Federally Sponsored Childcare during World War II: An Idea before its Time
The onset of World War II led to shortages in the work force. Demand for new workers rose as war production intensified and men moved into the armed forces. Women, including many mothers, were drawn into the work force during the war. Before 1943, lack of childcare options led to absenteeism among working mothers. The demands of both supporting a family and running a household took a toll on the ability of mothers to meet workplace demands. Also, actual need for childcare was continually under estimated. The hostility of many unions and employers to working mothers led many mothers to claim they were childless on their job applications.
Anticipating that childcare might be a problem in wartime, the government conducted studies on the issue prior to Pearl Harbor. The recommendations were contradictory. The federal government should be responsible for childcare, but only as a last resort; mothers, especially those with infants, should stay home. When money for childcare was made available, it went to the WPA, Defense Health and Welfare Services, and the Federal Works Agency. Congress never decided who should run childcare programs.
The first federal childcare program provided $6 million for the WPA to expand public nurseries for mothers working in defense areas. An additional $400,000 was allocated to the Office of Defense Health and Welfare Service for grants to states to ascertain childcare needs. But the largest program developed, without explicit congressional authorization at its inception, in the Federal Works Agency. The agency interpreted its authority to include the creation of day care facilities. Local agencies applied for grants to the War Public Services Bureau of the agency. State and federal departments of education or welfare reviewed the applications and, if they determined federal funding was needed, sent certifications to the Federal Works Agency. The agency then arranged for funding.
The Federal Works Agency program funded two types of day care centers: nursery schools, including before and after-school, and summer care. An average of two-thirds of the funding for public day care facilities came from the agency. The other third came mostly from parental contributions, with very little funding from the states. When the WPA was liquidated, the Federal Works Agency took over its nurseries, and new FWA projects burgeoned. The project had its shortcomings. As an agency set up to oversee construction work, it may have been ill suited to care for children. Not enough facilities and services were provided, services were inadequately publicized and many sites were underutilized. The agency never addressed the lack of contributions from the states and paid little attention to the best interests of children.
As the need for childcare increased, the War Area Childcare Act was proposed in May of 1943. The act would have provided day care, foster care, counseling services, and health care, with an appropriation of $20 million per year to be distributed to states. It had stringent requirements for applicants and required that states contribute half the funding. The bill passed the Senate but died in the House Committee on Education. The act, by relying on social service agencies to administer childcare facilities and encouraging state contributions, probably would have been more beneficial than the Federal Works Agency program. However, conversion of administration of the old facilities to the new agency proposed by the legislation might have caused some disruption in providing childcare. In addition, the proposed act provided too little funding, lacked provisions requiring nondiscriminatory allocation of services, and placed a heavy burden on states without providing any incentives for communities to apply for federal funds.
Despite opposition from working mothers and a lack of alternative childcare programs, federally funded childcare programs were all terminated by March of 1946. Most states and localities abandoned childcare services as well. Federal funds supporting childcare did not reappear until the 1960s.
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Subjected to Science: Human Experimentation in America Before the Second World War Lederer, Susan E. (1995)