Federally-subsidized childcare centers took care of an estimated 550,000 to 600,000 children while their mothers worked wartime jobs.
When the United States started recruiting women for World War II factory jobs, there was a reluctance to call stay-at-home mothers with young children into the workforce. That changed when the government realized it needed more wartime laborers in its factories. To allow more women to work, the government began subsidizing childcare for the first (and only) time in the nation’s history.
An estimated 550,000 to 600,000 children received care through these facilities, which cost parents around 50 to 75 cents per child, per day (in 2021, that’s less than $12). But like women’s employment in factories, the day care centers were always meant to be a temporary wartime measure. When the war ended, the government encouraged women to leave the factories and care for their children at home. Despite receiving letters and petitions urging the continuation of the childcare programs, the U.S. government stopped funding them in 1946.
Before World War II, organized “day care” didn’t really exist in the United States. The children of middle- and upper-class families might go to private nursery schools for a few hours a day, says Sonya Michel, a professor emerita of history, women’s studies and American studies at the University of Maryland-College Park and author of Children’s Interests/Mothers’ Rights: The Shaping of America’s Child Care Policy. (In German communities, five- and six-year-olds went to half-day Kindergartens.)
For children from poor families whose father had died or couldn’t work, there were day nurseries funded by charitable donations, Michel says. But there were no affordable all-day childcare centers for families in which both parents worked—a situation that was common for low-income families, particularly Black families, and less common for middle- and upper-class families.
The war temporarily changed that. In 1940, the United States passed the Defense Housing and Community Facilities and Services Act, known as the Lanham Act, which gave the Federal Works Agency the authority to fund the construction of houses, schools and other infrastructure for laborers in the growing defense industry. It was not specifically meant to fund childcare, but in late 1942, the government used it to fund temporary day care centers for the children of mothers working wartime jobs.
Communities had to apply for funding to set up day care centers; once they did, there was very little federal involvement. Local organizers structured childcare centers around a community’s needs. Many offered care at odd hours to accommodate the schedules of women who had to work early in the morning or late at night. They also provided up to three meals a day for children, with some offering prepared meals for mothers to take with them when they picked up their kids.
“The ones that we often hear about were the ‘model’ day nurseries that were set up at airplane factories [on the West coast],” says Michel. “Those were ones where the federal funding came very quickly, and some of the leading voices in the early childhood education movement…became quickly involved in setting [them] up,” she says.
For these centers, organizers enlisted architects to build attractive buildings that would cater to the needs of childcare, specifically. “There was a lot of publicity about those, but those were unusual. Most of the childcare centers were kind of makeshift. They were set up in church basements or garages.”
Though the quality of care varied by center, there hasn’t been much study of how this quality related to children’s race (in the Jim Crow South, where schools and recreational facilities were segregated, childcare centers were likely segregated too). At the same time, the United States was debuting subsidized childcare, it was also incarcerating Japanese American families in internment camps. So although these childcare facilities were groundbreaking, they didn’t serve all children.
Subsidized Childcare Ends When War Ends
When the World War II childcare centers first opened, many women were reluctant to hand their children over to them. According to Chris M. Herbst, a professor of public affairs at Arizona State University who has written about these programs in the Journal of Labor Economics, a lot of these women ended up having positive experiences.
“A couple of childcare programs in California surveyed the mothers of the kids in childcare as they were leaving childcare programs,” he says. “Although they were initially skeptical of this government-run childcare program and were worried about the developmental effects on their kids, the exit interviews revealed very, very high levels of parental satisfaction with the childcare programs.”
As the war ended in August 1945, the Federal Works Agency announced it would stop funding childcare as soon as possible. Parents responded by sending the agency 1,155 letters, 318 wires, 794 postcards and petitions with 3,647 signatures urging the government to keep them open. In response, the U.S. government provided additional funding for childcare through February 1946. After that, it was over.
Lobbying for national childcare gained momentum in the 1960s and ‘70s, a period when many of its advocates may have themselves gone to World War II day care as kids. In 1971, Congress passed the Comprehensive Child Development Act, which would have established nationally-funded, locally-administered childcare centers.
This was during the Cold War, a time when anti-childcare activists pointed to the fact that the Soviet Union funded childcare as an argument for why the United States shouldn’t. President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill, arguing that it would “commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach.”
In this case, “family-centered” meant the mother should care for the children at home while the father worked outside of it—regardless of whether this was something the parents could afford or desired to do. World War II remains the only time in U.S. history that the country came close to instituting universal childcare.