America had universal childcare during WWII. It's time to do it again

During World War II, the federal government passed the first and only national childcare program in American history. To support the war effort, the United States passed the Defense Housing and Community Facilities and Services Act of 1940, also known as the Lanham Act. It allowed the Federal Works Agency (FWA) to fund public works, like the construction of homes, schools, and water and sewage treatment centers, to help with the war effort. The Lanham Act was also used to build and operate affordable daycare centers for the children of mothers working wartime jobs. An estimated 550,000 to 600,000 children received care through these facilities, which were open to all families with parents working to support the war.

America had universal childcare during WWII. It's time to do it again

During World War II, the federal government passed the first and only national childcare program in American history.

To support the war effort, the United States passed the Defense Housing and Community Facilities and Services Act of 1940, also known as the Lanham Act. It allowed the Federal Works Agency (FWA) to fund public works, like the construction of homes, schools, and water and sewage treatment centers, to help with the war effort. The Lanham Act was also used to build and operate affordable daycare centers for the children of mothers working wartime jobs.

An estimated 550,000 to 600,000 children received care through these facilities, which were open to all families with parents working to support the war. In 1943, childcare cost families 50 cents per child, per day. Studies at the time found that the mothers and children who utilized the facilities enjoyed them. A more recent study found that the children who benefited from these centers had higher graduation and employment rates, as well as higher annual earnings, later in life.

In the face of an unprecedented global war and crisis, the federal government made an unprecedented investment in childcare, which not only enabled more women to join the workforce, but also benefited children for decades.


Children-eat-lunch-and-play-in-a-World-War-II-era-federal-daycare-facility. From the Library of Congress archives: "New Britain, Connecticut. A child care center opened September 15, 1942, for thirty children, ages two through five of mothers engaged in war industry. The hours are 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. six days per week."Gordon Parks/Library of Congress

A successful national childcare program existed once before. Why not again?

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused not only an unprecedented global medical crisis, but it's also caused disproportionate job losses for women, particularly women of color. So far, women have lost a net of 5.4 million jobs since the pandemic began—nearly one million more than men.

Job losses have been concentrated in industries that disproportionately employ women, like leisure and hospitality. As schools moved to virtual learning and daycares temporarily—and in some cases, permanently—shut their doors, hundreds of thousands of women were forced out of their jobs to care for their children. One study estimates about 700,000 parents left the workforce because of school and daycare closures alone.

If we want to get more women back in the workforce, if we want to help lift families out of poverty, if we want to make sure that every child has access to education, we're going to need an unprecedented investment in American families.

President Biden has proposed the Build Back Better plan, an ambitious economic recovery plan that would spend over $7 trillion in investments in infrastructure, housing, education, healthcare and more.

It also provides a framework for significant investments in women and children—which we desperately need. It calls for the creation of a national comprehensive paid family and medical leave program, so parents can take maternity leave or time off to care for a sick family member and not worry about losing their job. It would create access to high-quality, affordable childcare for low- and middle-income families, and offer free pre-school to all three- and four-year-olds. It would make the Child Tax Credit, which sent out the first round of payments this month and is meant to give families a temporary boost amid the pandemic, permanent. It would expand the free and reduced-price meal program to more students and offer vouchers to help eligible families afford food during the summer months.

The plan also calls for investments in adult education and the creation of apprenticeship programs, which will help women get back into the workforce. In addition to universal pre-k, the Build Back Better agenda also calls for two free years of community college for all Americans, raising the Pell Grant award to help low-income students even more, and billions of dollars of investments in Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities, and Minority-Serving Institutions. Right now, women make up more than half of all college students and have more federal student loan debt, on average.

It would create one to two million new registered apprenticeships and make them accessible to women through Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations (WANTO) grants. It would also invest $9 billion in teacher and childcare employee recruitment, preparation and training, as well as double scholarships available for teachers in training. White House officials say women make up 76% of our nation's educators, so not only with those investments disproportionately benefit women, but they'll also benefit our children, too.

It would invest $40 billion in public housing programs, to help make them safer for families to live. According to White House officials, 75 percent of households living in public housing units are headed by women, and 33 percent of all households are headed by women with children. It also calls for the construction or renovation of over one million affordable rental units across the country. Officials say that before the pandemic, HUD estimated that nearly 5 million female-headed households that didn't receive federal housing assistance paid more than half their income in rent or lived in severely inadequate units.

The Build Back Better agenda contains many more proposals, but these are the ones that will help women and children the most. And we know that mothers want many of these proposals.

Our State of Motherhood survey found that 92% of mothers support legislative action to increase support for childcare and/or parental leave. Millennial mothers also support free, universal pre-k (74%), refundable tax credits to help pay for childcare (75%) and improved pay/benefits for childcare workers (72%). These aren't partisan issues—they affect everyone.

We know that the pandemic has forced women from the workforce and daycares to close. We also know that the high cost of childcare is also pricing women out of work. Our survey found that just about half of mothers (48%) that are working have considered leaving the workforce because of the cost of childcare.

Modern mothers need help. 92% of moms feel society doesn't do a good job of understanding or supporting motherhood. This is a sentiment that has grown in strength every year we've conducted the State of Motherhood survey—from 74% in 2018, 85% in 2019, 89% in 2020, to this year's high.

How can we show mothers that we support them? How can we help young families thrive?

With unprecedented investments in childcare, housing and education. With the creation of programs that will see more women pursuing higher education and getting back into the workforce. With the creation of a federal paid family leave program, to help new mothers thrive in the days and weeks after they welcome a new baby.

Despite effective vaccines, we're in the middle of a global health crisis. America is also experiencing a childcare crisis and an employment crisis, especially for women. COVID-19 didn't create these issues; it exacerbated them. But that doesn't mean we have to simply endure them.

80 years ago, it took a world war for America to invest in a national childcare program. The Lanham Act was not perfect. It was always meant to be temporary—to help support an American victory in World War II. When the war ended and male military members returned home, the FWA stopped funding childcare centers. The decision was met with protests, marches, and hundreds of letters, wires, postcards and petitions written by women who wanted to continue to work and needed affordable childcare to do so. Still, the program closed.

It also didn't serve everyone. Not only was segregation still practiced in many parts of America during World War II, but the nation was also incarcerating Japanese American families in internment camps. The childcare centers, though revolutionary, still largely helped only white families.

We have an opportunity now to help American families—all American families. We need legislation to help lift children out of poverty and increase access to education. We need programs that will help parents further their education and get back into the workplace. We need paid family leave to help support families during major life milestones, like births and deaths.

To combat the childcare, employment and housing crises brewing in America, we need comprehensive support from our federal government. We did it once before. It's time to do it again.