During my freshman year, I spent hours each week organizing legal records of the Atlanta Public Defenders. Certain that I was destined for law school, I made this commitment because I wanted to work in the criminal justice system. Contained within the boxes were the records of men sitting on Georgia’s death row. Like an amateur detective, I read through the documents and pieced together decades worth of medical, school, and police records in order to create portraits of these incarcerated men as young boys. I found a pattern of troubled childhoods, and often left the office feeling outraged for the boys who had long since grown into adults. Through that experience, I became extremely interested in social inequalities in early life and successful governmental interventions to combat the potential negative consequences of those inequalities.
Childcare is the government intervention that will be the focus of my research for the Presidential Fellowship. Over the past century, the structure of life for the American child has changed radically. Many children now spend a substantial portion of their lives in a childcare facility. In the United States, there are more than 11 million children under the age of five that require some form of care outside of the home (NACCRRA 2010). Additionally, recent scientific studies have proven that the first five years of life are pivotal for neurological developmental (Shonkoff 2000). Therefore, the most developmentally significant years, for many modern American children, are now those spent in the childcare system.
Despite the high demand for childcare and the scientifically proven significance of early education, the current status of the American childcare system remains unsatisfactory. The system’s two most serious challenges are affordability and quality. In 40 states, the average cost for a year at a childcare center is more than the annual cost of attending that state’s public university (NACCRRA 2010). In addition to being difficult to afford, childcare systems also lack simple quality standards. This lack of affordable, quality childcare is detrimental to the intellectual development of the child, the workplace performance of the parent, and the progression of our society at large. In comparison to other developed nations, the United States Congress and President have been largely absent in the childcare realm.
My research for the Presidential Fellowship seeks to explore the historical origins of this modern day childcare inequality. I will trace the historical development of the relationship between Sheltering Arms, one childcare facility that has operated in Atlanta for over 100 years, and the federal government, focusing on presidential leadership. Over the course of the 20th century, shifting public opinion related to maternal employment and welfare has dictated much of the federal government’s actions as they relate to childcare. By tracing the evolution of those opinions, I hope to historically locate the current presidential childcare rhetoric regarding the responsibilities of our federal government to its youngest citizens.