Rachael Shannon gets nostalgic when she thinks of the life she lived in Germany until just a couple of years ago. While she and her husband worked, their children spent their days in child care, creating awesome crafts, building pillow forts and going on outings to farms where they'd dig up potatoes.
"It was like wow times 10," says Shannon, who worked for a U.S. government contractor.
For this highly imaginative, full-time care for two kids, the Shannons paid about $750 a month, roughly a quarter of the cost of comparable care in the Washington, D.C., area where they returned to in 2018.
Today, in the middle of the pandemic, Shannon is one of millions of parents at their wit's end over the lack of good child care options here in the U.S. Safe, reliable child care was already expensive and difficult to obtain before the pandemic. Now it is even more so. With increased costs due to social distancing and sanitation requirements, many day care centers have been forced to close.
The pandemic-induced child care crisis has revealed the fragility of the system and ignited a debate about why it can't be better. Why do parents in the world's wealthiest nation pay such a high price to have both children and jobs?
"I wish more Americans knew what parents are living like in other countries," Rachael Shannon says. "I'm jealous, and I'm angry."
The German system of highly subsidized child care is the norm across Europe. It might sound like a utopian option for many American parents today, but the United States government offered its own version 77 years ago.
During World War II, as men headed off to war, women were called on to help run factories and perform all sorts of other jobs. But it was clear that it would be impossible to pull off unless children were taken care of. Child care was seen as a matter of national security.
Under the Lanham Act, day care centers, funded by federal and local dollars, opened up in communities impacted by the war. In 1943, families paid 50 cents per day, equivalent to $7.70 a day now.
"The main priority was bringing women into defense factories," says historian Sonya Michel, author of the book Children's Interests/Mothers' Rights: The Shaping of America's Child Care Policy.
More than half a million children were cared for during the war, Michel says.
There was plenty of opposition to the effort — some argued that separating children from their mothers for long hours would result in psychological damage. But it was overcome with a promise that government-funded child care would be "for the duration only."
"What that meant was as soon as the war was over, mothers were expected to return home. And of course the federal funding would be withdrawn," Michel says. "As soon as the war was over, almost all the centers closed down right away."
Decades later, in 1971, the U.S. came close to a universal child care system, where the poorest children could attend for free and others on a sliding scale. Congress passed such a bill, but it was vetoed by President Richard Nixon, who wrote about the "family-weakening implications of the system it envisions."
Till today, the U.S. does not heavily subsidize child care, and the subsidies that do exist reach only 1 in 6 eligible children. Most parents in the U.S. shoulder the high costs of child care on their own, according to analysis from the Center for American Progress.
As a result, parents in the U.S. pay too much, and child care workers earn too little, says Ashley Williams, a senior policy analyst with the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, and a former preschool teacher herself.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, child care workers earn a median wage of $11.65 per hour. Their jobs, which are taxing in normal times, are now more stressful than ever, putting strain on a workforce that is almost exclusively women and 40% people of color.
The pandemic has made clear the need for more investment in the system, Williams says. "Parents need somewhere for their children to be safe and cared for so that they can engage in the economy."
But there is one employer in the U.S. that does make child care viable for both families and workers: the military.
The Defense Department's Child Development Program has its origins in the end of the draft. The military was no longer composed of single men in barracks. A volunteer force meant there were now wives and children to consider.
"There was a saying in the early days — you recruit the soldier, but you retain the family," says M.A. Lucas, an early childhood educator who was tapped in 1980 to build a formal child care system for the U.S. Army.
Even with the experience of World War II, it was not an easy sell. For the first couple of years, she avoided talking about children. "It didn't mean we weren't thinking about children, but we didn't talk about children. We talked about the impact of the lack of child care on the military force," says Lucas, who was a military spouse herself.
She focused on readiness, and through anonymous surveys, demonstrated the immense need.
"I asked soldiers at all levels, officers and enlisted, if they lost time from the job because of a lack of child care," she says. "It was an astounding revelation to find the high number of folks that admitted to it." Twenty percent of the workforce reported losing duty time.
Lucas went to work, guided by a mission statement that remains largely unchanged today: To reduce the conflict between parental responsibilities and the military mission. She spent 31 years on the project.
Under Lucas's leadership, the Army built day cares on bases for easy pickup and drop-off and kept them open for long hours to accommodate shifts. Like other jobs in the military, there was a training regimen for caregivers, and they were paid competitive wages. Fees were charged on a sliding scale to make the care affordable.
But running child care in this manner is costly. The Department of Defense spends more than $1 billion a year on child care.
"It shows that the federal government can do it when it wants to," says historian Michel. But despite the proof of concept, Americans remain allergic to the idea of funding such programs outside of times of need.
"Maybe Congress and the government rises to the occasion in an emergency, but does it last afterward? That's always the problem," Michel says.
Currently, a bill that would greatly expand federal child care subsidies sits idle. The fate of the Child Care for Working Families Act will likely be determined in the next Congress.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
If you have children at home, how are you supposed to work when there's no place to send them? That's a predicament millions of families have faced this year. In normal times, quality child care is expensive and out of reach for many. In pandemic times, families are desperate for a better way. NPR's Andrea Hsu reports.
ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: I want to take you back a few years to a happier time in Rachael Shannon's life. Before work, she'd bike her two kids to daycare. They'd spend their days doing awesome crafts, building pillow forts and visiting farms, where they'd dig up potatoes.
RACHAEL SHANNON: I would pick my son up, and he'd be covered head to toe in dirt and just totally happy.
HSU: That was all in Germany, where Shannon worked for a U.S. government contractor. She had unlimited sick leave and that amazing child care. And it was cheap. For the two children, $750 a month total, a quarter of what you might pay here.
SHANNON: I wish more Americans knew what parents are living like in other countries.
HSU: Back in the U.S., she and her husband fought over who would take care of the kids when they were sick or had days off school. And now, of course, the pandemic. These days, Shannon struggles to balance homeschooling with working part time. She thinks about life in Germany every single day.
SHANNON: I'm jealous, and I'm angry.
HSU: And she's not alone. The pandemic is fueling fury over the lack of affordable, quality child care in the U.S. And it's revealed just how fragile the system already was. Ashley Williams of Berkeley researches child care employment.
ASHLEY WILLIAMS: Parents are paying too much. Teachers are earning too little.
HSU: That's because in the U.S., unlike Germany and other wealthy nations, child care is not heavily subsidized by the government. Now the pandemic has raised the question, why not? Essential workers clearly need somewhere to put their kids, so they can go to work. And, William says, so do millions of others.
WILLIAMS: Parents need somewhere for their children to be safe and cared for so that they can engage in the economy.
HSU: Now, there was a time when the U.S. did fund child care in a big way - World War II
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Tens of thousands of women are already at work in aircraft. More are being added as fast as they apply.
HSU: Child care was seen as a matter of national security. Here's historian Sonya Michel.
SONYA MICHEL: Well, the main concern, the main priority was bringing women into defense factories.
HSU: And the government promised help for those women through propaganda films like this one.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Everything possible will be done to provide daycare for the children.
HSU: In all, more than half a million children were cared for during the war. Families paid 50 cents a day, equivalent to less than $8 dollars a day now. Michel says this was all possible because it was for the duration only.
MICHEL: And what that meant was as soon as the war was over, mothers were expected to return home. And, of course, the federal funding would be withdrawn. Almost all the centers closed down right away.
HSU: But the history doesn't stop there. A few decades later came the end of the draft. No longer was the military just single men in barracks. A volunteer force came with wives and children.
M A LUCAS: There was a saying in the early days, you recruit the soldier, but you retain the family.
HSU: That's M.A. Lucas, who was tapped in 1980 to build a formal child care system for the Army. To sell the idea, she says, she almost never talked about children.
LUCAS: It didn't mean we weren't thinking about children, but we didn't talk about children. We talked about the impact of the lack of child care on the military force.
HSU: On readiness, 20% of personnel, from officers down to enlisted, reported losing duty time due to child care needs. Lucas went to work guided by a mission statement that remains largely unchanged today.
LUCAS: To reduce the conflict between parental responsibilities and the military mission.
HSU: That means building daycares right on bases for easy pickup and drop-off. It means putting caregivers through a training regimen, just like the rest of the military, and paying them competitive wages. And it means charging families subsidized rates to make it affordable. All of this is costly. The military spends more than a billion dollars a year on child care.
MICHEL: It shows that the federal government can do it when it wants to.
HSU: But historian Sonya Michel says despite the proof of concept, Americans are still allergic to the idea of funding this kind of thing outside of times of need.
MICHEL: OK, so maybe Congress and the government rises to the occasion in an emergency, but does it last afterward?
HSU: That's always the problem, she says. Right now there is a bill that would provide a lot more funding for child care, but it's sitting idle in Congress. Andrea Hsu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.