German Court Protects Right to Universal Child Care

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WHILE THE UNITED STATES is frantically trying to wake itself up from the nightmare that is the 2016 election cycle, its European neighbors have proven, once again, that they’re woke and willing to tackle reality head-on. In 2013, the German federal legislative body passed a law guaranteeing the right to free childcare for German children over the age of 1. This past Thursday, the German Constitutional Court doubled down on its commitment to providing subsidized childcare to its citizens by ruling that parents may bring civil suits against the towns in which they reside for lost earnings if day care facilities are unable to provide space for their children.

The ruling came about as a result of a suit brought against the city of Leipzig by three German women, who claimed that they were unable to return to work after the births of their children in 2013 and 2014 because no nurseries were unable to provide spaces for their children. Their lawyers argued that the municipal authorities were responsible for ensuring the availability of these spaces, as a result of the 2013 law, and had failed in their duty.

The German courts agreed that the burden of responsibility did indeed fall on the shoulders of the municipalities, and that they could not cite finances as a mitigating factor when it comes to assuring physical space for children, as they are provided with funds to construct the necessary number of child care facilities from both federal and state sources. However, municipalities can dodge liability if the reason for a lack of space is a lack of personnel to staff the facilities; if the city has been found to have made a good-faith effort to recruit childcare professionals but remains unable to do so, they may be absolved of responsibility. Still, the ruling is a win for German parents all over the republic, and forces cities to meet the standards put in place by the 2013 statute.

As fantastical as it might sound, a piece by NPR earlier this month reveals that universal childcare was once a distinct and viable possibility for the United States. In the 1970s, during Richard Nixon’s presidency, childcare was seen as a federal priority, with President Nixon himself proclaiming that “the years between 1 and 5 may affect [a] child for the balance of his life regardless of what may happen after that time.” This astute observation led to the introduction of the Comprehensive Child Development Act, which would create a network of day care centers across the country that were funded completely by the federal government. Buoyed by the civil rights movement of the time, the act would provide the most financial support for those living in poverty. Supported by both Democrats and Republicans, the act was “the most bipartisan piece of legislation” that Sid Johnson, aide to the bill’s main sponsor, saw, according to his interview with NPR.

Unfortunately, though the bill was passed, the ongoing Cold War, the rising threat from Soviet Russia, and lingering fear of communism and socialism from the McCarthy era all worked together to stop the bill in its tracks. Facing pressure from the right over his visit to communist China and facing reelection, President Nixon vetoed the bill when it made its way onto his desk in the Oval Office. While Congress was poised to revamp the bill and then pass it again, Pat Buchanan, a White House adviser who had visited the Soviet Union, seen the Soviet communes where children were educated, and feared the same “fate” for American children, spearheaded the efforts to kill the bill on the basis of ideology. Consigning the responsibility of child development to the federal government, he argued, would lead to “fiscal irresponsibility, administrative unworkability and family weakening.” His argument struck a chord with the conservative wing of the GOP, which would grow in power over the next decades as it structured itself around the idea that it promoted family values, according to Jennifer Ludden, the piece’s author. No bill like the Comprehensive Child Development Act would ever go on to be passed in the United States.

Childcare, and its exorbitant, oftentimes prohibitive costs, have become a key issue in the 2016 election cycle. Some parents have reported paying as much as their mortgage for childcare for just one child. Responding to the needs of working parents of all economic backgrounds across the country, both candidates have included child care reform in their platforms. Hillary Clinton’s plan aims to make preschool universal for every 4-year-old in America, increase federal childcare subsidies and tax relief so that no family has to pay more than 10 percent of its income for childcare, and doubling down on investments in Early Head Start programs. Donald Trump’s plan includes rewriting the tax code to allow working parents extra child care expense deductions, incentivizing employers to provide childcare at the workplace, and providing low-income households a childcare rebate. While we should all feel hopeful that childcare is finally being discussed on a national level, the truth is that both plans fall miles short of the universal, federally subsidized childcare that once could have been the reality in the United States, but will now probably remain a distant dream.