When America's Government Took Care Of Babies : The Indicator from Planet Money When millions of women entered the workforce during World War II, what happened to the children? The government stepped in and created the first federal child care program. What happened to it?

That Time America Paid For Universal Day Care

That Time America Paid For Universal Daycare

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FPG/Getty Images
(Photo by FPG/Getty Images)
FPG/Getty Images

In World War II, millions of men went to fight and millions of women joined the workforce. There was just one small problem. Kids. With their parents out of the house, who would take care of the children? The U.S. government faced this challenge during World War II, leading to the first and only universal child care program in American history.

Colloquially known as the Lanham Act, this bill funded "war nurseries" that looked after children whose mothers worked long hours. Professor Chris Herbst studies child care policy. He says despite initial pushback, the program yielded positive outcomes for working moms and provided high-quality care for kids. However, the program did not last long. Except in California.

Professor Natalie Fousekis, author of Demanding Child Care: Women's Activism and the Politics of Welfare, 1940-1971, studies women's history. She says while California extended the program, the federal government eventually changed the funding mechanism and ended the child care program for many employed women.

Correction July 1, 2021

A previous version of this episode incorrectly said that during World War II, Congress set aside tens of billions of dollars to cover a child care program. In fact, it was tens of millions, which in today's money would be about $1.2 billion.