DeLauro in The American Prospect: The Government Provided Child Care in World War II. We Need It Again.
Women worked then, women work now. It’s time for national child care—permanently.
The COVID-19 pandemic created the greatest health and economic crisis since World War II. These two periods have been the only times in the last 100 years that the entire world was affected by the same crisis at the same time. And just as it was then, Americans face a massive economic challenge today: Their pay is simply not keeping up with the skyrocketing costs of education, health care—and, yes, child care.
During World War II, child care was a major issue in the United States. Magazines reported on “eight-hour orphans” and “latchkey children” who were left in all-night movie theaters while their mothers served in the war factories to make up for the labor shortage and their fathers filled the military ranks overseas. The lack of child care facilities meant that many children had to fend for themselves after school, and police and social workers reported an increase in juvenile delinquency during the war.
Enter one of my heroes: Congresswoman Mary T. Norton of New Jersey, known as “Battling Mary.” Battling Mary was a trailblazer, a woman of many firsts, who led the way on child care during the war. She was the first woman elected as a Democrat to serve in the House of Representatives. She became the first Democratic woman to chair a House legislative committee when she was elected chairperson of the Committee on the District of Columbia, serving as the city’s de facto mayor. By the end of her career, she had chaired four House committees.
Norton spent her career fighting on behalf of working families and succeeded in getting major New Deal labor legislation passed. Her efforts as Labor Committee chair helped ensure the passage of 1938’s Fair Labor Standards Act, which created the federal minimum wage, the 40-hour workweek, and strict standards for child labor.
And during the war, Norton created a national child care system that transformed women’s participation in the workplace.
As Labor Committee chair, she fought for and helped pass the Community Facilities Act of 1942, which made families—regardless of income—eligible for six days of child care per week at an affordable cost, and in doing so created the first universal child care system in the United States. The program was instrumental in recruiting women into the workforce, and after receiving thousands of letters from union members in support of increased funding for this new universal child care system, Congress responded by passing an expansion of child care funding.
However, what could have been a transformational change for women in the workplace through universal child care was, instead, short-lived when the war ended. Following the war, Congress refused to extend the program and it was eliminated.
Nearly 80 years later, America still faces the struggles that come without access to affordable child care. Sadly, the United States remains one of the only industrialized nations without an adequate child care infrastructure system—a problem highlighted by the pandemic.
During the pandemic, over 2.3 million women left the workforce, and even more women and women of color are working part-time because they cannot find full-time jobs. As of January, women’s labor force participation reached its lowest rate in 35 years. But these women are not opting out of the workforce, they are being pushed out by inadequate policies. And a major part of this problem has to do with a lack of adequate child care. Since the pandemic, 32 percent of employers have said they have seen employees leave the workforce, and that half of those cited child care as the reason. It is unconscionable that hard-working women, mothers, and families have to make a choice between going to work and ensuring that their kids are properly cared for.
Without robust federal investments, the child care industry will again not be able to provide the care needed to help Americans fully recover from this crisis. We must not miss another opportunity like the one we let slip away nearly 80 years ago.
It is time to build a permanent child care infrastructure that respects and values women in the workforce. This means building a system that works for families by providing access to an immediate universal paid family and medical leave program, affordable child care for all, and a permanent expanded and improved Child Tax Credit. The American Rescue Plan was historic for its inclusion of these priorities and is an important first step in the fight to make permanent these essential lifelines to working families.
Last month, I testified in front of the Ways and Means Committee’s Worker and Family Support Subcommittee on the importance of universal paid leave and guaranteed access to child care. This has been at the center of my fight for working families throughout my career and there has never been a more important time to put this at the center of our public discourse. Failure to address these issues will have consequences for opportunity and gender equality in the workplace for generations to come.
In the words of Mary T. Norton, “American women today stand on the threshold of a glorious future … they can grasp it … or they can let it slide.” If we allow women to once again be pushed in a corner, it will be, as Battling Mary predicted so many years ago, a “heartbreaking setback.”
Now is the time to carry out Mary Norton’s vision of providing working families with a better quality of life. Let us build on her unfinished work, and her legacy, of creating a permanent, accessible, and affordable national child care system—and give every family a fair shot at the American dream.