The Lanham Act and Universal Childcare During World War II

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Thalia Ertman
June 27, 2019

On June 29, 1943, the U.S. Senate passed the first, and thus far only, national childcare program, voting $20,000,000 to provide for public care of children whose mothers were employed for the duration of World War II.

During the war, 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 and industry growth. This act was one of several Congress passed giving general defense mandates to the Federal Works Administration (FWA). The FWA, established in 1939, was created to oversee and coordinate the activities of five major New Deal alphabet agencies. With the outbreak of WWII in Europe in 1939, the FWA began to shift its mandate from these New Deal programs to defense mobilization, even before the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Children at a childcare center sit for “story time.” (Gordon Parks / Library of Congress / The Crowley Company)

Both during the pre-Pearl Harbor mobilization and during the nation’s direct military involvement, the FWA was given three general defense mandates: (1) build and expand the system of strategic roads to better serve the needs of national defense, (2) construct sufficient defense worker housing, and (3) support the workers in such housing by providing public works assistance to cities that saw a large influx of workers which, in some cases, doubled or tripled the area’s population. It was because of this mandate to provide public works assistance that the 1941 Lanham Act was passed. In total, 4,000 projects were approved under the Lanham Act during the war at a cost of $457 million, $351 million of which was federally funded with the remainder funded by the affected communities.

The newly created War Public Works (WPW) and War Public Services (WPS) had the primary responsibility to carry out these duties. The WPS’s largest role, both in funds and number of projects, was providing day care for the children of women who took jobs in factories or worked in government offices to help the war effort. By the conclusion of the war, the WPS had created day care centers in 386 communities. Without this service, many of the six million women who participated in the war effort could not have done so.

The federal government granted $52 million for childcare under this Act from August 1943 through February 1946, which is equal to more than $1 billion today. Communities, mostly through user fees, contributed an additional $26 million. At its July 1944 peak, 3,102 federally subsidized child care centers, with 130,000 children enrolled, were located in all but one state and in D.C. By the end of the war, between 550,000 and 600,000 children are estimated to have received some care from Lanham Act programs.

Children having lunch with a trained assistant at a childcare center opened September 15, 1942, in New Britain, Connecticut. The center served thirty children, aged two to five, of mothers engaged in war industry. (Gordon Parks/Library of Congress)

An increase in female labor force participation was the primary impetus for World War II-era childcare funding. The employment upsurge coincided with the federal government’s campaign (headlined by Rosie the Riveter) that urged women to aid in 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 childcare and other household services.

Although the Lanham Act did not explicitly include childcare facilities, the FWA sought and obtained recognition of this service as a necessity of war. The FWA informed nursery school operators that if they could make a war-connected case for their services, they could apply for funds under the Lanham Act. Wartime childcare facilities were also encouraged through short-lived and relatively small grants to state welfare and education agencies. Congress eliminated this funding source in mid-1943 but, at the same time, appropriated new childcare funding under the Lanham Act. It was this funding that was appropriated on June 29, 1943.

An image of Rosie the Riveter that appeared in a 1943 issue of the magazine Hygeia (American Medical Association)

Congressional approval of childcare 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 childcare centers would cease as soon as possible, but in no case later than the end of October 1945. Approximately 1 month after this announcement, the FWA reported it had received 1,155 letters, 318 wires, 794 postcards, and petitions signed by 3,647 individuals urging continuation of the program. Principle 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 the children, and inadequacy of other forms of care in the community.

The extensive national protest, a concern for families of servicemen still overseas, and lobbying by officials (especially from California where multiple major war manufacturing sites were based) prompted an extended federal commitment of approximately $7 million. The new funds allowed programs to continue operation with federal subsidy until the end of February 1946.

Many consider the Lanham programs to be of landmark importance. Historically, the U.S. government has supported childcare primarily either to promote poor children’s education or to push poor women into the labor force. The Lanham program broke ground as the first and, to date, only time in American history when parents could send their children to federally-subsidized childcare, regardless of income, and do so affordably. By late 1944, a mother could send a child of two to five years of age to childcare for 50 cents per day (about $7 today). That included lunch and snacks in the morning and afternoon.

Milk time” at the day care center in June of 1943. (Gordon Parks / Library of Congress / The Crowley Company)

The Lanham-funded centers also changed public sentiment about child-rearing. Previously, daycare had been considered a pitiful provision for poor mothers. But, the centers served families across the socioeconomic spectrum and, thus, familiarized the public with sending young children away from the home for part of the day.

Additionally, these centers are seen as historically important because they sought to address the needs of both children and mothers. Rather than simply functioning as holding pens for children while their mothers were at work, the Lanham child care centers were found to have a strong and persistent positive effect on the well-being of children.