History Shows That We Can Solve The Child-Care Crisis — If We Want ToRoundup
tags: gender, Child Care, social services
Lisa Levenstein is director of women's, gender and sexuality studies and associate professor of history at UNC Greensboro. She is the author of They Didn't See Us Coming: The Hidden History of Feminism in the Nineties (Basic Books, 2020).
As novel coronavirus cases rise, we are grappling with a growing child-care crisis. Heading into the fall, most public schools have announced their plans. In some places, students will only attend in-person classes intermittently. Elsewhere, schools will be entirely online. Others intend to fully resume in-person classes, despite growing alarm about the health risks. Meanwhile, day-care centers remain closed, are operating at a limited capacity or may permanently shut down due to the pandemic.
Parents who must leave their homes to work at grocery stores, construction sites, nursing homes, restaurants and hospitals face the greatest challenges finding care for their children. But even those who can telework from their living rooms are finding it nearly impossible to parent full-time and meet the demands of their employers — and this is especially true for women.
This is not the first time that the country has faced an extraordinary challenge that demands a fundamental redesigning of everyday life — including new arrangements for child care. When women mobilized during World War II and during President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” the U.S. recognized that expanding child care was essential to our collective well-being and the flourishing of the economy. The results were policies that supported families through dramatic extensions of child care.
These policies involved financial investments and a fundamental rethinking of the responsibility of the federal government. And since women shouldered the primary responsibility for child-rearing and were among the majority of the staff of child-care programs, the initiatives also helped foster greater gender equality. Today we should recall this history and recognize that the government can facilitate a child-care revolution in a matter of weeks. The question is whether we will learn from the past and create more durable solutions.
Until the 1930s, the government did little to help employed mothers. The privately funded day nurseries that had been established to serve the poor held the stigma of “charity” and were seen as a last resort for mothers unable to fulfill their “proper” roles as full-time caregivers. During the Great Depression, as part of the larger federal effort to create jobs for the unemployed, the government established an Emergency Nursery School program. But pressure to provide day care more broadly did not emerge until massive numbers of married women entered the workforce.
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