The US Funded Universal Childcare During World War II—Then StoppedHistorians in the News
tags: Child Care, social welfare
When the United States started recruiting women for World War II factory jobs, there was a reluctance to call stay-at-home mothers with young children into the workforce. That changed when the government realized it needed more wartime laborers in its factories. To allow more women to work, the government began subsidizing childcare for the first (and only) time in the nation’s history.
An estimated 550,000 to 600,000 children received care through these facilities, which cost parents around 50 to 75 cents per child, per day (in 2021, that’s less than $12). But like women’s employment in factories, the day care centers were always meant to be a temporary wartime measure. When the war ended, the government encouraged women to leave the factories and care for their children at home. Despite receiving letters and petitions urging the continuation of the childcare programs, the U.S. government stopped funding them in 1946.
Before World War II, organized “day care” didn’t really exist in the United States. The children of middle- and upper-class families might go to private nursery schools for a few hours a day, says Sonya Michel, a professor emerita of history, women’s studies and American studies at the University of Maryland-College Park and author of Children’s Interests/Mothers’ Rights: The Shaping of America’s Child Care Policy. (In German communities, five- and six-year-olds went to half-day Kindergartens.)
For children from poor families whose father had died or couldn’t work, there were day nurseries funded by charitable donations, Michel says. But there were no affordable all-day childcare centers for families in which both parents worked—a situation that was common for low-income families, particularly Black families, and less common for middle- and upper-class families.
The war temporarily changed that. In 1940, the United States passed the Defense Housing and Community Facilities and Services Act, known as the Lanham Act, which gave the Federal Works Agency the authority to fund the construction of houses, schools and other infrastructure for laborers in the growing defense industry. It was not specifically meant to fund childcare, but in late 1942, the government used it to fund temporary day care centers for the children of mothers working wartime jobs.
Communities had to apply for funding to set up day care centers; once they did, there was very little federal involvement. Local organizers structured childcare centers around a community’s needs. Many offered care at odd hours to accommodate the schedules of women who had to work early in the morning or late at night. They also provided up to three meals a day for children, with some offering prepared meals for mothers to take with them when they picked up their kids.
“The ones that we often hear about were the ‘model’ day nurseries that were set up at airplane factories [on the West coast],” says Michel. “Those were ones where the federal funding came very quickly, and some of the leading voices in the early childhood education movement…became quickly involved in setting [them] up,” she says.