House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif. gestures during her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2009 in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Those of us who have been pushing for better work/family policies know the story of how we almost had universal childcare all too well. In 1971, Congress passed the bipartisan Comprehensive Child Development Act on a bipartisan vote. It would have meant the first step toward a universal childcare system, offering all parents a free, high-quality place to send their kids while they worked. As Nancy L. Cohen reports, Congress authorized five times what it currently spends on Head Start to finance the program.
Then, before President Nixon signed the bill, the evangelical right staged an intense backlash as part of the brand new culture wars, which wormed its way into Nixon’s ear through special assistant Pat Buchanan. Nixon ultimately vetoed the bill, saying 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.” Thus the “family values” crowd was born and the bipartisan idea that the government should support working women by taking some of the parenting burden off their shoulders died.
That idea, though, is now seeing some surprising signs of life. First, President Obama took many by surprise in announcing a push for universal preschool in his most recent State of the Union address. His plan looks somewhat similar to the one proposed by Walter Mondale more than four decades ago in that it establishes a national system of childcare and preschools that would eventually be affordable to all families, covering kids from zero to when they enter kindergarten. Obama has been mostly promoting this on the solid research showing how beneficial this would be to the country’s children—and therefore society and the economy at large—but the impact on working parents is unmistakably a huge piece of this puzzle.