“Remembering the Ladies” Series – Child Care: A Contemporary Issue

Photograph of a female wartime worker dropping off her daughter at a nursery in Richmond, California, 1943. (Library of Congress)
Photograph of Barack Obama signing the reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act, putting it back into law, 2013. (Obama White House Archives)

The challenges that women have faced in history are not relegated solely to politics or social advancement, but also have been found in their daily lives. For women who commit themselves to motherhood, the challenges of raising a family have been accentuated in recent years with the increasing responsibilities and costs of one crucial element of the modern working family: Child care. In the United States, child care is one of the largest expenses for families with young children. As of 2001, over half of all American children have attended child care facilities at some point in their lives, with the number steadily increasing as more parents find themselves entering the workforce. It has been observed that when both parents in the average household turn to work in the public and private sectors, they have less time to spend with their children and each other, and as such find themselves needing to turn to child care resources to meet the demands of raising their children to the best degree possible. For those who work in the child care facilities, the regulations they are required to follow vary depending on the state in which they reside. Certain states require child care workers and teachers to have an associate’s degree in the field of child development, while others require bachelor’s degrees in that same field, or in education. Enrolling children into child care facilities comes at an increasingly-high cost however, as the most expensive states in the country price it between 30% to 70% of the average family’s annual income. These costs are emphasized in single parent households, particularly among mothers. In response to this “child care crisis” the federal government has made numerous attempts to ease the financial burden. The earliest of its kind is found in the Comprehensive Child Development Act, a subsection of the Economic Opportunity Amendments of 1971. Initially passed by both chambers of Congress, the Comprehensive Child Development Act was meant to establish a nationwide day care system for working families. If established, the new system would allow children to receive child care while single parents could work at full capacity for their full pay, and by proxy would relieve some of the financial strain on the welfare system. The Act was ultimately vetoed by Richard Nixon and subsequently never became a law. Nixon labeled it the “most radical piece of legislation” that he ever received, and further described it as a “communal approach to child-rearing” that had “family-weakening implications.” Among sitting Congressmembers, critics of the bill frequently highlighted concerns that having a national day care system would weaken the social structure of the average American family. Others admitted that they did not want to have women in the workforce at all, while others harbored their own suspicions of having their children being raised outside of their biological family’s home. Years later, the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act of 1990 was enacted by Congress, providing federal funding for low-income families to utilize child care subsidies. Rather than being controlled solely at the federal level, the Act is distributed to the governments of the states, territories, and indigenous tribes of the United States for them to make use of as the demands of their constituents require. A reauthorized version of the same bill was passed by Congress in September 2014, with a new series of bipartisan agreements to strengthen protections for children, expanding the coverage plan, and providing more funding for families that qualified for them. This updated version of the Act was signed into law by Barack Obama in November 2014, and remains in effect at the time of writing. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, certain financial analysts have claimed that the financial recovery after the fact was being partially restrained by the still-lingering effects of increasing child care costs. Liberal and conservative leaders have accordingly given their own proposals and suggestions as to how to most effectively resolve the issues. The previous administration of Donald Trump proposed conducting research on states that might be intentionally limiting available child care resources, but not increasing the quality of them to make up for the deficit. In the following Biden administration, proposals have been raised by Democratic politicians to increase taxes on higher incomes, with Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) specifically mentioning those with incomes of over $50 million. The taxed funds would then theoretically be used to fund a new, universal child care system in the United States. Families that were found to be below the national poverty line would have automatic access to the universal system, while those that had higher incomes would be expected to pay no more than 7% of their annual income for child care. The differing approaches to addressing the child care crisis were combined into the Child Care for Working Families Act, introduced by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) in April 2021. Proposing an alliance between the federal and state governments, the Act would increase the eligibility for more families to apply for the program, while also improving the quality of care, and ultimately maintaining affordable costs for families with varying incomes. As of January 2023, the Act has yet to pass the Senate.

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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