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Subsidizing families is one thing the two parties can agree on

The government can boost working parents by funding child care and other forms of support. After all, it’s happened before.

Rest time at the Lakeview nursery school for children of working mothers in Buffalo, N.Y.,1943.Marjory Collins/Wikimedia Commons

Imagine a working parents’ utopia. At the center sit large-windowed, subsidized child care centers with health care facilities nearby. Free public transit connects home and school and the office or factory. Stores sell inexpensive pre-cooked meals so parents can spend quality time with children in the evenings.

Depending on your politics, this may sound like socialists’ Shangri-La or Libertarians’ hell. But it certainly doesn’t sound like America.

Yet this was the scene in Vanport City, Ore., during World War II, when tycoon Henry J. Kaiser accepted millions from the federal government to help working mothers become Rosie the Riveters at his shipyard. The town was nicknamed Kaiserville. Congress had passed the Lanham Act in 1940, securing public funds for some 3,000 child care centers around the country, allowing women to go to work. In Kaiserville, developed in 1943, 7,000 children attended Kaiser Child Service Centers.


Of course, the Lanham Act wasn’t passed specifically to support women. It was passed to support the war effort, which is why the law — officially known as the Defense Housing and Community Facilities and Services Act of 1940 — was approved in both houses without controversy. And it’s why, when the war ended, the act terminated, and with it the experiment of supporting working moms.

Some 80 years later, as around 73 percent of mothers and 93 percent of fathers work outside the home, such support is needed more than ever — this time to bolster families and the economy, whether one parent stays home with kids or not.

Liberals aren’t the only ones who think so. In fact, financially investing in families — including universal child care, high-enough wages that could allow one parent to stay home, and more meaningful employment options for parents — may be the one thing the two parties can agree on in the forthcoming election, as in elections past.


As President Richard M. Nixon said in 1969, “So crucial is the matter of early growth that we must make a national commitment to providing all American children an opportunity for healthful and stimulating development during the first five years of life.” After that, both the House and Senate passed the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971, sponsored by Senator Walter Mondale to create “universally available child development programs” for millions of children.

Nixon ended up vetoing the bill, after his speechwriter Pat Buchanan whispered in his ear about the optics of supporting such a socialist-sounding endeavor when he was close to opening relations with Communist China. Buchanan stoked a fear among some Americans that linked universal child care with communism, the state takeover of the family. What resulted was the privatization of child care outside of the Head Start preschool program for the poorest Americans.

But the bipartisan appeal of better support for families remains. In 2022, the AEI-Brookings Working Group on Childhood in the United States, a collaboration between a right-leaning and a left-leaning think tank, said “the need to rebalance national investments toward children” was “an area of resounding agreement.” This includes a financial and social structure that supports both parental caregiving and affordable, high-quality child care outside the home. In a poll last year, 93 percent of voters said it was important for working parents to access affordable, quality child care. It’s a winning issue.


Although the members of the working group agree on the importance of supporting working parents, they don’t always agree on how that support should translate into economic policy, and they certainly don’t all share the same values. What they do all believe in is helping parents have healthy relationships and gainful employment, creating economic stability for kids, and rebalancing the budget to get there.

Even if we still need to hammer out the details of how to braid these ideas into policy, the first step is amassing the political will.

Vanport, Ore., known as Kaiserville, in 1943.Wikimedia Commons

That’s what it took to build Kaiserville, and that experiment was a success. Research found that the support the Lanham Act provided improved children’s long-term financial and educational outcomes. In other words, investing in child care and in support for working parents paid off for both the families and the larger economy.

If we can see providing the option of affordable and high-quality universal child care as an investment in the American family and the American future, more people will support it. To conservatives, we could say: Caregiver credits or better wages would fortify the nuclear family and allow women to stay home and strengthen the economy. To liberals we could say: Here’s how we can provide women with choices and make sure their basic needs are met in the workplace. To libertarians we could say: This is actually the American way. You might not like it, but it’s the right thing to do. (It’s OK — they’re used to not getting their way.)


It didn’t work out in the 1970s. But 50 years later, we can see how much universal child care would have helped. The family itself has changed so much in that time, as millions more women have poured into the workforce, thanks largely to the second-wave feminist movement. Because the most important piece of legislation that would have improved life for them — along with children and families in general — died on the vine, we got massive cultural change without enough structural change to go with it.

Maybe, this election cycle, the structures can start to change, too.

Lisa Selin Davis is the author of “Housewife: Why Women Still Do It All and What to Do Instead.”