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The History of Child Care in the U.S.

The History of Child Care in the U.S.

by Sonya Michel, Ph.D., University of Maryland

January 19, 2011


In the United States today, most mothers of preschool and school age children are employed outside the home. American mothers have invented many ways to care for their children while they work. Native Americans strapped newborns to cradle boards or carried them in woven slings; Colonial women placed small children in standing stools or go-gins to prevent them from falling into the fireplace. Pioneers on the Midwestern plains laid infants in wooden boxes fastened to the beams of their plows. Southern dirt farmers tethered their runabouts to pegs driven into the soil at the edge of their fields. White southern planters’ wives watched African American boys and girls playing in the kitchen yard while their mothers toiled in the cotton fields. African American mothers sang white babies to sleep while their own little ones comforted themselves. Migrant laborers shaded infants in baby tents set in the midst of beet fields. Cannery workers put children to work beside them stringing beans and shelling peas. Shellfish processors sent toddlers to play on the docks, warning them not to go near the water.

Mothers have left children alone in cradles and cribs, and have locked them in tenement flats and cars parked in factory lots. They have taken them to parents, grandparents, co-madres, play mothers, neighbors and strangers. They have sent them out to play with little mothers – siblings sometimes only a year or two older. They have enrolled them in summer camps and recreation programs, taken them to baby farms, given them up to orphanages and foster homes, and surrendered them for indenture. They have taken them to family day care providers and left them at home with babysitters, nannies, and nursemaids, some of them undocumented workers.

Mothers have dropped off infants and youngsters at pre-school facilities of various size and quality dressed in tatters, with smudged cheeks and stringy hair, and picked them up garbed in starched smocks, rosy-cheeked, smelling of soap. Children have been turned away because they had fevers or runny noses or lice; mothers have left their jobs in the middle of the day to pick up children with ear infections, chicken pox, temper tantrums. They have parted from offspring who were howling, whimpering, whispering in the corner with friends, and found them later giggling, hungry, cranky, half-asleeep. They have walked out feeling guilty, sad, anxious, fearful, with their hearts in their mouths, without a care in the world.

Mothers have left babies dozing in carriages parked outside movie palaces, at department store day nurseries, and parking services in bowling alleys and shopping malls. Some mothers have placed their children in the care of others and never come back.

At the end of the nineteenth century, then, American child care had come to consist of a range of formal and informal provisions that were generally associated with the poor, minorities, and immigrants and were stigmatized as charitable and custodial. This pattern of practices and institutions provided a weak foundation for building twentieth-century social services. As women’s reform efforts picked up steam during the Progressive Era, however, child care became a target for reform and modernization.

The Beginnings of Child Care Reform

To draw attention to the need for child care and to demonstrate “approved methods of rearing children from infancy on,” a group of prominent New York philanthropists led by Josephine Jewell Dodge set up a Model Day Nursery in the Children’s Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago and then went on to found the National Federation of Day Nurseries (NFDN), the first nationwide organization devoted to this issue, in 1898.

In the meantime, reformers began to formulate another solution to the dilemma of poor mothers compelled to work outside the home: mothers’ or widows’ pensions. In the view of prominent Progressives such as Jane Addams, day nurseries only added to such women’s difficulties by encouraging them to take arduous, low-paid jobs while their children suffered from inadequate attention and care. Thus she and her Hull House colleagues, including Julia Lathrop, who would go on to become the first chief of the U.S. Children’s Bureau when it was founded in 1912, called for a policy to support mothers so they could stay at home with their children. Unlike child care, the idea of mothers’ pensions quickly gained popular support because it did nothing to challenge conventional gender roles. Indeed, some reformers argued that mothers, like soldiers, were performing a “service to the nation” and therefore deserved public support when they lacked a male breadwinner. Pensions “spread like wildfire” (quoted in Theda Skocpol, “Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States,” Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992, p. 424) as several large national organizations, including the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and the National Congress of Mothers, mounted a highly successful state-by-state legislative campaign for such a benefit. By 1930, nearly every state in the union had passed some form of mothers’ or widows’ pension law, making this the policy of choice for addressing the needs of low-income mothers and pushing child care further into the shadows of charity.

The U.S. Children’s Bureau

Despite the rhetoric, however, mothers’ pensions could not fully address the problems of poor and low-income mothers, and many women had no alternative but to go out to work. In most states, funding for pensions was inadequate, and many mothers found themselves ineligible because of highly restrictive criteria or stringent, biased administrative practices. African American women in particular were frequently denied benefits, in the North as well as the South, on the grounds that they, unlike white women, were accustomed to working for wages and thus should not be encouraged to stay at home to rear their children. Because pension coverage was sporadic and scattered, maternal employment not only persisted but increased, adding to the demand for child care. Philanthropists were hard put to meet this growing need using private funding alone. With mothers’ pensions monopolizing the social policy agenda, however, they had no prospect of winning public funding for day nurseries.

This pattern continued into the 1920s, as the U.S. Children’s Bureau (CB) conducted a series of studies of maternal and child labor in agriculture and industry across the country. Although investigators found many instances of injuries, illnesses, and even fatalities resulting from situations in which infants and toddlers were either left alone or brought into hazardous workplaces, the CB refused to advocate for federal support for child care; instead, it worked to strengthen mothers’ pensions so that more mothers could stay at home. CB officials were influenced, in part, by the thinking of experts such as the physician Douglas Thom, a proponent of child guidance who argued that “worn and wearied” wage-earning mothers who had no time for their children’s welfare stifled their development.  At the same time, the reputation of day nurseries continued to slide as efforts to upgrade their educational component flagged due to lack of funds, and nursery schools, the darlings of Progressive-Era early childhood educators, began to capture the middle-class imagination.

The New Deal’s Effect on Child Care

The Depression and then World War II had a mixed impact on the fortunes of child care. On the eve of the Great Depression, fewer than 300 nursery schools were in operation, compared to 800 day nurseries, but as unemployment rose, day nursery enrollments fell sharply and charitable donations also declined, forcing 200 day nurseries to close down between 1931 and 1940. Meanwhile, at the urging of prominent early childhood educators, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a key New Deal agency, established a program of Emergency Nursery Schools (ENS). Primarily intended to offer employment opportunities to unemployed teachers, these schools were also seen as a means of compensating for the “physical and mental handicaps” caused by the economic downturn. Nearly 3,000 schools, enrolling more than 64,000 children, were started between 1933 and 1934; over the next year, these were consolidated into 1,900 schools with a capacity for approximately 75,000 students.  The program covered forty-three states and the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Unlike the earlier nursery schools, which were largely private, charged fees, and served a middle-class clientele, these free, government-sponsored schools were open to children of all classes. Designed as schools rather than as child care facilities, the ENS were only open for part of the day, and their enrollments were supposedly restricted to the children of the unemployed. They did, however, become a form of de facto child care for parents employed on various WPA work-relief projects. Unlike that of the day nurseries, the educational component of the ENS was well developed because of early childhood educators’ strong interest in the program.

Organizations such as the National Association for Nursery Education, which was eager to promulgate the ideas of progressive pedagogy, even sent in their own staff members to supervise teacher training and to oversee curricula. The educators were frustrated, however, by inadequate facilities and equipment and by difficulties in convincing teachers with conventional classroom experience to adopt a less-structured approach to working with young children. By the late 1930s, the ENS also began to suffer from high staff turnover as teachers left to take up better-paying jobs in defense plants. Between 1936 and 1942, nearly 1,000 schools were forced to close down.

Child Care and World War II

Although the approach of World War II reduced the unemployment crisis in the United States, it created a social crisis as millions of women, including many mothers, sought employment in war-related industries. Despite a critical labor shortage, the federal government was at first reluctant to recruit mothers of small children, claiming that “mothers who remain at home are performing an essential patriotic service.” Gaining support from social workers, who opposed maternal employment on psychological grounds, government officials dallied in responding to the unprecedented need for child care. In 1941 Congress passed the Lanham Act, which was intended to create community facilities in “war-impact areas,” but it was not until 1943 that this was interpreted as authorizing support for child care.

In the meantime, Congress allocated $6 million to convert the remaining ENS into child care facilities. The organization of new services bogged down in interagency competition at the federal level and in the considerable red tape involved when local communities applied for federal funding. According to the government’s own guidelines, one child care slot was required for every ten female defense workers; however, when the female labor force peaked at 19 million in 1944, only 3,000 child care centers were operating, with a capacity for 130,000 children—far short of the 2 million places that were theoretically needed. Public opinion was slow to accept the dual ideas of maternal employment and child care. The popular media frequently reported on the spread of “latchkey children” and on instances of sleeping children found locked in cars in company parking lots while their mothers worked the night shift. Such stories served to castigate “selfish” wage-earning mothers rather than to point up the need for child care. At the same time, children’s experts warned parents that children in group care might suffer the effects of “maternal deprivation” and urged them to maintain tranquil home environments to protect their children from the war’s upheaval.

What child care there was did little to dispel public concerns. Hastily organized and often poorly staffed, most centers fell far short of the high standards early childhood educators had sought to establish for the ENS. One exception was the Child Service Centers set up by the Kaiser Company at its shipyards in Portland, Oregon. Architect-designed and scaled to children’s needs, they offered care twenty-four hours a day (to accommodate night-shift workers), a highly trained staff, a curriculum planned by leading early childhood experts, and even a cooked-food service for weary parents picking up their children after an arduous shift. Despite its inadequacies, federally sponsored New Deal and wartime child care marked an important step in American social provision. Congress, however, was wary of creating permanent services and repeatedly emphasized that public support would be provided “for the duration only.”

Soon after V-J Day, funding for the Lanham Act was cut off, forcing most of the child care centers to shut down within a year or two. But the need for child care persisted, as maternal employment, after an initial dip due to postwar layoffs, actually began to rise. Across the country, national organizations like the Child Welfare League of America, along with numerous local groups, demonstrated and lobbied for continuing public support. These groups failed to persuade Congress to pass the 1946 Maternal and Child Welfare Act, which would have continued federal funding for child care, but they did win public child care provisions in New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. and in California. During the Korean War, Congress approved a public child care program but then refused to appropriate funds for it.

After World War II

Finally, in 1954, Congress found an approach to child care it could live with: the child care tax deduction. This permitted low- to moderate-income families (couples could earn up to $4,500 per year) to deduct up to $600 for child care from their income taxes, provided the services were needed “to permit the taxpayer to hold gainful employment.” The tax deduction offered some financial relief to certain groups of parents, but reformers were not satisfied, for such a measure failed to address basic issues such as the supply, distribution, affordability, and quality of child care. In 1958, building on the experience they had gained in lobbying for postwar provisions, activists formed a national organization devoted exclusively to child care, the Inter-City Committee for Day Care of Children (ICC, later to become the National Committee on the Day Care of Children). The organization was led by Elinor Guggenheimer, a longtime New York City child care activist; Sadie Ginsberg, a leader of the Child Study Association of America; Cornelia Goldsmith, a New York City official who had helped establish a licensing system for child care in that city; and Winifred Moore, a child care specialist who had worked in both government and the private sector. Unlike its predecessor, the National Federation of Day Nurseries (which had been absorbed by the Child Welfare League of America in 1942), the ICC believed that private charity could not provide adequate child care on its own; instead, the new organization sought to work closely with government agencies like the U.S. Children’s Bureau and the U.S. Women’s Bureau to gain federal support.

The ICC experimented with a number of different rationales for child care, generally preferring to avoid references to maternal employment in favor of stressing the need to “safeguard children’s welfare.” In 1958 and 1959, the ICC helped mobilize grassroots support for several child care bills introduced into Congress by Senator Jacob Javits (R–New York), but to no avail. The ICC did succeed in convincing the CB and WB to cosponsor a National Conference on the Day Care of Children in Washington, D.C., in November 1960. At that conference, several government officials pointed to the growing demand for labor and to what now appeared to be an irreversible trend toward maternal employment, but many attendees continued to express ambivalence about placing young children in group care. Guggenheimer, however, noted that mothers would work “whether good care is available or not. It is the child,” she emphasized, “that suffers when the care is poor.” Guggenheimer did not call directly for government support for child care, but she made it clear that private and voluntary agencies could no longer shoulder the burden.

The CB and WB, under the direction of chiefs appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, were reluctant to take the lead on this issue, but the president-elect, John F. Kennedy, in a message to the conference, expressed his awareness of the problem, stating, “I believe we must take further steps to encourage day care programs that will protect our children and provide them with a basis for a full life in later years.” Kennedy’s message, along with subsequent statements, implied that his administration sought a broad-based approach to child care. In a widely circulated report, the President’s Commission on the Status of Women acknowledged that maternal employment was becoming the norm and pointed out that child care could not only help women who decided to work outside the home but also serve as a developmental boon to children and help advance social and racial integration. But the Kennedy administration could not muster sufficient political support to push through a universal child care policy.

Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)

Instead, in two welfare reform bills, passed in 1962 and 1965, Congress linked federal support for child care to policies designed to encourage poor and low-income women to enter training programs or take employment outside the home. The goal was to reduce the number of Americans receiving “welfare” (Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC) and prevent women from becoming recipients in the first place. From 1969 to 1971, a coalition of feminists, labor leaders, civil rights leaders and early childhood advocates worked with Congress to legislate universal child care policy, but their efforts failed when President Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971. As a result, for the next three decades, direct federal support for child care was limited to policies “targeted” on low-income families. At the same time, however, the federal government offered several types of indirect support to middle- and upper-class families in the form of tax incentives for employer-sponsored child care and several ways of using child care costs to reduce personal income taxes.

The Reagan Era and Welfare Reform in the 1990s

In the 1980s, under the Reagan administration the balance of federal child care funding shifted, as expenditures for low-income families were dramatically reduced while those benefiting middle- and high-income families nearly doubled.; Such measures stimulated the growth of voluntary and for-profit child care, much of which was beyond the reach of low-income families. These families received some help from the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), passed in 1990, which allocated $825 million to individual states. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 replaced AFDC with time-limited public assistance coupled with stringent employment mandates. Acknowledging the need for expanded child care to support this welfare-to-work plan, Congress combined CCDBG, along with several smaller programs, into a single block grant—the Child Care and Development Fund.

Although more public funds for child care were available than ever before, problems of supply and quality continue to limit access to child care for welfare recipients who are now compelled to take employment, and moderate-income families must cope with ever-rising costs for child care. For all families, the quality of child care is compromised by the high rate of turnover among employees in the field, in itself the result of low pay and poor benefits. Because of its long history and current structure, the American child care system is divided along class lines, making it difficult for parents to unite and lobby for improved services and increased public funding for child care for all children. When it comes to public provisions for children and families, the United States compares poorly with other advanced industrial nations such as France, Sweden, and Denmark, which not only offer free or subsidized care to children over three but also provide paid maternity or parental leaves. Unlike the United States, these countries use child care not as a lever in a harsh mandatory employment policy toward low-income mothers] but as a means of helping parents of all classes] reconcile the demands of work and family life.

For more information, refer to Dr. Michel’s book, Children’s Interests/Mothers’ Rights: The Shaping of America’s Child Care Policy.

19 Replies to “The History of Child Care in the U.S.”

  1. This Article made me really think about how far child care in America has come. While it has advance tremendously this article kind of makes you over look everything and search for answers on why child care was even such a questionable thing back then. It’s clear that these mothers will most of them anyways really had no choice but to work in order to provide and the fact that it was questioned and looked down on is just beyond words. Anyways with that being said thanks to all the amazing people out there that still fought for all these children and their mothers in order to make their lives a little less stressful.

  2. It is heartening to know that no matter how low the pay, or how difficult the challenges, there have always been education leaders who have provided excellent early childhood care that all children deserve.

  3. I am glad I “stumbled” onto this article on the history of child care in the U.S. by Dr. Sonya Michel! Although I have been in the education field for 50 years and currently do research in this area, I was not well versed on the history of child care in this country. Thank you for fanning the flames within me and I am sure many others. We need to focus more of our resources and efforts on the very young from pre-birth through age 5 when it is needed most! We would certainly get more ROI (Return on Investment) or BFB (Bang for the Buck) if we did. This would be more people effective and cost effective by a long shot!

  4. As a mom who has to take her kids to daycare daily, it is interesting to learn more about its history. Before reading this I had no idea that most mothers of children in school are employed outside of the home. The ICC experimenting with different rationales for child care after World War II is also very interesting to learn about. I love learning more about where things originated!

  5. Many thanks to Dr. Michel for this helpful article. I have a question please? Can you possibly tell me the name of the program administering subsidized daycare in 1984? Was it referred to as Chapter 10, Title 10 or something similar? Thanks in advance.

    • Ms. Covington: I am no longer active and unable to answer your question. I recommend you contact a national day care organization (e.g., Child Care Aware, or Kinder Care) and share your question with a staff person. Regards, Jack Hansan

  6. Hello, I’m doing a project for my MCC Semester 2 Project Overview and the career that I chose present was Child Care Worker. The problem about this presentation is that I need info on where it originated, in other words, I need info on where the history of being a Child Care Worker all took place in history. Do you think you could help me?

  7. Thank you, Ms. Michel. This topic of the lack of effective and affordable child care continues to reverberate across our land!! Lasting fix(es) is/are still elusive to the ongoing detriment of children who need it.

    I pray that one day, our country will figure remedies based on love for all our children!

  8. Hello, i would like to cite from your analysis to my thesis which is about the impact of affordable childcare in Oxnard CA, so could i please know when is this article published and all information to cite?

    • Thanks for the request. The Introduction to Child Care was contributed by Dr. Sonya Michel from her book “Children’s Interest/Mothers’ Rights: The Shaping of America’s Child Care Policy.” p.p. xi-xii. Sonya Michel. 1999. New Haven & London, Yale University Press. You can locate her on Google. Thanks, Jack Hansan

  9. Ms. Sonja Michel:

    My Mother worked as a school teacher for most of her early working life. She left teaching, after many years (sometimes in one-room schoolhouses, with all grades, in Arkansas), to work for the federal government in the “Child Welfare” Agency.

    When my dad’s work with the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) took him to Ft. Smith, AR, in the early 1960’s,
    mom worked with the Federal Government to create, in Fort Smith, AR, one of, if not the first “Child Welfare Centers”
    which I understood may have been the first in the United States and was a model for many others around the country, to follow.

    I would be glad to tell you more.

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