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A Child of the Sixties: The Great Society, the New Right, and the Politics of Federal Child Care

From: Journal of Policy History
Volume 13, Number 2, 2001
pp. 215-250 | 10.1353/jph.2001.0005

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Journal of Policy History 13.2 (2001) 215-250

In 1971, a coalition of legislators and advocates put together a bill to establish the foundations of a public, universally available day-care system in the United States. Backed by Democrats, Republicans, and a highly mobilized set of interest organizations, the bill's middle-class appeal made it seem like a political sure bet in the months preceding the 1972 election season. Over the course of 1971, however, support for the bill eroded, and by December most House Republicans had jumped ship. On December 9, President Nixon vetoed the legislation, criticizing its "fiscal irresponsibility, administrative unworkability [sic], and family-weakening implications." Such direct federal provision of day-care services, he claimed, "would commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child-rearing over the family-centered approach." The day after the veto, however, Nixon signed the 1971 Revenue Act, which included tax breaks for families who use private day-care services. In late 1972, Congress passed legislation to reauthorize Head Start, a program providing early childhood education and health services for disadvantaged, preschool-aged children. Nixon's own welfare-reform proposal included day care for poor women. Clearly, only the middle class was at risk from "communal approaches" in federally supported child care; poor families, and particularly women on welfare, could use public day care while the middle class would be subsidized to solve their child-care problems through the private sector.

The political decisions of the early 1970s regarding who should care for the young children of working parents crucially shaped the evolution of American child-care policy in the ensuing decades. Nixon's vitriolic veto message slammed shut a window of opportunity for universal day-care legislation, effectively making public services a ghetto only for children from the poorest families. Year after year of debate and policymaking have essentially reproduced these early decisions, shaping the American day-care system into a set of public services for the poor, tax credits that subsidize middle-class purchase of private child care, and minimal support for those lower-middle-class families that are too "rich" to access public services, yet lack the income, and sufficient tax liability, to benefit from tax credits. This article explains this configuration of policies by reconstructing the debates and decisions concerning child care in the early 1970s. Through archival sources, interviews, and other primary and secondary documents, I show how the polarization of the American political community in this period, fueled by social divisions and ideological conflict, critically shaped the direction this policy took. Institutional features of the political landscape are an ever-present feature in the background of the policymaking process, but viewing these events solely through the prism of the state and other political structures would miss the ideological conflicts and the political disputes that so vitally shaped the policymaking possibilities of the period.

The deep divisions in American society in this period stymied efforts to forge unity around a common set of social services for all children. Veterans of the civil rights battles of the 1960s were the key activists pushing the child-care legislation to the forefront of the political stage in 1971, and the bill reflected their ambitions. However, their determination to push on with the methods and ideals of the War on Poverty set them against moderate Republicans and made the bill into the kind of "radical" social policy opposed by many in Congress and the White House. The tide was turning against the Great Society and a new conservative movement was just beginning to come into its own. In 1971, this fledgling movement scored a decisive victory in the veto of the day-care bill, a victory it would capitalize on as it snowballed into a social and political movement. Child-care legislation was caught between these warring forces, backed by a coalition whose left-wing tilt alienated moderate support, castigated by a conservative right-wing movement growing in vigor and self-confidence. The debates over child care were dominated by warring factions on opposite ends of the political spectrum that, between them, undermined the chance for a unified, national day-care...