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Maine Once Had Public Child Care. What Happened To It?

A woman factory worker in jumpsuit coveralls with her hair wrapped up operates machinery. Dated 1943.

On Monday, Oct. 20, 1943, a two-room nursery school opened in Brunswick. Though nursery schools were not particularly common at the time, this would not have been notable, except for one thing: the new nursery school was part of a program which, for the first and only time in U.S. history, provided cheap, universally available, federally subsidized child care.

This story is part of Maine Public’s Deep Dive on child care. To see the rest of the series, visit mainepublic.org/childcare.

The Brunswick Day Nursery School, and about 3,100 others like it established across the U.S. between 1943 and 1946, made up a public child care system that served between 500,000 and 600,000 kids, more than half of whom were preschoolers.

If you have never heard of this program, you are not alone. The nation’s brief foray into public child care has been largely forgotten.

For a three-year period, the U.S. government got into the child care business, albeit uncomfortably and incompletely. All it took to make it happen was a world war and a massive labor shortage.

She’s Making History, Working For Victory

As World War II got underway, the United States was still struggling to emerge from the Great Depression. In 1939, unemployment was around 17 percent. But as war spending grew and millions of young men joined the military, the unemployment rate plunged. By 1943, it was 1.9 percent. “Full employment” is generally considered to be about 4.6 percent.

At the same time, the United States’ burgeoning war industries needed more and more people to build ships and planes and make bullets and bombs, while others were needed to work the fields and farms to help sustain the troops.

As the war effort expanded, the full-time, decentlypaid jobs once held almost exclusively by white men were being filled by other workers. One of the groups suddenly invited into the world of men’s work was women.

Women were soon building ships at the New England Shipbuilding Corp. in South Portland, making fabric for parachutes in Brunswick and filling other once male-dominated jobs in other Maine communities. Ideally, industry wanted single or childless women. But by 1943, it had become clear that if companies wanted to keep up with the war demand, they would have to begin hiring women with children too.

So What’s To Be Done?

Between 1940 and 1944, women’s labor force participation grew by half. By 1944, about 19 million women were working outside the home, and about 12 percent of them had kids under 10.

Clearly, something needed to be done. That something ended up involving funds from the Lanham Act, officially known as the Defense Housing and Community Facilities and Services Act of 1940. It was intended to be used to build schools, playgrounds, public health and other facilities in communities dealing with an influx of wartime workers. In Maine, these included South Portland, Bath, Brunswick and Kittery.

It was also temporary, and only for communities with a specific war-related need. That helped quell resistance to the idea of using federal money for child care.

The Lanham centers would say open “for the duration,” with an eye toward supplying labor for the war effort, and then, when the war ended, they would be closed.

While they lasted, the Lanham centers did things that had not been done before: they were “nursery schools” and hired trained teachers at a time when this was very unusual. And they were open to everyone regardless of income, unlike today’s Head Start program and its previous iterations, specifically targeting low-income earners. Thus, the Lanham centers did not carry the sigma of poverty associated with previous public child care programs.

The Lanham Act schools had a limited reach, but they proved that a system that combined local control with federal funding, and which yielded generally positive results, could be built in a short time.

So How Did This Play Out In Maine?

Brunswick Day Nursery School opened in Oct. 1943 with professional staff and volunteers and initially enrolled 21 students. That same month, Verney Brunswick mills, which made rayon for parachutes used in the war, was advertising in the Brunswick Record that the Brunswick Day Nursery School is “now open every week day, offering responsible care for children while their mothers work in essential war jobs.”

In 1944, the city used about $30,000 in Lanham Act funds to build an addition to an already existing school for the new nursery school. In its school report that year, Brunswick described it as “the only building of its kind built by the Federal Works Agency in the East if not the entire country.”

The nursery school served women working in Brunswick and other nearby communities. And they did not just work in war industries — they were nurses, teachers, restaurant workers, secretaries and beauticians. Registration was open to all women who worked outside the home.

By 1945, the school had six employees, six volunteers and 21 children between the ages of 2 and 4 attending. It served a “vitamin teeming” hot lunch, free play with educational toys, naps and playground time. According to the Brunswick Record in July of that year, it was “considered the outstanding nursery school in New England” by federal authorities.

“The government is striving to acquaint more people with the excellent facilities of the school, and all working mothers are invited to take advantage of its opportunities,” the paper reported. Scheduling was flexible, and the cost was $4.50 a week — less, the paper points out, than the cost of food.

But just a month later, two weeks after V-J Day, there was bad news for the nursery school. On Aug. 30, 1945, in a dramatic headline, the Brunswick Record reported that the plans to close the nursery school due to the end of Lanham Act funding “Appals (sic) Working Mothers.”

The front-page article went on to make a case both for continuing Brunswick’s nursery school and in favor of the concept of nursery school more generally.

“As it stands,” the paper reported, “more than 25 children between the ages of two and five will henceforth be subjected to the more or less hit-or-miss care of any hired help which individual mothers are able to find, or these mothers will have to forfeit their job.”

It went on to point out that most of the mothers did not work in war industries, so their jobs would not be going away, and even those who did might want to continue working to support returning soldiers, who “will need months in which to rest up and become oriented again to a peace time world. Some will find readjustment a difficult period in which financial support by the wife would be very helpful.”

The article also described the value of the school as “unchallenged,” and said the schedule at the school would make “the most particular mother” envious. “Many Brunswick mothers claim that their children eat and sleep better, are happier and more mature from the daily routine and the experience of cooperative living at the Brunswick Nursery School.”

The backlash against the impending Lanham center closures — not just in Brunswick, but across the country — was effective for a time. The FWA extended Lanham Act funding for the nursery schools until March 1946.

And as it became clear more federal funds would not be forthcoming, there was some effort to keep the Brunswick school open with local funding. But on March 2, 1946, it closed for good. Now the former space houses a community center.

Why Did This Happen?

The popular narrative around the end of World War II is that men came home and took their jobs back, women returned to homemaking, industry prospered and everyone settled into having babies.

The picture is more complicated. Many women who entered the workforce during the war both wanted and needed to keep working. But in the first eight months after V-J Day, 4 million women were laid off or otherwise found themselves unemployed.

Getting women out of the workforce was thought by many to be an essential part of preventing massive unemployment, and even another Great Depression. At the same time, the cultural attitude toward women working outside the home was turning negative. Women were being urged to leave Rosie the Riveter behind.

The changing rhetoric around women and work at this point, says Bowdoin Historian Charles Dorn, had to do not only with already existing attitudes about individualism, the family and work, but also with the American rationale for getting into the war in the first place.

“America had an isolationist tendency … and so the Roosevelt administration had to really offer up a reason for why America should be in this war,” says Dorn, who has written on the period. “And one of the defining claims was that this was a war to defend the American way of life … and that included family values. And as defined at the time, family values were mothers in the home raising their kids.”

But the “American way of life” didn’t stop women from working. After a short lull between 1945 and 1947, the percentage of women in the workforce continued to rise. In 1944, 37 percent of the workforce was female. It dropped after the war ended, but was back up to 33 percent by 1950; and by 1960, it was nearly 38 percent. Today, close to half of the U.S. workforce is female.

But even in 1947 — when fewer women were were working outside the home than had been during the height of the war — the Social Work Yearbook noted that “the extent of need for day care services is greater now than in 1941, because of the increased number of homes in which the mother is the sole or major support of the child or must work to supplement the father’s earnings.”

After the war, Dorn says, politicians fell back on the “emergency” nature of the nursery schools. The prevailing view, he says, was, “Now that the war is over, the mothers of young kids should be back in the home, taking care of their kids. And in many states, very, very successful nursery schools were shut down rather quickly.”

In 1961, a survey of employers found that “they would not like to see the Federal Government involved in [child care]. Things are too socialistic now and no one wants to see what is happening to children in Russia take place in the United States. They believe that children of working mothers are treated like calves in the U.S.S.R.”

Dorn says that the U.S. had long been uncomfortable with the idea of a “welfare state” and its communal associations, and this attitude became even more pronounced after the war.

In 1971, President Richard Nixon vetoed the bipartisan Comprehensive Child Development Act, which would have established a network of nationally funded, locally administered, comprehensive child care centers. Nixon described it as “the most radical piece of legislation” to emerge from Congress that year, saying it 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.”

Later, similar concerns helped sink child care subsidy proposals by presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Current 2020 presidential candidates are debating whether providing federal subsidies for child care is “socialism.”

But socialism or not, the federal government’s limited experiment in the 1940s with public child care was a clear success. In a 2017 study of the long-term outcomes for kids who attended Lanham Act nursery schools, University of Arizona Public Policy researcher Chris Herbst finds that they were “more likely to be employed, to have higher earnings and to be less likely to receive cash assistance as adults.” He also found that this was particularly the case for children from lower-income homes.

And the program was beloved by parents. In one California community survey, 100 percent of responding mothers whose children attended Lanham nursery schools said their children had enjoyed the experience; and 87 percent said nursery schools should be established in all school districts, open to nonemployed as well as employed mothers.

And in Brunswick, BIW worker and mother of three Louise Duffy told the Bath Iron Works Corp. Bulletin in 1944 that she wished “I could tell everyone about the school. When I go home I can sleep, knowing that [my children] are well taken care of. They have such good food and take their naps, and best of all, they learn to share with each other. I don’t know what I’d do without this nursery school.”

Maine Public’s Deep Dive: Childcare in Maine is made possible, in part, by the John T. Gorman Foundation and United Way’s Women United.