Does America need to go to war in order to commit to the kind of spending that would help equalize the labor force?

In 1943, Congress passed the Lanham Act, which provided $20 million — a lot back then — to provide something close to universal day care in America. You’ve heard of Rosie the Riveter, most likely. Well often, Rosie had kids who needed caring for when she went off to work.

It was then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who pushed to get this experiment in universal day care passed. She understood the needs of working moms perhaps better than any of her successors.

The Lanham Act funding dried up after we won the war and the Greatest Generation returned to a new normal. But today, roughly half of American working families have a hard time finding day care, and when they do, it consumes a chunk of their earnings. Some 57% of working families spend at least $10,000 a year — or 10% of their income — on day care, a career research company found.

Aside from the cost, availability is an issue. More than half of Americans live in “day care deserts.” One-fifth of stay-at-home mothers say they would be working if only they could access, or afford, quality care for their preschool children.

Quality is of course an issue, especially where children are concerned. Day care workers are paid on average between $14-$16 an hour which is on par with, or sometimes less, than the starting pay at McDonald’s. In a system where pay is linked to worth, that means we don’t value the people who take care of our young children as much as we might.

Congress is now putting its final touches on a slimmed down version of President Biden’s “Build Back Better” spending bill, yet for all the virtue-signaling we hear these days about equality and “equity,” no new funds are earmarked for child care. What the federal government does spend is currently funneled into Head Start programs, which serve a purpose but do not meet the need.

The costs from this unmet need add up. By one estimate, they total $98 billion annually — lost wages, lost tax revenue, and associated losses.

Sadly, the days of John McCain and Tom Coburn — two late senators who would call out examples of wasteful government spending every year — are over. But it wouldn’t take an act of reincarnation for someone serving in Congress today to identify a handful of silly spending programs that could be cut to make way for some form of national day care support.

One of the biggest spenders is the Department of Defense, whose employees and contractors are the rightful heirs of the original Lanham Act. Imagine if a pork-driven project like the F-35 were scrapped in favor of something that actually mattered to America’s working families.

If the Pelosi or the Pingree families felt the need for child care that so many working American families do, one wonders if more progress might have been made on this question to date. Perhaps the coming election will serve as the kind of wake-up call Washington today is screaming for in so many ways.

In the meantime, we are an innovative people in many ways and rely on hodge-podge solutions to make it through the week. My neighbor across the street runs a day care out of her home and I’m now on nodding terms with the regular parents who drop off and pick up their children their every weekday. When parents are able to rely on grandparents to help them shoulder the burden, then that, too, is a blessing rich in inter-generational benefits.

Neither of these offers a systemic solution, though. Either we are serious about equal opportunities in the workplace, or we aren’t. It shouldn’t take a war to get us to a commonsense solution.

Sam Patten is a recovering political consultant who was raised in Knox County and worked for Maine’s last three Republican senators.