The Future of Motherhood and Childhood Under Biden
The value of structured preschool education has been severely questioned, and there are better alternatives.
The apparent determination of some of President Joe Biden’s supporters to recreate the late ’60s is reflected in the administration’s “infrastructure” proposals relating to child day care. These contemplate a program making free full-time preschool available for all three- and four-year-olds at a cost of $200 billion and subsidized day care for children up to age 13, with a maximum family contribution of 7 percent of income, at a cost of $225 billion.
The value of structured preschool education has been severely questioned. Studies of the Head Start program have shown that it is really a jobs program for caretakers that confers few lasting educational benefits. The much-praised Finnish education system begins at age 6; while there is partially subsidized day care for earlier ages, the model for them is supervised play, not structured learning, and the participation rate for day care is among the lowest in Europe.
“Parents, as a rule, are fond of their children, and do not regard them merely as material for political schemes,” Bertrand Russell wrote in 1929. “The State cannot be expected to have this attitude.” The proposals for full-time, government-directed preschool evince hostility to motherhood, childhood, love, and play.
The last serious attempt to have federally funded day care with federal standards was vetoed by President Richard Nixon with a memorable veto message in 1971, decrying placing “the vast moral authority of the national government to the side of communal approaches to child-rearing over against the family-centered approach. Good public policy requires that we enhance both parental authority and parental involvement in those decisive early years when social attitudes and a conscience are formed and religious and moral principles are first inculcated.” He urged “assisting parents to purchase day care in the private open market with federal involvement in direct purchases of such services kept to an absolute minimum.”
This approach was embodied in the system of tax credits for day care, including day care in religious institutions, adopted in 1990. That system however, like the Nixon-era proposal and the current Biden one, made no tax or appropriation concessions to families with stay-at-home parents. The day care systems of several countries, including Canada, Germany, and Norway make concessions to such parents. But one of the avowed objectives of the Biden proposal, as articulated by the head of the Domestic Policy Council, Susan Rice, is to foster macroeconomic objectives by driving women into the work force whether they want to be there or not. This reflects the prejudices of feminists from the professional classes.
A number of important studies from diverse periods suggest that this is not what most mothers of young children want. Stay-at-home mothers might share the restlessness and boredom articulated by Betty Friedan that fueled the feminist movement. Those without all-consuming professional jobs, however, prefer a regime that allows them to perform part-time, half-day work. This was the finding of a pioneering study, “985 Widows,” carried out by the founder of American social work, Mary Ellen Richmond, in the 1920s.
It was also the conclusion of a comprehensive study carried out by the Harold Wilson government in Great Britain in the 1960s, “Central Advisory Committee on Education in England and Wales: Children and Their Primary Schools” under the chairmanship of Lady Plowden, which applauded the system of voluntary preschool playgroups that had grown up in England since the establishment of the Pre-school Learning Alliance under the name the Pre-school Playgroups Association in 1961. These at their peak enrolled 40 percent of the nation’s three- and four-year-olds, and received less than 5 percent of their revenue from government. They have since gone into partial eclipse when the Blair government, in a sop to public employee unions, provided full-time kindergartens as of right, supported by taxes on all families. The Plowden Report had, on the contrary, concluded that “it is generally undesirable to separate mother and child for a whole day in the nursery.” Typical playgroups had 40 children with a paid supervisor and two or three mothers serving in rotation, with costs less than half those of nursery schools.
There have been few studies of the social effects of full-time day care. There are those who contend that young children who do not form emotional ties with someone, usually but not necessarily a parent, are the psychopaths and sociopaths of the future, and even in less extreme cases go through life with less self-confidence.
It seems unlikely that the Biden day care proposals will be enacted. Biden, to his credit, has also endorsed a temporary expansion of the child tax credit, which benefits stay-at-home as well as employed parents, by making it refundable and payable in monthly installments. The Child Tax Credit was originally part of Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America and was expanded during the Trump administration at the insistence of persons as diverse as Senators Bernie Sanders, Mitt Romney, and Mike Lee, as well as Ivanka Trump. It reflects a social consensus similar to that in Germany, Canada, and Norway and is not an exercise in social engineering by radical feminists. A portion of the funds allocated for the Biden preschool and day care proposals would be sufficient to render it permanent.
George Liebmann is president of the Library Company of the Baltimore Bar and author of various works on law and public policy, most recently Vox Clamantis In Deserto (Amazon: 2021) and America’s Political Inventors (Bloomsbury: 2019).