Commentary Family

Will Obama’s Vision of Child Care Overcome Nixon’s Legacy?

Carole Joffe

As a longtime advocate for quality child care, I was heartened to hear President Obama's forceful words on the matter during his State of the Union address. It occurred to me that it had been more than 40 years since a U.S. president had so visibly addressed the issue—and on that occasion, the message had been very different.

President Obama’s forceful comments on the need for federal support of child-care programs were one of the most notable aspects of his recent State of the Union address. As he said, “It’s time we stop treating child care as a side issue, or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us …. In today’s economy, when having both parents in the workforce is an economic necessity for many families, we need affordable, high-quality child care more than ever … [It is] a ‘must-have,’ and not a ‘nice-to-have.’”

As a longtime advocate for quality, accessible child care, I was heartened to hear these words at such a high-profile time. It occurred to me that it had been more than 40 years since a U.S. president had so visibly addressed the child-care issue—and on that occasion, the message had been very different.

In December 1971, President Richard Nixon vetoed the Economic Opportunity Amendments of 1971, primarily because the measure would have allocated some $2 billion for a Comprehensive Child Care Development Bill, which Congress had recently passed to pay for an extensive network of child-care facilities across the country. Nixon’s veto message remains, in my view, one of the most striking documents in the history of American family policy.

Denouncing the bill for its “family-weakening implications,” Nixon went on to say that the appropriate response to the challenge of implementing child-centered policy “must be one consciously designed to cement the family in its rightful position as the keystone of our civilization.” Nixon continued:

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Other factors being equal, good public policy requires that we enhance rather than diminish both parental authority and parental involvement with children … for the Federal government to plunge headlong financially into supporting child development would commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach.

The back story of the passage of the Comprehensive Child Care Bill, the controversy it created, and the pressure on Nixon to veto it are all topics very pertinent to the divisions over gender politics that still are such a factor in our society today. Seen as the first legislative victory of the recently reemerged women’s movement, the bill’s passage was a collaborative effort involving union women, feminist activists, children’s advocates such as Marian Wright Edelman, and sympathetic (mostly male) elected officials, led by Sen. Walter Mondale (D-MN) and Rep. John Brademas (D-IN).

Although many Republicans had voted for the bill, it still sparked a furor among many conservatives still reeling from the rapid cultural shifts of the 1960s and 1970s—particularly the rise of feminism. Conservative journalists denounced the bill; Nixon’s most hard-right staff members, including Pat Buchanan, urged him to oppose the bill on ideological grounds as well as fiscal ones. This was because Nixon had recently announced his intention to travel to “Red” China and normalize relations—a move that enraged many conservatives of that period. It was therefore no accident that the language of the veto contained a negative comment about “communal approaches to child-rearing.” (Buchanan had also reportedly wanted to include the phrase “the Sovietization of American children,” but that phrase did not make the final cut.)

After Nixon’s veto, a later attempt in 1975 by Mondale and Brademas to offer a scaled-down version of their original ambitious bill never even made it out of Congress. This time around, their efforts were met by an incredibly well-organized campaign by operatives in the just-emerging New Right, known today as the Christian right. In this pre-Internet, pre-cell phone era, these conservative groups subjected thousands of mothers of young children to a massive misinformation blitz about the bill, instructing them to write letters to their representatives. As journalist Gail Collins remarked, “The writers [of these letters] appeared to believe that [the bill] would allow children to organize labor unions, to sue their parents for making them do household chores and make it illegal for a parent to require their offspring to go to church.”

In retrospect, the virulent backlash—from President Nixon, from housewives writing letters in church basements—against these attempts at expanding federal involvement in child-care programs can be understood as the beginning of the culture wars in America. Indeed, as Onalee McGraw, a leading conservative spokeswoman of that era, put it, the anti-child care campaign was “the opening shot in the battle over the family.”

To be sure, the child-care issue did not last long as a mobilizing issue for social conservatives—too many women, including conservative ones, were going to work. And in the years following the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, the New Right found a much more fruitful issue on which to focus.

In contrast to the hopefulness expressed in the early 1970s by those who supported a national child-care program, which would have targeted all children with parents paying on a sliding income scale, today child care is like virtually all other social programs in the United States—that is, deeply stratified by class. Wealthy parents typically have live-in nannies and send their children to extremely expensive preschools; middle-class parents, often with great difficulty, send their children to the best programs they can afford and are lucky enough to find a place in; and poor parents, if they are not fortunate enough to have reliable relatives living nearby, are subject to programs of varying, often dismal, quality. What is clear is that parents are on their own, needing to devise private solutions to what Nixon himself framed as a private problem.

It is too soon to say whether President Obama’s positive vision for child care as a governmental responsibility will overcome the negative one of Richard Nixon and the culture warriors who advised him. In some respects, the situation of the two presidents, with respect to child care, are mirror images of each other. In the 1970s, there was a Congress who wanted a national child-care policy and a president who opposed it; with Obama, the opposite, sadly, seems true. But if nothing else, Obama’s speech reaffirmed for a broader audience what those in the reproductive justice movement already know—that is, how crucial quality, affordable child care is for families in order to adequately care for the children they wish to have.

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