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Journal Issue: Financing Child Care Volume 6 Number 2 Summer/Fall 1996

A Brief History of Federal Financing for Child Care in the United States
Abby J. Cohen

A Response to a War Problem: 1942 - 1946

As the WPA centers were closing, the United States' entrance into World War II generated an enormous demand for women's labor in the war industries,24 and federal funding for child care shifted from programs to end unemployment to programs supporting the ability of mothers to work.

The need for maternal labor in war factories did not change long-standing beliefs that mothers (at least those who could afford it) belong at home raising children. This tension, between the need for mothers in war industries and the strong value placed on mothers at home, is well reflected in a policy statement issued by the War Manpower Commission in 1942: "The first responsibility of women with young children, in war as in peace, is to give suitable care in their own homes to their children," with mothers recruited as a last resort. Nevertheless, the statement also declared that barriers to the employment of mothers should not be set up by employers—hours and shifts should cause the least disruption in family life—and that, when needed, child care facilities under community auspices should be developed.5

During the early years of the war, the need for child care became apparent as reports surfaced of children being left alone or locked in cars in parking lots while their mothers worked.19 One federal legislator testified, "You cannot have a contented mother working in a war factory if she is worrying about her children and you cannot have children running wild in the streets without a bad effect on the coming generations."19

In 1940, Congress passed the Lanham Act,25 which authorized federal grants and/or loans to public or private agencies for the maintenance and operation of public works, later interpreted by administrative decree to mean child care facilities in war-impacted areas.26 In July 1942, Congress authorized the use of $6 million of the waning WPA appropriation for child care facilities for children of working mothers rather than just mothers on home relief.3 In war production areas, the WPA centers were thus transformed to meet a new need, and their funding was shifted from WPA to Lanham Act dollars.

To qualify for Lanham Act funds, a community had to demonstrate a need for child care resulting from war production. Eligibility for services was not based on family income, but was open to all mothers working in the defense and defense-related industries. Most child care was offered in centers that were administered by education agencies. At first, centers charged flat fees that varied between communities; in 1943, the federal government set a uniform fee of 50 cents per day (later raised to 75 cents). No regulations accompanied the federal monies.

During the four years the Lanham Act was in operation, allocations under it provided $51,922,977 in federal spending on child care, matched by $26,008,839 from the states, to support 3,102 centers serving approximately 600,000 children. Lanham Act dollars formed the basis for virtually all federal funding 27 for child care during the war years. Forty-seven states received funding, with the bulk going to California 19 because the greatest share of the nation's war industries was there.

Impact of the Lanham Act

The child care programs established with Lanham Act funds were limited in some ways: Centers were established only in "war impact areas" and were intended to be temporary. 28 Even at the height of the program, only about 13% of children needing care received federal assistance.3 Many were never convinced that mothers should work; others felt this was justified only by the war emergency.

Nonetheless, from roughly 1942 through 1946, the federal government in many respects played its most comprehensive role in the field of child care to date. The Lanham Act programs served children of all ages. Subsidies were provided for all children, not just those who were poor, and supported programs that both helped parents work and promoted children's development (although quality varied widely from site to site). Subsidies were used for construction in addition to operational costs. Lanham Act child care also demonstrated that it was possible for mothers to be very productive as laborers if their children were well cared for, a notion that had been questioned previously.

Rationale for Public Support

Child care received federal support during the war years because there was a national emergency. Policymakers contended that, because the federal government had declared war, the nation as a whole—through the federal government—bore the responsibility for care that was essential to the war effort. An official of the Federal Works Agency, the temporary war agency administering Lanham Act child care dollars, testified in 1943, "We are not subsidizing an expanded educational program nor a Federal welfare program, but we are making money available to assist local communities in meeting a war need for the care of children while their mothers are engaged in war production."19

Once the war was over and without public assertions of any right of women to work, funding for child care was to be terminated as soon as was practicable, although some thought that was shortsighted. Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, wrote, "Many thought they [the centers] were purely a war emergency measure. A few of us had an inkling that perhaps they were a need which was constantly with us, but one that we had neglected to face in the past."29 An outcry against sudden termination of the child care programs caused President Truman to request that Congress earmark $7 million for child care projects through March 1946; Congress approved the appropriation with the understanding that the continued assistance was temporary.3

Without ongoing federal help, most of the child care programs established during the war years closed. A notable exception occurred in California, where public pressure sustained child care services. A state study concluded, "There has been a rather remarkable change in the public attitude towards group care of children. At its inception . . . mothers were inclined to view with suspicion the government suggestion that child care centers could be satisfactory for their children. Now . . . if the loud clamor over the threatened closing of centers may be interpreted as an index of their collective appraisal of the merit of the program, they are surprisingly well pleased, not only that release for employment is possible, but also with respect to the influence on the lives of children."4,30

The "loud clamor" was not heard throughout the country. Many mothers who had entered the work force only because of the wartime emergency quit as soon as the war ended; and in the heavy industrial sectors, which paid well, women were laid off twice as fast as men.24,29

Although some programs also continued in New York and Washington with state, local, and community support, the withdrawal of federal funds resulted in the gradual closure of the vast majority of centers. Within one month of the federal termination of funds, 332 child care sites had closed.31