The American Government Once Offered Widely Affordable Child Care Affordable, quality child care was hard to come by even before the pandemic and now even more so. It's not for a lack of ideas about how to fix it. Is this the moment those ideas are taken seriously?

The American Government Once Offered Widely Affordable Child Care ... 77 Years Ago

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

If you have children at home, how are you supposed to work when there's no place to send them? That's a predicament millions of families have faced this year. In normal times, quality child care is expensive and out of reach for many. In pandemic times, families are desperate for a better way. NPR's Andrea Hsu reports.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: I want to take you back a few years to a happier time in Rachael Shannon's life. Before work, she'd bike her two kids to daycare. They'd spend their days doing awesome crafts, building pillow forts and visiting farms, where they'd dig up potatoes.

RACHAEL SHANNON: I would pick my son up, and he'd be covered head to toe in dirt and just totally happy.

HSU: That was all in Germany, where Shannon worked for a U.S. government contractor. She had unlimited sick leave and that amazing child care. And it was cheap. For the two children, $750 a month total, a quarter of what you might pay here.

SHANNON: I wish more Americans knew what parents are living like in other countries.

HSU: Back in the U.S., she and her husband fought over who would take care of the kids when they were sick or had days off school. And now, of course, the pandemic. These days, Shannon struggles to balance homeschooling with working part time. She thinks about life in Germany every single day.

SHANNON: I'm jealous, and I'm angry.

HSU: And she's not alone. The pandemic is fueling fury over the lack of affordable, quality child care in the U.S. And it's revealed just how fragile the system already was. Ashley Williams of Berkeley researches child care employment.

ASHLEY WILLIAMS: Parents are paying too much. Teachers are earning too little.

HSU: That's because in the U.S., unlike Germany and other wealthy nations, child care is not heavily subsidized by the government. Now the pandemic has raised the question, why not? Essential workers clearly need somewhere to put their kids, so they can go to work. And, William says, so do millions of others.

WILLIAMS: Parents need somewhere for their children to be safe and cared for so that they can engage in the economy.

HSU: Now, there was a time when the U.S. did fund child care in a big way - World War II

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Tens of thousands of women are already at work in aircraft. More are being added as fast as they apply.

HSU: Child care was seen as a matter of national security. Here's historian Sonya Michel.

SONYA MICHEL: Well, the main concern, the main priority was bringing women into defense factories.

HSU: And the government promised help for those women through propaganda films like this one.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Everything possible will be done to provide daycare for the children.

HSU: In all, more than half a million children were cared for during the war. Families paid 50 cents a day, equivalent to less than $8 dollars a day now. Michel says this was all possible because it was for the duration only.

MICHEL: And what that meant was as soon as the war was over, mothers were expected to return home. And, of course, the federal funding would be withdrawn. Almost all the centers closed down right away.

HSU: But the history doesn't stop there. A few decades later came the end of the draft. No longer was the military just single men in barracks. A volunteer force came with wives and children.

M A LUCAS: There was a saying in the early days, you recruit the soldier, but you retain the family.

HSU: That's M.A. Lucas, who was tapped in 1980 to build a formal child care system for the Army. To sell the idea, she says, she almost never talked about children.

LUCAS: It didn't mean we weren't thinking about children, but we didn't talk about children. We talked about the impact of the lack of child care on the military force.

HSU: On readiness, 20% of personnel, from officers down to enlisted, reported losing duty time due to child care needs. Lucas went to work guided by a mission statement that remains largely unchanged today.

LUCAS: To reduce the conflict between parental responsibilities and the military mission.

HSU: That means building daycares right on bases for easy pickup and drop-off. It means putting caregivers through a training regimen, just like the rest of the military, and paying them competitive wages. And it means charging families subsidized rates to make it affordable. All of this is costly. The military spends more than a billion dollars a year on child care.

MICHEL: It shows that the federal government can do it when it wants to.

HSU: But historian Sonya Michel says despite the proof of concept, Americans are still allergic to the idea of funding this kind of thing outside of times of need.

MICHEL: OK, so maybe Congress and the government rises to the occasion in an emergency, but does it last afterward?

HSU: That's always the problem, she says. Right now there is a bill that would provide a lot more funding for child care, but it's sitting idle in Congress. Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

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