century.
Fifty years ago, President Richard M. Nixon vetoed the bipartisan Child Development Act that would have provided universal care for 3- and 4-year-olds on a sliding scale. He was swayed by critics who framed the policy as governmental intrusion into private family life. That veto produced long-lasting consequences. Today, the United States has a highly unequal and fragmented public child-care system that leaves many families unable to access high-quality, affordable child care.
In many ways, opponents of Biden’s child-care proposal are reviving arguments from the past, with critics charging that such policies harm families. By contrast, today’s advocates of child-care reform are shifting focus from families to women, showing how access to more affordable child care can support women as both workers and mothers — something most proponents were loath to do in the past.
These debates are rooted in the mid-1960s, when Congress began trying to create a universally accessible national public child-care system. The idea was popular. Leaders of the coalition behind what became the Child Development Act (CDA) of 1971, notably Yale psychologist Edward Zigler (who joined the Nixon administration) and lawyer Marian Wright Edelman (who would go on to found the Children’s Defense Fund), imagined the reforms as an extension of Head Start. That program was part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, and it initially provided part-time school preparation programs for lower-income children, particularly those from poor Black families. Nixon recognized this growing consensus that investing in children would address U.S. poverty and improve outcomes and issued a commitment in 1969 to support child development during children’s first five years. The CDA would have created centers to provide high-quality, locally controlled education alongside nutritional and medical services.
But conservative opponents of the legislation in the early 1970s painted public child care as a Soviet-like intrusion, building on decades of Cold War-inspired, grass-roots opposition to any family policies. Sen. James Allen (D-Ala.) asserted that the CDA was “totally incompatible with a free society,” and that “the pernicious thrust of this bill” would be to “undermine the family as the basic unit of society” and “create a gigantic bureaucratic monstrosity with near-complete control over the lives of children.”
Allen misconstrued the legislation, which entailed voluntary participation. But the idea that the state was threatening Americans’ private family lives and undermining parental control had purchase with the growing grass-roots conservative movement. This movement was animated by an anti-communist, small-government politics — including an emerging family values faction that began organizing against perceived threats to the traditional nuclear family, with a mother at home engaged in full-time child care.
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