It was one of the more surprising presidential vetoes in U.S. history. Having passed Congress in 1971 with bipartisan support (and with input from the Nixon administration), the Comprehensive Child Development Act arrived on President Richard Nixon’s desk with decent prospects. The country was poised to rebuild the national child-care system it had built during—and abandoned after—World War II.
But it was not to be. In announcing his decision to veto the bill, Nixon warned that a universal child-care system 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.” The veto bolstered conservative skepticism of public funding of child care, which has helped stymie efforts to expand early-childhood education ever since.
Today, the U.S. is somewhat of an outlier among developed countries, which tend to offer more-substantial public support for paid parental leave and child care. The Canadian province of Quebec, for example, is two decades into a policy experiment that provides generous parental leave, monthly cash benefits families can use for their children, and a heavily subsidized child-care system. The politique familiale (“family policy”)—which was launched in 1997 with a policy brief entitled Les enfants au cœur de nos choix, or “children at the heart of our choices”—shows how such programs can be framed as economic imperatives. It also reveals that a universal child-care system doesn’t have to be a singular, unitary institution: It can be delivered via numerous different types of care centers, both public and private.