Early Childhood

Study: 1940s-Era Universal Child Care Program Had Positive Effects on Children

By Christina A. Samuels — January 15, 2014 3 min read
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A World War II-era child care program that allowed mothers to enter the workforce in record numbers led to positive effects in children that lasted into their adulthood, says an analysis by Chris M. Herbst, a professor at Arizona State University. (Herbst has also condensed his report into slides.) The benefits were particularly strong in economically disadvantaged adults, said the paper, which was released last month. The program was also unique in that it generated both increases in employment for women and supported positive outcomes for children, said Herbst, who has also conducted research into the modern-era Child Care Development Block Grant program.

During World War II, the federal government used the Lanham Act of 1940—legislation that provided federal grants or loans for war-related infrastructure projects—to pay for child-care facilities in areas where many women were employed in defense-related industries. The Lanham Act centers operated for just three years, from 1943 to 1946, eventually serving about 600,000 children ages 0 to 12, regardless of family income. At its peak in 1944, 130,000 children were enrolled in centers. Lanham Act spending was highest in California, Washington, Oregon, Florida and Arizona, where many defense-related industries were located.

Lanham Act centers varied in quality, Herbst said in his paper: Some centers operated on a 24-hour schedule to accommodate factory shifts, and in some cases, preschoolers spent 12 hours a day in care, where they were provided hot meals and time to play and nap. Older children who were enrolled in school received before- and after-school care.

Children in centers in California were given a medical exam, parents were asked the developmental history of their children, teachers received in-service training and college credit. But in contrast, a Baltimore center reportedly housed 80 children in one room with one bathroom; prepared meals on a hot plate and required children to cross a highway to get to a playground.

At the end of the war, the federal government abruptly cut funding, which allowed Herbst to make comparisons between the group of children who would have been eligible for enrollment because of their ages—those born in 1931 to 1946—to an otherwise similar cohort of children born in 1947 to 1951, who would not have been eligible. Using census data from 1970, 1980 and 1990, Herbst found that children in the group that would have been affected by the existence of the Lanham Centers had higher rates of graduation, marriage, and employment.

The census data does not track adults by whether they were enrolled in the center. But Herbst hypothesized that even children who were not directly enrolled in Lanham Centers during their brief period of operation were affected by their presence, because the centers altered the views of families about institutionalized child care. Some of those mothers might have enrolled their children in other centers , for example.

The existence of the centers also helped more women enter the workforce, as was their intent. That increased employment continued for several years after the program was shuttered, and was seen among married and unmarried women and low- and high-skilled employees.

Herbst said that are a few takeaways from his report that are relevant for today’s policy discussions around child care: First, “the benefits appear to be particularly large for the most economically disadvantaged adults,” and that could be linked to the fact that children from varying economic backgrounds were cared for together. The higher-income children could have caused spillover positive effects in their classmates, he said.

A second noteworthy element of Lanham Centers is that mothers were not required to work to take advantage of the care, even though most did work. That makes them stand out against the child care block grants, where quality often takes a back seat to a parent’s need to find any available center in order to hold on to benefits, Herbst said. Without that pressure to find a job, mothers were able to look around for best fit and for higher quality centers, the paper hypothesizes.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.