Nothing before or since has been like the Lanham Act, though you probably haven’t heard of it. It wasn’t even legislation that was supposed to have anything to do with child care. It was a bill to fund infrastructure projects that were needed for the war effort in 1940. But without so much as a Congressional debate or vote, the language was reinterpreted so that funding for child care centers could be funneled through it. And thus between 1943 and 1946, the country had its first, and only, universal child care program.
“It was the first of its kind and really the only one of its kind ever in the history of U.S. child care,” says Chris Herbst, an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University and the author of a study of the act and its outcomes.
Before the Lanham Act, child care was funded through private charities or elite women’s giving groups, and aimed mostly at low-income and unemployed parents as a way to help them find work. Following the Great Depression, the federal government got involved through the Works Progress Administration, which operated a network of child care centers targeted at the same groups.
But when it passed, the Lanham Act, which took some of the wartime stimulus funds and handed them over to local communities to build and staff their own child care facilities, Herbst said it was a “break from that.” Because every community got the money, “The services were open to high-income, low-income, high-education, low-education, married mothers, unmarried mothers, the employed and the unemployed.” And access was basically universal: there was no official work requirement and care was heavily subsidized, costing parents just between $9 and $10 a day (in today’s dollars) for 12 hours of care in a center.”
The Lanham Act’s child care network came about because women were asked to enter the workforce when servicemen left to fight in World War II. “Initially childless women were urged to enter the labor market, but it became clear that there were far too few childless women,” he said. The government then called on women with older children, but even that wasn’t enough, so women with younger children were also asked to leave the home and head to the factory. “Along with that came the realization that the nation’s system of child care was really inadequate to serve the demand for child care,” he said. Horror stories abounded: “[S]tories of children locked in cars adjacent to factories, chained to temporary trailer homes, and left in movie theaters quickly filled newspapers and eventually became the subject of Congressional hearings,” Herbst writes in his paper. So Congress acted.
But it didn’t escape criticism. “All of the criticisms [of universal child care] you heard back then you hear today,” he said. Critics warned that child care would ruin the relationships between mothers and their children, damage children’s development, and not even see any take-up because mothers wouldn’t want it.
There were not many evaluations of these centers at the time, but Herbst found one study in California, which had perhaps the highest-quality centers, that found that “mothers were really surprised by the quality of care,” he said. “They basically gave it two thumbs up.” It got a nearly 100 percent satisfaction rate, and mothers felt their children got good experiences in care and it didn’t damage their relationships with their children. “None of the concerns before seemed to bear out.”
The Californian mothers’ instinct that it wasn’t bad for their children turned out to be right. Herbst studied the Lanham Act child care programs as a way to evaluate the impact of a universal system on children’s development. He examined Census data for Americans who were eligible for child care as children when it was administered, and compared it to those who were born too late for it. He also looked at how those children fared in states that spent more on the program and those that spent less. All told, he found that the program “had beneficial and persistent long-run effects.”
Specifically, for each $100 increase in spending on the program, the high school dropout rate fell by 1.8 percentage points, the rate of people completing college degrees rose 1.9 points, the share of employed adults increased 0.7 points, the share working full time went up 0.3 points, annual earnings rose 1.8 percent, and the share of adults receiving public assistance fell. “The heavily treated kids, kids born in high-spending states, perform better on every labor market outcome as adults compared to those kids born after the program was shut down and in states where there was little to no Lanham Act spending,” Herbst explained. As adults, these children “were more likely to be employed; if they were employed, they earned more and were more likely to be working full time; they were less likely to be receiving cash assistance; and they were in better health.”
Mothers also experienced a big effect. “It was extremely important for mothers,” Herbst said. “As it turns out, they were happy to get out of the house and contribute to the nation’s war production effort and do non-household work. And the program had a fairly big effect on maternal employment in the short run and medium run.”
Comparing white women aged 25 to 64 who had children ages 0-12 with ones whose children were too old for Lanham Act child care programs or had no children, he found that the centers increased how much mothers worked. (Black women were already likely to be working and continued to work during the war.) Each dollar in spending increased the women’s employment rate by 0.1 percentage points and raised their weekly work by 0.04 hours. The gap in employment between childless women or those with older children and those with young children dropped from 4.4 percentage points 1940 and 1950.
The program, however, was not meant to last. Children and women’s rights advocates had wanted it to be operated through children’s agencies, not through an infrastructure program, when it was first being enacted. “They saw this as an opportunity to fund child care not just during the war, but after the war,” he said. “[President Franklin D.] Roosevelt himself, the generals, and others wanted this to be just a temporary war emergency measure, not a permanent expansion of the welfare state.” The latter groups got their way. After a first attempt to immediately defund it in September of 1945 after Japan surrendered, which was protested given that servicemen wouldn’t be home for another six to eight months, it was finally rescinded after mid-1946.
But beyond proving that universal child care has measurable results for mothers and their children, the history of the Lanham Act shows that such a program can be up and running quickly if the will exists. “If there’s a national urgency, which there was, regarding child care, things happen,” Herbst said. “We could do it today if we wanted to. But war makes things happen quickly.”
Its history stands in contrast to the last time the country considered a universal child care system. The country got close to again having such a program in 1971 after both houses of Congress passed the Comprehensive Child Development Act and President Nixon was poised to sign it. That legislation would have provided care to every child on a sliding scale. But on the advice of his adviser Pat Buchanan, Nixon instead issued a scathing veto, driving the issue underground politically until very recently. President Obama has now proposed universal preschool and some have called to expand that to children ages zero to three as well. While bills have been introduced to follow up on his plan, they haven’t gone anywhere.
If the Lanham Act didn’t set the stage for universal child care politically, it did have a profound impact on working women. “I think the meaning of work changed,” Herbst said. Historians point to World War II as a watershed moment for women’s labor force participation — if they hadn’t entered the workforce in such high numbers then, their numbers would likely be lower now. Some of that is thanks to child care. “It’s not just that men left the labor market and these spots were filled by women, but there was a system of universal child care under-girding this labor market transition,” he said.
But while women’s thinking about work changed, our child care system doesn’t look much different than it did at the end of the war. “The unfortunate thing is that government policy didn’t keep apace with cultural thinking on work,” Herbst concluded.