CHILD CARE: THE FEDERAL ROLE DURING WORLD WAR II
CRS Report for Congress
Child Care: The Federal Role During
World War II
Domestic Social Policy Division
During World War II, the federal government supported a nationwide program of
child care centers, intended to boost war production by freeing mothers to work. Labor
force participation of women grew significantly during the war, and children of working
mothers were eligible for the child care service. The centers had a peak enrollment near
New York City and Philadelphia were the only locations to use public funds to continue
child care programs indefinitely. This report describes federal child care initiatives during
World War II, and briefly traces the evolution of federal child care policy from the
postwar period until today. This report will not be updated.
During World War II, the federal government offered grants for child care services
to authorized community groups that could demonstrate a war-related need for the service.
The program was justified as a war expedient necessary to allow mothers to enter the labor
force and increase war production. Funding authorization came through the 1941 Defense
Public Works law (Title II of the 1940 National Defense Housing Act), popularly known
as the Lanham Act. The law was designed to assist communities with water, sewer,
housing, schools, and other local facilities’ needs related to war industry and growth. The
federal government granted $52 million for child care under this Act from August 1943
through February 1946. Communities, mostly through user fees, contributed an additional
$26 million. At its July 1944 peak, 3,102 federally subsidized child care centers, with
The federal government indirectly supported limited private employer-sponsored child
care during the war as well. The most noted instance involved several state-of-the-art
child care centers able to serve more than 1,000 children of workers at the large, west
coast Kaiser Shipyards. Parents paid a small fee to use the centers (built by the U.S.
Maritime Commission), but a majority of program operating expenses, including the cost
1 New Mexico was the only state not to request or receive child care funding via the Lanham Act.
Hawaii and Alaska were not yet states but both received Lanham Act funding for child care.
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of hiring well-trained staff, was absorbed by the federal government, as a component of
Kaiser’s defense-related contracts. The program ended with the war.
Women’s Labor Force Participation. An increase in female labor force
participation was the primary impetus for World War II-era child care funding. The
employment upsurge coincided with the federal government’s campaign (headlined by
Rosie the Riveter) that urged women to aid the war effort by joining the workforce.
Initially, the federal government was reluctant to encourage the employment of mothers
with young children, but demands for new workers, especially when issued by aircraft,
ship, and bomber manufacturers, proved powerful. These employers also cited
absenteeism among women workers as proof of the need for child care and other
household services. Advocates for public provision of child care invoked images of
children left in parked cars outside workplaces or fending for themselves at home, and also
raised concerns about juvenile delinquency.
Statistics are not available specifically on the employment of mothers in the war
period but overall, women’s labor force participation grew dramatically, with the most
notable growth among married women. Data show that about 13 million women were in
the workforce in 1940, compared to 19 million in July 1944. Among women age 14 and
older, 26% were in the civilian labor force in March 1940, compared to 32% in March
while the employment rate among single women increased from 46% to 55%. Although
married women had a much lower labor force participation rate than single women, they
made up the largest part of the female population. During the war, for the first time,
married women workers outnumbered single women workers.
Pre-Lanham Act Programs. The wartime Lanham Act child care centers built upon
a base of Depression-era nursery schools that in 1934-35, enrolled about 75,000 children
in 1,900 schools. Operated by the Works Project Administration (WPA), this earlier
program intended first, to provide jobs for unemployed teachers and only secondarily, to
assist children. The Emergency Nursery School program served low-income families,
regardless of parental employment status, and was championed and administered by early
childhood educators, rather than social welfare professionals. With the program’s
intended purpose increasingly irrelevant in the war-boosted economy, these administrators
saw the emerging war-related child care need as a legitimate reason for a continued
program. In 1942, Congress stipulated that $6 million of the WPA’s appropriation be
made available for child care services for children with working mothers.
The Federal Works Agency (FWA) was the parent agency of WPA and in 1941, it
was also charged with distributing Lanham Act funds for all war-related community
facilities.2 Although the Lanham Act did not explicitly include child care facilities, the
FWA sought and obtained recognition of this service as necessitated by the war. Correctly
anticipating the imminent termination of the WPA, the FWA informed nursery school
operators that if they could make a war-connected case for their services, they could apply
2 An independent agency established in 1939, the FWA included the Works Projects
Administration, and the Bureau of Community Facilities (responsible for most wartime child care
grants). The FWA was abolished in 1949.
for funds under the Lanham Act. As many as 1,150 WPA centers found new funding
under the Lanham Act before the WPA ceased to exist in April 1943.
In addition to the nucleus of WPA centers, wartime child care facilities were
encouraged through short-lived and relatively small grants to state welfare and education
agencies, provided by the Office of Education (OE) and the Children’s Bureau (CB) with
resources from the President’s Emergency Fund.3 Congress eliminated this funding source
in mid-1943 but, at the same time, appropriated new child care funding under the Lanham
Act. This prior funding may have encouraged early organization of local agencies, which
subsequently sought child care operations funding under the Lanham Act.
Financing and Administration. Federal funds for wartime child care under the
Lanham Act were available for costs related to group child care provision, including
facilities construction and upkeep, staff wages and most other daily operating costs.
Grants were made directly from the federal government to local communities. To access
federal child care funds, a community needed primarily to show that due to war
circumstances, it did not have the resources to meet the child care needs of working
mothers. Communities were also required to provide some matching funds. Initially, the
FWA intended to meet a maximum 50% of a project’s cost, but quickly changed this
requirement when it appeared to hinder the growth of the program. Nearly all local
funding came through fees paid by child care consumers. In the fall of 1943, the FWA
placed a ceiling on fees at 50 cents per child per day (raised to 75 cents in July 1945), but
stated that communities needed to supply at least the cost of food served. Overall, the
federal subsidy supplied two-thirds of the total maintenance and operation budget for the
wartime centers, with parent fees supplying most of the remainder.
Program standards, such as staff-child ratios, worker qualifications, and facility
design, were at the discretion of local planners. Some 95% of wartime child care projects
were operated by education authorities and, in addition to the primary FWA certification
of war-related need, plans from these groups were cleared through the Office of
Education. Projects sponsored by social welfare, child care, or other non-education
groups were cleared through the Children’s Bureau. The OE and CB approvals were
mostly pro forma, but this added oversight resulted primarily from a clash in views,
between the OE and CB on one side and the Federal Works Agency on the other, about4
which federal agency should administer the wartime child care program. The CB, which
had strong reservations about the employment of mothers with young children and the
value of group care (especially for children less than 2), successfully prevented federal
3 The Office of Education was part of the Federal Security Agency (FSA) and a predecessor of
today’s Dept. of Education. The Children’s Bureau, established in 1912, was part of the Dept. of
Labor, and now is part of the Dept. of Health and Human Services.
4 The dispute revealed differences in opinion concerning federal-state relations and the purpose of
child care. The OE and CB, backed by the Federal Security Agency, argued that they had the
expertise and state connections to ensure that available prewar resources would be used and
expanded to meet the wartime need. On the other hand, the FWA argued that Congress had granted
it jurisdiction of wartime public works monies and that it had already been operating a similar
program through its WPA unit. The dispute came to a head in 1943 when hearings were held on
a congressional bill to transfer the child care program to the FSA-OE/CB group. The bill passed
the Senate but died in the House.
funding of at least one project intended to serve infants; very few approved projects
included care for children under 2 years of age. On the other hand, the CB fought
unsuccessfully to allow funds to be used for child care counseling, casework, “foster day5
care” (roughly equivalent to family day care), and referrals.
Use of Centers. The wartime child care programs were locally planned, and there
was wide variation in the amount, kind and quality of services a community provided, and
the speed at which they were put in place. Overall, as many as 635 communities across
the nation were granted funds to operate one or more centers. Projects included programs
for preschool and school-age children. In July 1944, when the wartime child care program
reached its apex, 52,440 preschoolers and 76,917 school-age children were enrolled.
However, school-age enrollment climbed dramatically during summer vacation but, in
most months, preschoolers were the majority of children attending the centers. Enrollment
of preschoolers peaked at 73,660 in May 1945, when a total of 111,000 children were
signed up for the program. Center hours of operation varied, but at least some
accommodated the round-the-clock manufacturing schedule by staying open 24 hours a
day, 6 days a week.
Need for the child care centers was estimated to be much greater than the services
provided yet, at least initially, some programs struggled to fill available slots. Some
women were skeptical of group care provided by strangers, and pre-war child care for
working mothers tended to be viewed as charity for the poor. Private employers, local
agencies and the federal government sought to describe the service as both appropriate and
convenient and they promoted the program through radio broadcasts, detailed brochures,
employment counselors and other methods. The program’s simple eligibility test – based
solely on a mother’s employment status – and a flat, inexpensive fee were important
features intended to attract a broad group of working mothers.
Program Phaseout and Protest. Congressional approval of child care funds
explicitly tied these funds to wartime need, and the FWA repeatedly expressed its
commitment to this limitation. Especially after the drop in war production needs following
the spring 1945 Allied victory in Europe, the FWA granted fewer project approvals (or
renewals). In mid-August 1945, once victory in Japan was assured, the agency announced
all Lanham Act funding of child care centers would cease as soon as possible, but in no
case later than the end of October 1945. Approximately one month after this
announcement, the FWA reported it had received communications from 26 states and the
District of Columbia (1,155 letters, 318 wires, 794 postcards and petitions signed by 3,647
individuals), urging continuation of the program. Principal reasons given were the need
of servicemen’s wives to continue employment until their husbands returned, the ongoing
need of mothers who were the sole support of their children, and a lack or inadequacy of
other forms of care in the community.
5 In many cases, the CB believed “foster day care” (daytime care available to a very small number
of children in an individual home and coordinated and supervised through a local resource and
referral agency) was superior to group care. But the FWA noted that Lanham Act monies could
only be expended for the maintenance and operation of “public works” and ruled that because
family homes were not “public works,” Lanham funds could not support this type of care.
The loudest protest came from the state of California, which had multiple major war
manufacturing sites and where the largest federally subsidized program was in place. In
August 1945, close to 1 in 4 of all children enrolled in the Lanham Act-funded centers
lived in California. The extensive national protest, a concern for families of servicemen
still overseas, and lobbying by California officials, prompted an extended federal
commitment of approximately $7 million dollars. The new funds allowed programs to
continue operation with federal subsidy through the end of February 1946.
Early Postwar Programs. Given widespread early postwar sentiment against
women’s employment, a measure of the protest’s strength can be seen in the number of
centers initially continued with local resources. In July 1946, just under 1,000 of the
wartime centers continued to operate. However, few of these programs continued over
the long-term, as private resources proved inadequate and most states and localities found
child care too expensive and/or not an appropriate public expenditure.6 At the behest of
a local parents committee, Congress mandated a postwar public child care program in the
District of Columbia. (Federal lawmakers exercised full legislative and appropriations
authority over District matters in this period.) Congress discontinued the program in
December 1950, despite continued calls for support by parents and a rise in defense-related7
employment linked to troop deployment on the Korean peninsula. During the Korean
conflict, Congress authorized new funding for child care services as a part of the 1951
Defense Housing Act (the Act included authorization for community facilities), but it did
not subsequently provide appropriations for child care. California was the only state to
continue the World War II era program indefinitely. New York City (which had received
state rather than federal subsidy during the war) also continued a permanent and sizeable
program and the Philadelphia, PA, school board maintained a small number of the
Lanham-funded centers indefinitely. In the states of Washington, New York,
Massachusetts (very limited) and in Detroit, MI, some public funding was continued for
2 to 10 years. A 1960 CB survey found just 376 child care centers operating nationwide
with at least partial public financing. Most of these (324) were located in California, New
York City and Philadelphia, where public funding had continued since the war.
Ongoing Issues in Child Care Provision. The centrality of mothers’ employment
to debates about child care reflects a long held assumption that mothers would or should
be available to provide care for their children. During the war, the FWA’s director of child
care grants carefully asserted that the nation’s peacetime policy continued to hold that
mothers of small children served the nation best by remaining home to personally rear their
children. However, the common belief, that most mothers of young children would return
or remain in the home after the war, proved unfounded. In 1946, following postwar
voluntary exits and industrial layoffs (which disproportionately affected female workers),
women’s presence in the labor force declined briefly, but the workforce participation of
women resumed an upward trend as early as 1947. Among mothers of children under age
6 For instance, municipal funding for continuation of the wartime child care centers in Cleveland,
Ohio was halted after a Common Pleas judge ruled, in part, that the program was expending
“public funds for a private purpose” (i.e. the care of children from non-financially destitute
families). See Ferrie v. Sweeny 72 N.E. 2d 128 (1946).
7 The District Commissioners, D.C.’s highest officials, opposed the mandated city funding of child
care throughout this period citing variously a lack of funds, the undesirable encouragement to
mothers’ employment, and the “un-American” nature of group care.
18, 19% were in the workforce in April 1947, compared to 72% in March 1999. Other
important changes in the social and policy context also have occurred. Private child care
providers have expanded and become more vocal. Greater popular awareness of early
childhood development and education issues also has developed.
Perhaps most significant, federal policy regarding the employment of mothers with
young children has shifted from professed support of full-time homemaking for all mothers
– regardless of income status – to an increasing insistence on work for certain low-income
mothers. In the annual debates Congress had from 1946 through 1950 on funding the
D.C. child care program, and again in its 1953-54 discussion preceding adoption of a tax
deduction (later changed to a credit) for child care expenses, lawmakers struggled to
separately define the group of women who chose paid employment and those who were
financially compelled to work (considered by some to have legitimate child care funding
needs). Rising expectations about standards of living and increasing numbers of women
workers complicated this effort. Lawmakers reached the greatest agreement in their belief
that mothers who alone supported their families might need child care assistance. In turn,
some critics of public financing for child care argued that the correct policy for this group
of mothers had been determined by the Social Security Act’s Aid to Dependent Children
program (renamed Aid to Families with Dependent Children). They argued that this policy
dictated that instead of child care services, mothers of young children should be assisted
to remain at home and give full attention to child rearing.
As early as 1956, lawmakers included “self-sufficiency” as a goal of the welfare
program. By 1967, federal law called for “appropriate” aid recipients to work, and in
Child care as a welfare reform measure was explicitly discussed in the 1962 legislative
debate and Congress authorized a small amount of funding as grants to states for child care
services (not necessarily tied to welfare recipients). Child care funding for AFDC
recipients remained available on a limited basis in the following decades but became much
more significant after the 1988 Family Support Act required mothers with children under
age three to participate in self-sufficiency activities and increased funding for child care.
In 1990, Congress established the Child Care and Development Block Grant and the At-
Risk Child Care Program, which extended some child care assistance to low-income
working families who were not welfare recipients. The 1996 welfare reform law
subsequently replaced the AFDC entitlement with the Temporary Assistance for Needy
Families block grant. The 1996 law also combined all prior federal child care grants for
welfare and non-welfare recipients into the Child Care and Development Fund, and limited
the federal work exemption for welfare mothers to those with children under age one.
(Some 23 states have imposed a stricter limit; most of these require work activity
participation for a mother whose youngest child is at least 3 months.) However, the law
also provides that states may not sanction single welfare mothers with children under age
Additional Reading. U.S. Women’s Bureau, Employed Mothers and Child Care
(1953). U.S. Women’s Bureau, Employment of Women in the Early Postwar Period
(1946). U.S. Children’s Bureau, “Licensed Day Care Facilities for Children,” (1960).
Sonya Michel, Children’s Interests/Mother’s Rights: The Shaping of America’s Child
Care Policy, New Haven: Yale University Press (1999). Bernard Greenblatt,
Responsibility for Child Care: The Changing Role of Family and State in Child
Development, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers (1977).