Why the U.S. Has Long Resisted Universal Child Care

Why the U.S. Has Long Resisted Universal Child Care

By: New York Times

Most Americans say it’s not ideal for a child to be raised by two working parents. Yet in two-thirds of American families, both parents work.

This disconnect between ideals and reality helps explain why the United States has been so resistant to universal public child care. Even as child care is setting up to be an issue in the presidential campaign, a more basic question has recently resurfaced: whether mothers should work in the first place.

In many ways, it has already been settled: 93 percent of fathers and 72 percent of mothers with children at home are in the labor force. It helps the economy when women work, research shows, and it’s often economically beneficial for their families, too — 40 percent of women are their families’ breadwinners. Significant evidence demonstrates that when there’s high-quality, affordable, easy-to-find child care, more women work.

Some form of early childhood care and learning is part of the campaign platform of most of the Democratic presidential candidates. President Trump has not supported universal child care, but has bolstered existing child care policies, including approving a record increase to the Child Care and Development Fund for low-income families and a child tax credit increase.

Yet there has also been a revived discussion over whether mothers should outsource child care at all. Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, earlier this year decried what he called the belief that “it’s more virtuous to devote your life to some soulless corporation than it is to raise your own kids.”

One-third of Democrats surveyed by Pew Research Center said it was ideal for one parent to stay home. (Half said it didn’t matter if it was the mother or the father, but in most opposite-sex couples, it’s the mother).

The debate persists because in the United States, the resistance to public child care has never been mainly about economics. It has been rooted in a moral argument — that the proper place for mothers (at least certain ones) is at home with their children.

“In the United States, child care is still at the political level viewed symbolically and not economically,” said Leah Ruppanner, a sociologist at the University of Melbourne. “All of the discussions are around the sanctity of motherhood, preserving the traditional family. Women and families are living very different lives from that.”

She is an author of a study published this month in the journal Socius that found that in states where child care is more affordable and school days are longer, more mothers work than in states where it’s expensive and school days are short. It used American Time Use Survey data from 30,000 working-age mothers with school-aged children at home, from 2005 to 2014, and state data on the average school day length and the cost of full-time child care.