During WW II, the U.S. Government Was Sometimes the Sitter

Under the Lanham Act of 1940, federal grants to child care centers totaled $52 million.
By CJ Walker
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As millions of Americans return to work following the Covid shutdown, a shortage of caregivers is sending the cost of childcare soaring. That has put many parents, particularly women, in an economic bind. Congress has failed to help: Universal pre-kindergarten, paid family leave and an expanded child tax credit were all cut from the Inflation Reduction Act.

It wasn’t always this way. For a brief time during World War II, government subsidies for childcare were available to women working for the war effort. Coverage included medical care, enrichment activities, meals and snacks, at a cost of less than $10 a day per child in today’s dollars, according to government estimates.

The benefits came from the Lanham Act of 1940, legislation that provided federal grants for water supply, sewers, housing and schools in areas where many women were employed in wartime industries. Nearly six million women had entered the workforce, sending the number of working women to 19 million in 1944 from 13 million in 1940. Many filed into factories to build planes, tanks, ships and munitions, or went to work in construction and on farms.

For the first time in U.S. history, married women, the largest segment of the nation’s female population at the time, outnumbered single women in the workforce, according to a congressional research report. The mothers among those married women needed someone to watch their children.

Under the Lanham Act, federal grants to child care centers from 1943 to early 1946 totaled $52 million. An estimated 500,000 children were enrolled. According to a study that compared long-term outcomes for children enrolled in or eligible for Lanham daycare centers to a group born after the centers closed, the Lanham group had higher rates of graduation, employment and marriage. Children from low-income families especially benefited, the study found.

Getting the child care provisions of the Lanham Act passed wasn’t straightforward. It wasn’t until the number of women in the wartime workforce began to drop, with employers citing lack of childcare as the cause, that political resistance gave way in 1943. As soon as the war was over the funds were cut, ending in February 1946, despite widespread protests. New York City’s welfare commissioner, Edward Rhatigan, “deplored the ‘hysterical’ propaganda” about changes to the state’s plan, The New York Times reported at the time.

In 60 percent of two-parent households today, both parents work. But over half of all Americans live in a “child care desert,” a census tract with three times as many children as available openings in licensed local child care facilities, according to the Center for American Progress. Following the pandemic, there are nearly 100,000 fewer child care workers in the United States than there were before, The New York Times reported. Many experts agree: the United States is in a child care crisis.

A few large cities have implemented universal pre-kindergarten. This year, the mayor of New York, Eric Adams, signed a package of bills to support families, including funding for a universal child care program for children under school age. It would be the first of its kind in the nation if implemented.

CJ WALKER, an Institute for Nonprofit News intern at Retro Report, wrote and produced the short video accompanying this article, which first appeared in our free weekly newsletter. Subscribe here for new videos and surprises from history. Follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.