We should look back for our future

If you think education is expensive, try ignorance,” the old bumper sticker says. Yet for decades, lawmakers have flaunted their ignorance of what makes a good society by shortchanging our investment in our youngest minds. Policymakers have intentionally rigged our economic and political systems to hold down workers’ incomes even while their living expenses rise. The result is mothers and fathers are herded into whatever jobs are available — just to make ends meet. This leaves young children to … what?

Let’s be clear: Caring for children is expensive. Kids are labor-intensive — assuming the goal is not merely to keep the little creatures cared for. Today, only the wealthy can purchase primo attention from providers and the rich enjoy a tax-break for their nannies. But workaday families are on their own when it comes to child care. For our society to rank up with other developed countries, there is no shortcut. We must choose to make a public investment to sustain a system of quality child care … or maintain our “We don’t care” policy toward our kids.

As inadequate as today’s “care” network is, it’s only fair to note the thing is heavily subsidized. Not by government, but by the caregivers hired by center owners! Most of these providers are paid less than $11 an hour — on par with parking lot attendants and less than many dog walkers.

The hours are long, the ratio of children-to-caregivers tends to be impossibly high, job stress is severe and staff support is meager. Even as the need for care has soared in recent years and centers’ fees have climbed, pay for caregivers has stayed flat. Benefits and job security? Get real. Workers’ wages are so low they can’t afford to enroll their own children in the centers where they attend to others’ young ones. Training and career development? The U.S. model does not consider caregiving a profession or a career.

What country set the gold standard for high-quality, universal child care? Hint: The very one that fails so shamefully to meet that crucial need. Yes, it’s the mighty USA! It came at the onset of America’s commitment to World War II. With masses of men deployed, masses of women were called to economic production as everything from engineers to Rosie Riveters. Their children? Believe it or not, our government responded directly and effectively by passing the Lanham Act in 1943. The new law treated child care as a core component of our nation’s infrastructure, key to a unified war effort. This was a national/local government partnership that set up and staffed a publicly subsidized network of more than 3,000 Lanham Act preschool centers all across America.

These were teaching centers that paid staff and trained them in childhood education. The program was affordable: For about $.50 a day a child could get 12 hours of quality care. Twelve hours! The fee included lunch and snacks; the centers operated all day, year-round, reached families in 47 states and aimed at a 1-to-10 teacher-student ratio. Subsequent studies found the program enormously beneficial to the well-being of children, parents, communities and the nation.

Right-wing extremists killed it. After the war, they insisted women return to housewifery and the government get out of child care. Succumbing to their pressure, President Harry S. Truman axed the budget for the Lanham Act centers shortly after Japan surrendered in 1945.

Jim Hightower is a nationally syndicated author.


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