Episode 2: U.S. history hides clues about child care and the fight for reform Episode 2: U.S. history hides clues about child care and the fight for reform

Runtime: 17:34 — Polls indicate strong support for investing in a better child care system. Actual legislative results tell another story. Does history offer clues about why comprehensive reform has been so elusive, even though – on the surface – the idea is popular?

Overview Overview

The issue of child care reform simply has not captured the public’s imagination. And experts say two facts of history help explain why.

One is that child care policy has focused on enabling women to work. Second, it has also almost always been about serving the poor. Advocates say that consistent framing of child care as mainly about women and low-income families has convinced too many people that comprehensive reform is not about them.

In this episode, we’ll explore how the devastating COVID-19 pandemic may have actually created a rare chance to change hardened perceptions about child care. We’ll ask whether the sector is ready to learn from history? Or will it continue to repeat it?

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It’s easy to find strong public support for investing in a better child care system. It just takes a couple of minutes online.

In one poll last year, 79% of respondents agreed the COVID-19 pandemic shows it’s essential to build an affordable and accessible child care system.

In another poll, 70% said they would support Congressional efforts to expand child care funding and early childhood education.

These are encouraging numbers for child care advocates. But Julie Clark is skeptical about supposed heavy support for child care reform.

For 34 years, Clark has owned and operated the CAST Preschool and Childcare Center in Woodbury, Connecticut.

Over the decades, she’s noticed a disconnect between what people say about improving child care and what they’re willing to do – and pay – to make it happen.


Everyone says, "Oh, children. I love children. Children are the most important thing. My grandchildren are just amazing. My children are the best." But we don't, as a society, value children. We value money.


North Carolina Congresswoman Virginia Foxx – the Republican leader of the Education and Labor Committee – agrees there’s a gap between words and deeds when it comes to society’s commitment to child care.

To her, it’s evident in the notoriously poor pay for the workers who teach and care for the children we say we love and cherish.


It just seems like our country doesn’t live up to our stated values.


This is Six Hundred Atlantic, a podcast produced by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. I’m your host, Jay Lindsay.

This season, we’re focusing on child care. And in this episode, we’re looking for clues in history about why major child care reform has been so elusive, even though the idea of it – on the surface – seems to have widespread support.

The fact is that individual states are very active on child care issues. A database maintained by the National Conference of State Legislatures lists nearly 230 early child care-related bills enacted nationwide in 2019 and 2020 alone.

On a federal level, lawmakers earmarked $50 billion to assist the industry after it was whacked by COVID-19. But legislation for comprehensive national reform is rare.

It’s been 50 years since a bill that would have created a universal, publicly funded child care system passed Congress. That was killed by a presidential veto, and there’s been no successful national “child care movement” since to force politicians to work it out.

It’s just not an issue that’s captured the public’s imagination. And it turns out history may help explain why.

In our first episode, we discussed a key obstacle for advocates: That is, showing why child care should matter to people who don’t have young children.

But advocates say two other facts of history undermine efforts to win the broad public support needed for massive, and expensive, reform.

One is that child care policy has focused on enabling women to work. Second, it has also almost always been about serving the poor.

In fact, nearly all child care initiatives in the past 100 years have checked at least one of these two boxes.

And experts say that consistent framing of child care as mainly about women and low-income families has further convinced too many people that comprehensive reform is not about them.

Adelphi professor Elizabeth Palley, co-author of “In Our Hands: The Struggle for U.S. Child Care Policy,” encountered this thinking during a radio appearance.


One of the things that somebody called in and said, "I'm struggling to pay for child care. If we expand funding for child care, I'm still not going to get any of that money." So that is a real common perception that it's only going to help poor people.

I think that does get in the way of program expansion.


Palley’s co-author, University of Maryland professor Corey Shdaimah, said many view child care as a narrowly targeted benefit, rather than something of broad societal importance.


So, it's not treated as sort of a universal need or a regular function of government. It's something that we provide only in really dire and very limited circumstances.


Ironically, the devastating COVID-19 pandemic may have created a rare chance to change hardened perceptions about child care. Advocates say it’s showed us how essential it is to the entire economy – not just discreet portions of it.

How will policymakers respond? Is the sector ready to learn from history? Or will it continue to repeat it?

The history of U.S. child care policy spans eras, and it treads on all sorts of sensitive ground – like attitudes about race, government, women, and the family.

But University of Arizona public policy researcher Chris Herbst said enabling women to work unifies it all.


I think if you look through the history of U.S. child care policy, there's sort of a common thread that runs through this history that could be boiled down to one word, and that's employment, in particular, mother's employment.


Boston Fed Assistant Vice President Beth Mattingly says it’s more specific than that – it’s white mother’s employment.


We know from historical records that Black women have always had relatively high labor force participation rates, as have some women from other groups of color.


Examples of how child care policy has historically enabled women’s employment start in the 19th century. Palley’s and Shdaimah’s book recounts how a few child care centers appeared as early as the 1820s, before a significant increase in the latter part of the century.

They attribute that increase primarily to the “poverty and social dislocation experienced by new immigrants,” which drove many mothers into the labor market.

Then, in the early 1910s, “mother’s pensions” were introduced. These were cash payments by states to widows. Their rules varied by state, but the pensions were directed at the poor – though some states explicitly excluded Blacks and Hispanics.

The pensions were meant to act as a substitute for work, so women could stay home with their children.
Another key example came a few decades later, and you may remember it from our first episode.

American factories had emptied as men left to fight in World War 2, and the country needed an army of Rosie the Riveters.

The Lanham Act established the country’s first and only national child care program, so women could fill factories until men returned.

More recently, we saw the welfare reform efforts of the late 1980s and 1990s. The heart of the legislation was increasing work among welfare recipients. More child care was needed to make that happen.

The U.S. enacted its first national means-tested child care subsidy programs. Then, it passed new work requirements to receive welfare payments. That was followed by another, larger increase in funding for child care subsidies.


In each of these three examples, the impetus for expanding the provision of child care was solely based on the need to get more women, more mothers into work.


University of New Hampshire researcher and child care expert Jess Carson said because history has made it easy to view child care as primarily about women’s work, it’s also made it easier to dismiss.


Child care has long been seen as sort of a women's issue and those tend to get less political traction.


Carson added that support for child care is also reduced by a common belief that children do better when at least one parent stays home, and that parent tends to be the mother.


And so when we are talking about providing a support that allows more parents to enter the workforce, that allows women in particular, to pursue career-related aspirations, rather than sort of playing a more supportive role, at home, or child-rearing, or more traditionally feminized roles, then I think it's easier to sort of pass the buck on policy that sort of enable that kind of a family working situation.


But if history sees child care mainly as a women’s issue, it’s label as an anti-poverty program isn’t far behind.

We know, for instance, the mother’s pensions were for low-income women. The welfare reform proposals obviously cast child care as mainly about the poor. And the Head Start program – perhaps government’s most prominent early child care intervention – was created in the 1960s specifically to fund preschool education for lower-income kids.

Advocates say that – like its label as a women’s issue – the low-income framing obscures child care’s widespread benefits and makes it easier to dismiss.

Boston Fed researcher Sarah Savage, a child care expert, says it also brings racism into play.
She notes low-income people today are disproportionately people of color. In addition, the early care workforce is largely minority – the Bureau of Labor Statistics says Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics combine to make up 42% of it.

Strengthening child care would help these families, teachers, and children. And Savage says some people simply aren’t interested in that.


So, I think there are both racist and sexist reasons for why we're not investing publicly in early child care.


While the history of child care itself helps explain where it is today, advocates say America’s broader history and ideals are also revealing.

Carson says the traditional American values of independence and individualism can be in conflict with collective solutions to child care woes. Many see it as a problem individual families need to deal with themselves.


It's very much framed as an individual family-level problem and not as a structural issue, or an economic constraint.


Palley said a general American skepticism about government efficiency is another obstacle to sweeping, taxpayer-supported reform.


I would say since the Reagan era, there's really ... or maybe even Nixon, there has been this really clear strain of American politics that is anti-government and shrinking government. Well, you can't shrink government, and at the same time support better child care.


Carrie Lukas, the head of the Independent Women’s Forum, a women’s issues advocacy group, says skepticism about government’s competence and efficiency is well-earned.

She says the failure to prioritize children and return them to public school more quickly during the pandemic is just the latest reason to lose faith in government.

Lukas added that skepticism about government isn’t the same as opposition to child care reform. It’s just a reminder that history demands humility when we consider exactly what we should do to strengthen the system, and how big a role government should play.


So that's when I think that's where becomes a debate, what is government's role in this?

I don't think anybody is anti-child care, we all know that it's incredibly important and necessary for many, many families and it should be an option. The question is just how to get there.


Comprehensive child care reform wasn’t on Jennifer Washburn’s mind during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

A bigger concern was just surviving the day.

For 22 years, Washburn has owned iKids Childhood Enrichment Center in the western Kentucky town of Benton, and things have always been a little tight.

But the virus cranked up the everyday stress of budgets, maintenance, teaching, and managing personnel to new levels.

Washburn speaks of days that started at 5 a.m. and didn’t end until 10 at night, after that last phone call with a parent. All while dealing with a forced closure of her center, then drastically reduced class sizes, then trying to absorb losses she estimates at $150,000.


To think about it, it's been a roller coaster. There have been valleys that have been so deep and horrible.

Without the state stipends, without the PPP dollars, both rounds, we wouldn't be here. It's just that simple. We would not be here.


The grievous impact of COVID-19 on providers like Washburn dominates the most recent, and maybe the most harrowing chapter, in child care history.

The virus slammed an industry that operates on the thinnest of profit margins, and the results were devastating – including widespread closures and job loss numbering as high as 200,000 at the pandemic’s peak.

Though the government has committed billions in stabilization money, real damage has been done. Carson says these days, it’s hard to pretend the industry was ever really on solid footing.


I think the number one thing that the pandemic has revealed about child care as a sector is its fragility.


But many say it’s also brought needed perspective on the importance of the sector, and the people in it. Here’s Sarah Savage:


I think COVID has really provided some clarity. Just in terms of all being able to understand the critical nature of our frontline workers and essential workers, and what it means if they can't show up to work.


Some advocates add this may be a rare chance for the industry to change calcified historical perceptions about child care.

It’s tough to see child care as only a woman’s issue when dads remember how tough it was to focus on a video call with a 4-year-old crawling around their knees.

And it can’t be just an issue for low-income families when wealthier parents remember they had to miss work because the nanny had been sent home due to the virus.

Here’s Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren:


What the pandemic has highlighted is a problem that people knew was a serious problem, but now it's affecting more than just low-income individuals. It's affecting most individuals that have children that would normally be in a child care situation. And, so, it really shines a light on the fact that in many parts of the country, we don't have any kind of systematic child care available.


During the pandemic, Washburn did her best to make sure western Kentucky wasn’t one of those “parts of the country” Rosengren speaks of.

After the initial statewide closure, her center got permission to serve 20 children, which was about 80 fewer than normal, but better than nothing. Then she strained to hang on until things could begin to approach normal.

She’s certain the importance of what she does – what her industry does – is now clear to more people than ever. Of course, she added, that’s not enough.


But we've got to move beyond looking, seeing, and recognizing, to putting some financial backing behind it. That's where some additional change needs to come. For a very long time we've talked about hey, kids are important, hey, child care's important. But is it important enough to put the dollar amount with it? That becomes the question, and that's where the change needs to happen.


So far this season, we’ve explored some of the structural flaws of the U.S. child care system, and their potential costs to our society and our future. But no one is more aware of these problems than the people who keep our child care system going.

On Episode 3 of “A Private Crisis,” we’ll talk to them.


We’ll interview providers …


So, you don't go into this business hoping to get rich.


We’ll talk to teachers …


I remember crying when I looked at my rent and my salary as a young teacher and my education bills for my masters. I thought, how the heck am I going to work this all out?


And we’ll talk to parents…


When you think about the numbers, when we think about how much we're putting away for retirement, we're not putting away as much for retirement as we would ideally want to in this season, because we do have these crazy costs for child care.


That’s next time, on Six Hundred Atlantic.


Thanks for listening to Six Hundred Atlantic. Please check out all five episodes of our second season. You can find our first two seasons and subscribe to our mailing list at bostonfed.org/six-hundred-atlantic. Listen and subscribe to Six Hundred Atlantic on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, and TuneIn.

The producers would like to thank our contributors for their time and insights. They are Jess Carson, Julie Clark, Virginia Foxx, Aimee Hoffman, Chris Herbst, Carrie Lukas, Beth Mattingly, Elizabeth Palley, Eric Rosengren, Sarah Savage, Corey Shdaimah, Essence Lee Souffrant, and Jennifer Washburn.

This had been “A Private Crisis,” the second season of the Boston Fed’s Six Hundred Atlantic podcast.