Think Federally Funded Child Care Wouldn’t Work? We Did It in the 1940s

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It sounds like a fairy tale: Once upon a time, we had government-subsidized child care in the United States. But it’s not fiction at all.

In the 1940s, as women were called to the workforce to replace male workers who were off fighting World War II, there was an obvious dilemma: What to do with the children? (Nationally, the number of women working rose by 57 percent.)

In response, Congress passed the Lanham Act in 1941, which, in addition to funding community services specifically for the war effort, also funded child care programs across the United States. Programs were also funded with matching money from state and local governments. Child care centers began springing up and, by 1944, there were more than 3,000 centers caring for nearly 130,000 children. By the time World War II ended in 1945, programs funded by the Lanham Act and local communities had cared for over half a million kids.

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Additionally, the federal Office of Education executed a similar program, known as Extended School Services in 1942, which extended school hours to more accurately reflect mothers’ work schedules.

Portland, Oregon schools were a particularly glittering model; the money procured from the Lanham Act was ultimately used to care for thousands of kids between five and 14 years old. Forty schools modified their hours, opening at 6 am and closing at 7 pm, six days a week.

Another success was the Kaiser Company (also in Portland), founded in 1943 after Eleanor Roosevelt encouraged the Kaiser family to contribute. The effort involved transforming the Kaiser shipyards into having adjoining child care centers, a notion that originally did not sit well with some Oregon citizens (predictably, they believed mothers should solely be home with their children).

While the Kaiser brand ended up managing the child care center, the federal government paid for the construction of the site and most of the day-to-day costs. Parents paid a reported $5 for six days’ worth of care for one child; additional children could be enrolled for $3.75 (that’s the 2015 equivalent of about $69 and $52, respectively). Children from 18 months to six years old were admitted. The Kaiser Company eventually launched a second program for children aged six to 12 for school vacations and summertime.

The Kaiser Company centers were open 52 weeks a year and staffed with trained teachers and nurses. Eventually the facility was open 24 hours to accommodate women who worked the graveyard shift. The Oregon facility included a kitchen, cafeteria, outdoor play area, infirmary, and an isolation room for sick children, staffed with nurses and pediatricians.

An on-site nutritionist planned all the meals for the children and also headed up the enviable Home Service Food program, which provided precooked take-home dinners for mothers to pick up at the end of their shift along with their children. For 50 cents, you could receive a packaged meal, enough for one adult and one child. At the time, the Kaiser Company boasted that it was “among the first places where people of average means have been able to afford good nursery education for their children.”

Once the war ended in the mid-1940s, federal funding for child care centers ceased. Nowadays, parents must contend with truly staggering prices, sometimes opting to forgo their careers in order to avoid the paying the thousands of dollars required for child care.

More On Maternity Leave:
These Fortune 500 Companies Make Billions — But Won’t Pay For Your Maternity Leave
How Paying for Child Care Could Earn You Millions 
Ask a Lawyer: What Are My Rights Under FMLA?