The coronavirus pandemic has drawn attention to the struggle American parents face accessing high-quality and affordable child care for children under 5. Under stay-at-home orders, the majority of child-care facilities have closed their doors — some perhaps permanently — and many centers permitted to reopen are ill-equipped to bear the additional costs of adhering to local and state guidelines. Many working parents, particularly mothers, have been forced out of work to provide care for their children in this absence. The child-care industry is not only essential to providers’ and parents’ livelihoods, but to the economy as a whole.
At the heart of the current crisis in child care is unequal access: Wealthy parents have managed to weather the storm of the coronavirus because of access to babysitters and nannies, while working parents who rely on providers outside their homes have struggled to find care during the pandemic.
Today’s child-care crisis may have been fueled by the outbreak, but it is not new. It has been simmering below the surface for decades and can be traced back to President Richard M. Nixon’s 1971 veto of federally funded universal child care, which created our bifurcated approach to child care that considers the needs of some and not others.
Riding on the perceived success of the 1965 Head Start program, established during the war on poverty to provide preschool services for low-income families, the bipartisan Comprehensive Child Development Act (CDA) of 1971 would have established a national public child-care program. These public child-care centers were universally available to all families on a sliding-scale basis. The centers were intended to provide high-quality education alongside nutritional and medical services and would have been administered at the local level. The CDA passed Congress by an overwhelming majority. One of its cosponsors, Sen. Walter Mondale, later recalled that “because the focus was on children ... I assumed this would not be a controversial bill.” However, Nixon vetoed it, surprising even officials within his own administration.
Despite the broad coalition of child-care advocates pitching the CDA as a universal educational intervention for all children, many viewed public provision of direct child-care services as nothing more than a program for the poor — and mainly for families of color. The right wing of the Republican Party balked at the CDA’s language promising access for all children and the implication that white middle-class women would use it to join the workforce.
Conservatives viewed the bill as a threat to middle-class family life, overstepping what they saw as the government’s proper role of intervening in the private lives of the poor. This perspective pushed Nixon to veto the CDA despite its broad bipartisan support.