As Congress debates over critical early childhood investments, I am reminded of 1971 when earlier efforts to enact a comprehensive child care system were toppled by regressive politics and am determined not to allow our nation to repeat the mistakes of the past. Fifty years ago a national moral commitment to children and families almost became the law of the land for young children. What a different country we would be today had millions of children received the carefully conceived high-quality early childhood and family support services in the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971. That Act was designed to begin to meet the developmental needs of all children regardless of family income by investing major new federal funds to establish high-quality, comprehensive early childhood programs under a coordinated delivery system. During committee hearings leading child advocates, developmental psychologists, and pediatricians detailed the need for child development legislation. While none of the 1971 Act’s supporters, I among them, believed it perfect, its approach represented a vast step forward. The Washington Post called the bill “as important a breakthrough for the young as Medicare was for the old” and described it as “a vehicle for a new national effort to make childhood livable.”
The Act passed the Senate on December 2, 1971 by a vote of 63 yeas to 17 nays, with 39 Democrats and 24 Republicans in support. Five days later it passed in the House. It passed because of strong bipartisan leadership and the enthusiastic support and hard work of the most broad-based coalition assembled since enactment of the social legislation of the early 1960s, including poverty, civil rights, children’s and women’s groups across the income spectrum, labor unions, faith leaders, educators, and community and citizen organizations. But President Nixon vetoed it on December 9, 1971, capitulating to right wing ideologues like Phyllis Schlafly and Patrick Buchanan. In addition to mischaracterizing the legislation’s provisions, President Nixon attempted to portray day care and other child care services outside the home as a radical new departure, ignoring the millions of mothers already in the workforce.
In 1971, 40 percent of mothers participated in the labor force; today 71 percent do, including 66 percent of mothers with young children under 6. Yet as a recent New York Times article reiterates, the United States remains “an outlier in its low levels of financial support for young children’s care.” Fifty years after the Comprehensive Child Development Act was vetoed, child care programs are still available to only a fraction of the children and families who need them, and the quality of care provided through public and private means remains uneven, fragmented, and often inadequate, especially for the poorest children. Our continued failure to invest in high-quality child care has exacerbated racial inequities and left millions of children without the strong foundation they need. Now the pandemic has put a harsh new spotlight on our nation’s child care crisis. Many child care providers have closed, denying children opportunities for learning and development, threatening an already under-resourced and undervalued workforce that employs large numbers of women of color, and forcing many parents, especially mothers, to leave their jobs because of caregiving responsibilities and uncertain access to child care.
At the same time, we know even more today about early brain development that makes the investments in our youngest children all the more urgent and important. High-quality, comprehensive early childhood programs have been proven to buffer the impacts of poverty and provide lifelong benefits for children and their families, and research and experience show that quality early childhood programs are one of the best investments the nation can make to improve education and societal outcomes. As former Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke said at a Children’s Defense Fund event: “Economically speaking, early childhood programs are a good investment with inflation-adjusted annual rates of return on the funds dedicated to these programs estimated to reach 10 percent or higher. Very few alternative investments can promise that kind of return. Notably, a portion of these economic returns accrues to the children themselves and their families, but studies show that the rest of society enjoys the majority of the benefits, reflecting the many contributions that skills and productive workers make to the economy.”
The children who might have benefitted from the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971 are now parents and even grandparents themselves. But Congress has another opportunity right now to make new strides forward. The investments in child care and early childhood education in the Build Back Better Act must be preserved. Let’s not waste time for another generation.
Marian Wright Edelman is Founder and President Emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund