The Coolest Child Care Program You’ve Never Heard Of

(Photo: familymwr)

(Photo: familymwr)

During World War II, U.S. women entered the workforce in record numbers — factories full of “Rosie the Riveters” producing planes and munitions for the war effort.  In response, Congress passed the Lanham Act of 1940, which administered and subsidized a large childcare system in 635 communities in the whole country except New Mexico from 1943-1946.  A new paper by Chris Herbst examines the effects of the Lanham Act; his research is particularly relevant in light of President Barack Obama‘s push for universal preschool.  “What’s intriguing about the Lanham Act is that it’s the U.S.’s first, and only, laboratory within which to assess universal child care,” writes Herbst in an email about the paper. “It may just be the coolest child care program you’ve never heard of.”  Here’s the abstract:

This paper provides a comprehensive analysis of the Lanham Act of 1940, a heavily-subsidized and universal child care program that was administered throughout the U.S. during World War II. I begin by estimating the impact of the Lanham Act on maternal employment using 1940 and 1950 Census data in a difference-in-difference-in-differences framework. The evidence suggests that mothers’ paid work increased substantially following the introduction of the child care program. I then study the implications of the Lanham Act for children’s long-run outcomes related to educational attainment, family formation, and labor market participation. Using Census data from 1970 to 1990, I assess well-being in a lifecycle framework by tracking cohorts of treated individuals throughout their prime working years. Results from difference-in-differences models suggest that the Lanham Act had strong and persistent positive effects on well-being, equivalent to a 0.36 standard deviation increase in a summary index of adult outcomes. In addition, a supplementary analysis of distributional effects shows that the benefits of the Lanham Act accrued largely to the most economically disadvantaged adults. Together, these findings shed light on the design of contemporary child care systems that balance the twin goals of increasing parental employment and enhancing child well-being.

And here‘s a recent presentation Herbst gave on the paper.


Benito

"large childcare system in 635 communities in 49 states from 1943-1946"

There were only 48 states until 1959. :)

NZ

Random typo, or is the whole report's integrity now dubious?

Bourree Lam

Typo. We've fixed it.

LD

"The evidence suggests that mothers’ paid work increased substantially following the introduction of the child care program."

Isn't that because women were working on the war effort? Isn't the child card more of an effect than a cause? Wouldn't we expect that women and mothers were working more in this time period?

NZ

Indeed.

1. Consider the type of women see working as a patriotic duty and consider it a sacrifice to give up being full-time moms for a few years for the sake of the war effort.

2. Then consider the type of women who have kids but return to work as soon as they can because they find being a stay-at-home mom boring and unsatisfying--or because they don't have husbands who can support them.

Aren't these two types of women likely to be very different types of mothers to their children? Aren't they likely to have passed on very different sets of traits to their children, both by genetics and by nurture? Won't their children have predictably different long-term outcomes?

This would suggest that just because subsidized childcare may have been a good idea in 1940, it doesn't mean it's a good idea now.

NZ

I'd like to know what else, besides having gone or not gone to subsidized day care, the study controlled for when looking at long-term outcomes. Seems like there could be a high noise-to-signal ratio there.

(This is before taking into account the implausibility of the claim that a government-appointed stranger does a better job of raising a child--in a group with some 30 other children, no less--than the child's own mother.)

So, were mothers worse back then, or were the kids who got put into subsidized day care just already more likely to do well in life?

Average.Random.Joe

I would also want to see the results for the next generation. Success is viewed in different ways and raising the next generation is part of that. They survived but did they have the skills needed to raise the next to also be successful?

NZ

Right. I'll be proud if my daughter grows up to be a happy, fulfilled, and well-adjusted person. But I'll be REALLY proud if my daughter marries a great guy and makes me some happy, fulfilled, well-adjusted grandkids.

This is a pretty common desire among parents. At my best friend's wedding, when it came time to make speeches, the father-in-law stood up, held one finger in the air, and bellowed a single word: "Grandchildren!"

James Wynn

Ummm...in this case, the government was the both child care provider AND the ultimate employer. I suppose this research also demonstrates the positive benefit of sending the father of a family overseas to war for a few years.

James Wynn

I just want to hit an important point in my comment above:
Child care can only increase employment if there is employment to be had. For example, if the government needs more workers --even female workers-- then universal child care is an added expense of employment. And we went deeply into debt to cover that expense. Without that artificial demand, I'm not sure that the benefits universal child care can be mapped to other circumstances.

Phil Persinger

James W---

We went deeply into debt to defeat the Axis powers. Day care on the home front was a vanishingly small part of that cost as I'm sure you know. It was provided to free up women to work at jobs that men could no longer fill. I'm not sure what you mean by "artificial demand" unless you're referring to stress the general war effort put on production.

Our situation today is similar in this respect: many households can't get by financially without both parents (or the single parent) in the work force. Day care frees these adults to go to work or find different work-- very much in the manner of K-12-- whether here at home or overseas.

Marina

"French kids don't throw food" by Pamela Druckerman looks at the way French government organised and fully subsidised chilcare affects mothers going to work, and somewhat looks at how it impacts on children.

Klara

I'm a preschool teacher in BC, our provincial government subsides cost of childcare for low income families. I have worked in centers with "vulnerable" children, they were better off, safer at the daycare than at home. These are exactly the children that will greatly benefit from being in a safe and consistent environment, being taught social skills that their own parents may be lacking. So look at how many immigrants,ESL or children from unstable homes can be given a better start in life and education, isn't it worth it? You will benefit for next 60 or so years by having people who have skills to actively participate and contribute to society.

NZ

How do the parents of these "vulnerable" children like being told that the government is doing a better job at parenting their kids than they are? Or do you put a different spin on it?

I don't mean to say it isn't possible that the government can't do a better job at parenting than certain parents. There are certainly demographic pockets where parenting is a lost art, and even evolutionary parental instincts have been neutralized by bad cultural habits. And furthermore, it's probably best not to describe what's going on in as blunt/honest terms as "a generational reset button" or "the government coming in and taking over the job of parenting" because it could trigger an adverse reaction that threatens to undo the whole thing. So mainly I guess I'm just curious whether the benevolent architects behind the program recognize their own true mission.

steve

"I assess well-being in a lifecycle framework by tracking cohorts of treated individuals throughout their prime working years. Results from difference-in-differences models suggest that the Lanham Act had strong and persistent positive effects on well-being, equivalent to a 0.36 standard deviation increase in a summary index of adult outcomes. In addition, a supplementary analysis of distributional effects shows that the benefits of the Lanham Act accrued largely to the most economically disadvantaged adults"

I don't know what makes you people so timid. If the above quote from the article is true, then it is not just a good argument for universal daycare. It is a good argument for taking kids away from there parents altogether and having the state raise them entirely. Especially if they are economically disadvantaged. If a little is good, more is often better.

NZ

Shhh. Yes, that's what we want, but you're not supposed to say it out loud.