Last year, the United States had its lowest birthrate in 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a new survey, in which participants were asked why they were having fewer children than they wanted, the top responses were almost all economic: “child care is too expensive,” “can’t afford more children,” “waited because of financial instability,” “worried about the economy.”
The United States holds the dubious distinction of being the only developed country in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave as a federal mandate. If and when a woman returns to work after having a baby, she must confront the sobering reality of securing care for her child. Once she determines whether there are viable options in her area — by no means a given — she’s likely to encounter a wait list. If a spot does become available, she must then contend with sticker shock: In more than half of states, the cost of child care exceeds public university tuition.
It hasn’t always been like this. Once upon a time, the country set mothers up for greater success, if only unintentionally.
During World War II, as more and more men found themselves on the front lines, ammunition factories were short of workers. The solution: Women took their jobs. During the war, the percentage of working women with children younger than 10 increased from 7.8 to 12.1 percent between 1940 and 1944. This significant uptick in working mothers left countless young children at home and unsupervised.
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The government resolved the quandary by swiftly amending the Lanham Act. The 1940 law, which allowed for the provision of war-related grants, would now also provide for the establishment of federally subsidized child-care centers nationwide.
At the program’s peak in 1944, 130,000 children were enrolled. The federal government spent $52 million on the program between August 1943 and February 1946; parents paid an additional $26 million in user fees, which in today’s dollars would be $9 or $10 a day. A report released at the time suggested overwhelming satisfaction with these centers.
After the war ended, the Child Welfare League of America lobbied to keep the centers open. But the efforts were for naught. Despite irrefutable evidence of the program’s efficacy, funding was cut shortly after the end of the war, and centers were closed within a year or two.
In 1971, we came close to realizing a second nationwide, federally subsidized system of child care. Then-current research on children’s development helped inform Congress’s decision to pass the Comprehensive Child Development Act. According to the plan, free care would be provided to the country’s poorest children, with their more advantaged peers enrolled on a sliding scale. Shortly after Congress took action, President Richard M. Nixon was scheduled to visit China. In an unfortunate twist, conservative presidential adviser Pat Buchanan framed the act as not only fiscally irresponsible, but also a threat to democracy at large. Nixon vetoed the act.
Although the Lanham and Comprehensive Child Development Acts fizzled, they established compelling precedents for federally funded day care. In fact, the government is still enacting some versions of them. One is Early Head Start, a child-care program run by the Administration for Children & Families intended for youngsters from birth to age 3 who fall at or below the poverty level and for homeless and foster children. EHS lacks the necessary funding to meet the demand. The second option is afforded to military families. After identifying that a surprising number of those on active duty had been absent from training because of a lack of child care, the Army decided that providing reliable access was a matter of national security — not unlike in the 1940s.
The truth is, a larger, pervasive threat already exists. Forty-two percent of children younger than 5 live in parts of the country considered “child-care deserts,” rural areas where no child-care centers are located or can meet the demand.
Yet President Trump’s budget for fiscal 2018 indicates a $100 million cut in funding to military child care. His daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump’s child-care plan, a proposal that offers tax deductions determined by the cost of child care in each state, has been reported by members of both parties to favor those who need it the least — the rich.
Raising the next generation of citizens to run our country requires love, time and attention, obligations most parents fulfill. But it also requires money, more than most hard-working parents can come by, and they are responding by having fewer children. We might not be embroiled in a world war, but as a nation that depends on robust birthrates to thrive, we are imperiled.