There was a time, not all that long ago, that the United States nearly had universal child care.
Actually, there was a time, a little longer ago, that the United States did have universal child care, but we’ll get to that in a moment. For now, we are talking about the Comprehensive Child Development Bill, which passed Congress in 1971 before being vetoed by President Richard Nixon. For now, we are talking about the history of that legislation and how it serves as a microcosm of this nation’s inability to confront issues.
Oh, that’s probably reading too much into it. But I was reminded of the Comprehensive Child Development Bill recently when Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler paid a visit to the editorial board.
In running down her list of legislative efforts, Herrera Beutler touched upon child care: “This is probably one of the No. 1 issues people with families, young families, come to me about, and it spans the income spectrum. It’s remarkable to me. It’s one of the top issues that I get asked about.”
No wonder. With many families needing two incomes to put food on the table — and with many others having one parent — it can be difficult to find affordable, reliable care.
It didn’t need to be this way. In 1971, Congress mustered bipartisan support for a bill to establish a network of federally funded, locally administrated child care facilities. The centers would provide education, meals and medical services, with costs based on family income. Parents would not be required to take advantage of the program, but everybody would be eligible.
President Nixon, whose administration helped draft the legislation, surprisingly vetoed it at the urging of aide Pat Buchanan. In a veto message penned by Buchanan, Nixon warned that the program would “commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing against the family-centered approach.”
Which, of course, is absurd. But anything back then that could be tangentially linked to communism was certain to stoke fear of the unknown, a disease that continues to afflict the American psyche. As Nancy L. Cohen explained for The New Republic a few years ago, “Itching to escalate the nascent culture war, Buchanan inserted his fevered imaginings into Nixon’s official message.”
Pretty soon, opponents were claiming that it would become illegal for parents to make their children go to church or take out the trash, and that kids would have the right to unionize and sue their parents. Because when you don’t have ideas, you create fear.
Lost in the discussion was the fact that the Lantham Act had provided federally funded day care throughout World War II — and the United States somehow managed to not crumble into godless communism. When the war ended, the day care centers ended, although Eleanor Roosevelt said, “A few of us had an inkling that perhaps they were a need which was constantly with us, but one that we had neglected to face in the past.”
All of which makes the episode relevant to today’s politics. Republicans have made clear that their platform for the 2020 election is to claim that Democrats are a bunch of socialists hell-bent on destroying all that makes America great. “America will never be a socialist country,” President Donald Trump has said, disingenuously presenting the issue as a binary choice.
As far as politics go, it probably is a wise strategy. As far as making America great goes, it is a ridiculous grasp for dogma at the expense of solutions. And it continues a strategy that has this nation slipping behind the rest of the world in health care, education, child care and anything else that requires social investment and enhances our quality of life. According to the 36-nation Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United States trails each member nation other than Turkey in terms of public spending on family benefits as a percentage of GDP.
So it is not surprising when Herrera Beutler says, “What I’m learning, you know, we’re what you call a child care desert.” That’s because we stopped watering decades ago.