THE POLITICS OF CARE
In her brilliant book, Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, journalist Brigid Schulte details the moment we lost the fight for child care and, arguably, the fight to support mothers in the workforce. She explains that, in 1971, “a coalition of bipartisan lawmakers, early childhood educators, civil rights activist, feminists, and labor leaders came together to craft federal legislation to create a high-quality, universal child-care system for all Americans.” Called the Comprehensive Child Development Act, the bill had broad public and bipartisan support. In fact, as Brigid recounts, Idaho’s Orval Hansen, one of a number of Republican cosponsors in the House, said the good that the “landmark” bill could do could “have a more far-reaching impact than any of the other major education bills enacted during the past twenty years.”128
The biggest stumbling block? Patrick Buchanan, a conservative political operative and advisor to then-President Richard Nixon. Patrick, who never had children himself, believed in the need to preserve traditional family structures with father as breadwinner and mother as housewife. The notion of providing universal child care violated his sense of the “natural” order of things. Corralling other conservative pundits and writers, he launched a juggernaut to kill the bill. Arguing that it was an effort to “Sovietize” the American family and that “there is no substitute for a mother’s presence,”129 Patrick easily convinced then-President Richard Nixon to veto the child care bill. In fact, Patrick Buchanan actually wrote the very veto itself. As Brigid recounts, “The child care centers, [Buchanan] wrote, would not only create an ‘army of bureaucrats’ but would also diminish ‘both parental authority and parental involvement with children particularly in those decisive early years when social attitudes and conscience are formed, and religious and moral principles are first inculcated.’ The bill was, simply, un-American.”
A quick history lesson: Did you know that during World War II, we had national child care paid for by the United States government? Why? Because we needed women to work in factories and other traditionally male jobs while the men were off fighting. When the men came back from war, the country ended its universal child care. The rationale? Women needed to return home to make room for men in the workplace. Advertising campaigns and television programs such as Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best extolled the virtues of being a housewife, so you can understand why those who came of age in the 1950s were terrified by the rise of working mothers. It literally flew in the face of what they were led to believe was “natural.”
In researching her book, Brigid Schulte met with Patrick Buchanan to discuss his role in the vetoing of the bill. He told her, “What surprised me was the ease with which we won this battle.” In one fell swoop, Patrick proudly told Brigid, “That sucker was gone … Gone forever.”130
Patrick Buchanan was right. In the forty-five years since he managed to block access to universal child care for parents in this country, no new meaningful policies around this issue have been enacted. We have never regained the political will or momentum as a country to support mothers (or fathers, for that matter) in the workforce.
Now that’s a legacy.
In recent years, President Obama tried to make child care more accessible. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services finally went around Congress and instituted regulations for those child care facilities that accept government subsidies for the very poor. These efforts were estimated to reach only 1.4 million children nationwide. However, to get the subsidy, a parent must fill out extensive forms and take off days from work to wait in interminable lines. It’s the very definition of punishing.
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In his January 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama proposed an $80 billion program that would dramatically expand the Child Care and Development Fund, a federal program that provides states with grants for child care assistance programs to help low- and middle-income families. President Obama said,
In today’s economy, when having both parents in the workforce is an economic necessity for many families, we need affordable, high-quality child care more than ever. It’s not a nice-to-have it’s a must-have. So it’s time we stop treating child care as a side issue, or as a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us.
His plan called for “expanding access to child care assistance for all eligible families with children under four years of age, within ten years.” Ten years?! And these additional efforts will reach only a total of 2.6 million children. He also recommended offering a tax credit to middle-class families of up to $3,000 per child under the age of six, which would reach an additional 3.5 million children. There are currently 24 million children in our country between the ages of zero and five.132 In a decade, the number is expected to jump at least a million more. President Obama’s policies, as well intentioned as they are, would still only reach a quarter of all young children in this country.
We can hope that President Obama’s policy agenda will be put into practice, but as the numbers reveal, it won’t do a whole lot of good for the vast majority of mothers (or fathers) in our society. How is it Norway got it so right when it comes to supporting mothers working outside the home, and we got it so wrong?
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