Sheryl Sandberg, Meet Richard Nixon: Why We Don’t Have Universal Childcare

Without wading too deep into recent debates about whether wealthy CEOs and college professors understand the needs of working class people when it comes to balancing work and family life, it should be noted that we might not even have these conversations today if it weren’t for Richard Nixon’s crass political calculations in 1971 to veto legislation that would have provided near-universal, publicly-supported child care for Americans.

As Robert Self recounts in his excellent book on the politics of the family, All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s, the Comprehensive Child Development Act (CCDA), sponsored by Democratic Senator Walter Mondale and Democratic Rep. John Brademas, passed both houses of Congress in 1971 and awaited President Nixon’s signature. The bill “included a sliding-scale payment system that would have made child care far more affordable for the nation’s poor and middle class alike. It came closer than any previous legislation to recognizing child care as part of women’s economic citizenship.”

Instead of doing the right thing for American families, Nixon listened to Pat Buchanan and other right-wing voices in shooting down the bill. As Self describes:

The internal debates within Nixon’s circle were heavily influenced by anti CCDA diatribes in the conservative press—attacks led by the conservative columnist James Kilpatrick and the conservative newspaper Human Events—as well as the tide of letters arriving at the White House castigating the bill as an assault on traditional motherhood and a discredited form of liberal social engineering.

After a conspicuous delay, Nixon vetoed the bill. Calling it the ‘most radical piece of legislation to emerge from the ninety-second Congress,’ he claimed that it called forth ‘communal approaches to child rearing over the family-centered approach.”

None of this true, of course. Millions of families, of all ideological stripes, depend on child care every day as a basic means for both working and raising a family. And millions more would love to have high-quality care and pre-school for their children but can’t afford it. As Self writes about the aftermath of the defeat of the CCDA, “While women on welfare could qualify for some subsidized child care, and child tax credits were added in subsequent years, on balance, women and families were left to their own devices and to the private market to care for children while parents worked.”

So because of Nixon and his allies, here we are in 2013 with progressives and President Obama having to once again bring up the “radical” idea that working parents should be supported in their efforts to both succeed at work and take care of their children.

Hopefully Congress today will listen to Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) who calls the President’s push for universal pre-school “a great idea” rather than acquiesce once again to the political logic of Tricky Dick.

Our guest blogger is John Halpin, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and the co-director and creator of the Progressive Studies Program at CAP.