How Politics Killed Universal Child Care In The 1970s

Oct 13, 2016
Originally published on October 14, 2016 2:19 pm

American parents often have difficulty securing care for their children while they go to work. Child care in the U.S. is tremendously expensive, and in many parts of the country, extremely scarce.

Rewind almost 50 years, and the same problems existed.

But in 1971, the United States came very close to having universal, federally subsidized child care. NPR examines how Congress came to pass the legislation, and why President Nixon vetoed it.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We've been talking with working parents for our series Stretched. They face a lot of challenges, chief among them child care.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: There are wait lists for every reputable day care.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I left messages at 37 places. Three called me back.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The cost for child care at some of the places we've seen is going to be almost as much as rent on an apartment.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: We were paying about $1,600 a month just for her day care.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: I mean there was the high school girl who said she would do it at $12 an hour, and (laughter) she's never held a baby before.

SHAPIRO: Finding child care is frustrating. It's expensive, often in short supply and according to national studies, overwhelmingly low quality. We're hearing about it a lot this year with both presidential candidates talking up the issue. But it's been a problem for decades.

Struggling parents may be surprised to learn that Congress passed bipartisan legislation to create universal, federally subsidized day care nearly 50 years ago. NPR's Jennifer Ludden looks back at how that happened and the politics that killed it.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Soon after he took office, President Richard Nixon spoke to employees at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

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RICHARD NIXON: Thank you very much. Thank you.

LUDDEN: You have an important job at an exciting time, he said. There was an explosion in research on children's development.

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NIXON: What happens to the child from a nutritional standpoint, from an educational standpoint, from an environmental standpoint in the years between 1 and 5 may affect that child for the balance of his life regardless of what may happen after that time.

LUDDEN: Later, a White House conference on children declared child care a priority, and in 1971, lawmakers introduced the Comprehensive Child Development Act. It would create a network of federally subsidized day care centers.

SID JOHNSON: It was the most bipartisan piece of legislation that I saw as a staffer in the Senate.

LUDDEN: Sid Johnson was an aide to the bill's main sponsor, Democratic Senator Walter Mondale. Mondale liked to tell the story of 6-year-old Freddie Joyner. The boy's single mom worked two jobs but couldn't afford day care, so she left Freddie's little brother home alone.

JOHNSON: So Freddie would run home from lunchtime to check on the child and to bring a school lunch and share it with him. And one day he got hit by a car.

LUDDEN: Hit and killed - scandals like that fueled public support for subsidized child care. And of course more women were joining the workforce, though the legislation wasn't really about feminism.

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: It was civil rights and poverty.

LUDDEN: Marian Wright Edelman was a key supporter. Today she heads the Children's Defense Fund. In 1971 she was a civil rights and children's lawyer. Edelman says the legislation's first hurdle was internal wrangling on the left. She didn't trust state governments that still enforced segregation, so she wanted the child care funding to bypass states and go straight to local groups.

EDELMAN: You know, community control or community engagement but to make sure that the money couldn't be blocked from those most in need.

LUDDEN: That ruffled a lot of feathers. Edelman also wanted most funding for families in poverty. She once criticized middle-class liberationist as wanting day care so they could go to the art museum.

EDELMAN: We did have some knock-down, drag-out fights.

LUDDEN: In the end, the bill allowed the poorest children to attend for free with a sliding scale for others. After sorting through such tensions, the legislation had strong bipartisan support. To many, including in the Whitehouse, child care seemed a winning issue heading into the 1972 elections. Then...

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NIXON: Good evening. I have requested this television time tonight to announce a major development in our efforts to build a lasting peace in the world.

LUDDEN: President Nixon announced he would visit communist China, a stunning moment that shook up conservative politics. It also set up the next challenge for the child care bill on the right. Suddenly opponents cast national child care in Cold War terms - the Sovietization of American children.

PAT BUCHANAN: I had been to the Soviet Union, spent 18 days there.

LUDDEN: Pat Buchanan was a White House adviser.

BUCHANAN: They took us to the young pioneers, (laughter) and these 5-, 6-year-olds were chanting Leninist slogans. And you said, you know, what is going on here? It was eerie.

LUDDEN: In December 1971, Congress passed the child care bill. But as Nixon planned his reelection, he faced mounting pressure over the China trip. Ultimately the White House decided to veto, and in a move with even more lasting impact, Pat Buchanan would write it.

BUCHANAN: It's a bit of a mess down here. I've got to apologize for it.

LUDDEN: At his home in Virginia, Buchanan takes me to his perfectly neat basement office - on a bookshelf, a complete set of presidential statements.

BUCHANAN: Maybe 71 should be here.

LUDDEN: Buchanan argued the veto should not be only about cost. Then he figured Congress could tweak it and come back. Instead he wanted to kill the very idea on philosophical grounds. He finds the key words and reads from the veto.

BUCHANAN: For the federal government to plunge headlong financially into supporting child development would commit the vast moral authority...

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Moral authority of the national government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: It would lead to what he called fiscal irresponsibility, administrative unworkability and family weakening.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: No immediate need has been demonstrated, unquote, for these centers.

JOHNSON: It totally surprised us.

LUDDEN: Democratic congressional aide Sid Johnson...

JOHNSON: We did not see a link between an announcement to go to red China and a piece of legislation about children. Pat Buchanan did, and politically he hit a grand slam.

KIMBERLY MORGAN: The legislation got reframed in terms of having federal bureaucrats meddling with the minds of children.

LUDDEN: Kimberly Morgan of George Washington University says it marked a pivot. The conservative wing of the GOP grew more powerful over the next decades, defining itself by family values.

MORGAN: Then you get all the culture wars around working mothers and non-working mothers. So child care - I think it's held hostage.

LUDDEN: Pat Buchanan admits his side mostly lost those culture wars, but he's proud. His veto was so effective.

BUCHANAN: If we hadn't stopped it, I think you'd have an entitlement program now of enormous size with these federal day care centers, and they would be growing and growing and growing once you got it on the books.

LUDDEN: Sid Johnson laments what was lost. Today, most mothers of young children work, and there's more evidence that early child care can make a huge difference in what poor children achieve.

JOHNSON: Graduating from college, having better jobs, becoming tax payers rather than people who receive welfare and benefits because they don't have jobs...

EDELMAN: One day not too long from now, I hope that we'll all come together.

LUDDEN: Looking back, Marian Wright Edelman says it's amazing how easy it once was for Congress to put real money into child care. She refuses to give up hope that it just might happen again. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

SHAPIRO: Today, the typical cost of full child care is higher than the average cost of in-state college tuition.

KATE BARRON-ALICANTE: The day care costs are staggering and unexpected. They just sort of hit you, and there is no financial aid for day care like there is for college.

SHAPIRO: That's working mom Kate Barron-Alicante (ph) of Tulsa, Okla. She sent us this voice memo.

BARRON-ALICANTE: It's just - we're raising this next generation of citizens and workers, consumers - whatever you want to call people. But it just doesn't feel like that's valued. And I just find it so sad that we as a nation pride ourselves on being the best, but we are so subpar in what we're offering our families. I just don't get the family values.

SHAPIRO: We'll hear from more parents tomorrow in our series Stretched. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.