The necessity of these programs, which has been particularly obvious during the pandemic, may prompt some to wonder what has taken so long. One answer is that the New Deal taught Americans what to expect, and what not to expect, from government. Another answer is that social conservatives have long fought to preserve a particular version of family life — one that has never been as common in reality as in the popular imagination.
During World War II, the government needed women to work outside the home, so it created a national day care program. When the war ended, some female workers fought for continued aid, but the federal government shut down the program under pressure from conservative groups like the powerful National Catholic Welfare Conference. Mike Konczal writes in his 2019 book, “Freedom From the Market,” that when the city of Cleveland agreed to continue funding the day care centers, a local judge barred the plan, ruling that it amounted to “an expenditure of public funds for a private purpose.”
In the following decades, the government gradually began to provide support for women considered unable to stay home, but many Americans continued to resist a broader federal subsidy that would allow women to decide for themselves whether they wanted to stay at home with children. In 1971, Congress voted to provide funding for a national system of day care centers. President Richard Nixon, at the urging of advisers, including Pat Buchanan, vetoed the legislation as a threat to “the family in its rightful position as the keystone of our civilization.”
Other peer nations have demonstrated the benefits of the policies the United States is now considering. Female labor force participation has increased in the rest of the developed world in recent decades even as it has declined in the United States; research points to the impact of flexible work rules, paid time off and family care subsidies.
Over the past decade, a growing number of states are demonstrating that what works everywhere else works in the United States, too. Connecticut became the first state to require employers to offer paid sick leave in 2011. Thirteen other states and Washington, D.C., have followed. Nine states and the District of Columbia offer paid family leave. A similar number of states offer prekindergarten to all children, while others have expanded funding.
Mr. Biden, like Franklin Roosevelt before him, has framed the current moment as a test of America’s intertwined commitments to capitalism and democratic government. As in the 1930s, the nation’s democratic foundation must be strengthened for capitalism to thrive. This time around, we need a set of rules that allow men and women to participate.
In the late 19th century, British workers campaigning for a 40-hour workweek circulated a three-panel illustration of a worker at the loom, asleep and reading a newspaper in a rowboat. The slogan read, “8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for what we will.”