- - Sunday, February 1, 2015

Not satisfied with record-level social-welfare spending, President Obama doubled down during the State of the Union Address and a recent visit to the University of Kansas by calling for expanding federal day care subsidies and tripling the child care tax credit. Recalling that Uncle Sam provided “universal child care” for his “Rosie the Riveter” grandmother during World War II, Mr. Obama insisted that government must do likewise today.

Yet the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt never considered its wartime day care policy, or the wartime boost in the labor-force participation by mothers, the ideal. Day care “is a stop gap, not a solution to anything,” quipped Mary Anderson, who ran the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau at the time. Indeed, the agency charged with coordinating state day care facilities during the war, the U.S. Children’s Bureau, made certain that the three-year program was dismantled as soon as the war was over. “The first responsibility of women with young children,” the bureau maintained, “is to give suitable care in their own home to their children.”

But Mr. Obama did not merely overlook the emergency nature of the day care experiment, or Harry S. Truman’s effort to place returning soldiers, airmen and sailors into the high-skilled jobs held by Rosie the Riveter. His obsession with universal day care and preschool as a “must-have” suggests the president wants to jettison a New Deal pillar of middle-class economics. Under the “American Standard,” defined by the architects of the Social Security System, families of even modest circumstances would be fully supported on a single “family-wage,” allowing American youngsters to enjoy a “normal home life” and childhood with married parents and maternal nurture and attention, especially during the preschool years.

That achievement traces its roots to William Howard Taft, who named Julia C. Lathrop the first director of the U.S. Children’s Bureau in 1912. A Progressive-era “maternalist,” Lathrop sought to protect the social sector from the emerging industrial order. Believing that motherhood is “the most important calling in the world,” Lathrop worked tirelessly to give the homemaking mother “the status of a profession,” while simultaneously fighting for “a living wage and wholesome working life for the men” in the fashion of Henry Ford’s pioneering family wage for assembly-line workers.

The legendary Frances Perkins, FDR’s sole labor secretary, fully implemented this uniquely American model of social and economic policy. In contrast to the European or Swedish approach that subordinates the needs of children to a sterile gender equality and fosters dependence on the state rather than the family, the Cabinet secretary closest to the 32nd president integrated the “American Standard” into every New Deal initiative. As social historian Allan Carlson has documented, the homemaker-breadwinner construct shaped not only the Social Security Act of 1935 and its Amendments of 1939, which garnered Republican support for the system, but also the Subsistence Homestead Program, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration, the National Housing Administration, the National Labor Relations of Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

This wonder-working Democratic legacy means nothing to Mr. Obama, who instead heeds Betsey Stevenson of his Council of Economic Advisers. Her model of middle-class economics subordinates the family — and children — to the demands of the market. Clueless to the circumstances and psychology of average American women, most of whom have neither advanced degrees nor high-status careers, Ms. Stevenson presumes that all mothers should follow her footsteps and never think of foregoing the labor force for the sake of forming the next generation. Contradicting Julia Lathrop, who believed “the first and simplest duty of women [in public life] is to safeguard the lives of mothers and babies,” Ms. Stevenson insists that the sooner little ones are dumped into day care, the better. As Mr. Obama shockingly implied last year, having moms nurturing their children at home “is not a choice we want Americans to make.”

Ms. Stevenson and Mr. Obama appear unfamiliar with Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicating the majority of married mothers with children under 18 (53 percent in 2013) do not work full-time outside the home, a consistent pattern since the Current Population Survey first tracked the measure in 1988. The White House also missed Pew Research Center reports indicating that many mothers who do punch the clock would rather work only part-time to spend more time at home. Even mothers who rely on nonmaternal care prefer informal arrangements involving extended family, not the commercial outfits favored by Mr. Obama.

If the president truly cared about middle-class economics, he would dump Ms. Stevenson and her plans to further prop up day care, including the proposed two-earner credit and tripling of the child care tax credit. Instead, he should expand the per-child tax credit (and raise income limits for the generic credit), while granting more parents the benefit of “income-splitting” in the income tax code. Then all families, including the struggling one-earner type championed by the New Dealers, would benefit.

But Mr. Obama also needs to adopt the other half of FDR’s nation-building agenda that paved the way for victory in World War II and America’s postwar glory: creating millions of family-wage jobs, especially for male breadwinners, whose prospects, earnings, and labor-force participation have experienced a near-Depression contraction. As Frances Perkins understood, unless we keep our men fully engaged in providing for their families, we not only put the middle class at risk, but the entire nation.

Robert W. Patterson served in the administrations of President George W. Bush and Gov. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania.

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