Vol. 24 No. 9 (September 2014) pp. 500-503

by Elizabeth Palley and Corey S. Shdaimah. New York: New York University Press. 2014. 276pp. Cloth $30.00. ISBN: 9781479862658.

Reviewed by Jenny Diamond Cheng, Vanderbilt University Law School,

As difficult as it is to explain a political event, it may be even more challenging to explain a nonevent. In their ambitious new book, IN OUR HANDS: THE STRUGGLE FOR U.S. CHILD CARE POLICY, professors of social work Elizabeth Palley and Corey Shdaimah tackle the question of why there has been no large-scale social movement for universal government-supported child care in the United States. Drawing on literature from various related disciplines, as well as their own interviews with policy advocates, the authors conclude that any push for universal child care in this country will require concerted political action towards a generally more expansive vision of government's appropriate role.

Palley and Shdaimah begin from the premise that the absence of a universal child care policy in the U.S. is a phenomenon that warrants explanation. The authors argue that the current system, in which each family must individually navigate a patchwork of private, often substandard, child care options, amounts to "a major social welfare crisis" (p. 6). They note that while child care problems are undoubtedly more acute for lower-income families, nearly all American parents struggle to find accessible, affordable, high-quality care for their young children. Other industrialized countries have addressed this as a public concern. Why, they ask, has there been so little political mobilization for change in the United States?

The first two-thirds or so of the book are devoted to an overview of the political landscape. Drawing on research from a wide range of scholars, the authors trace the history of child care policy in the U.S. Palley and Shdaimah suggest that public policy debates have been characterized by “a continued ambivalence about the appropriate role and purpose of government in child care and early education of young children” (p. 47). They detail the political testimony behind key pieces of federal legislation; these include Head Start, the Comprehensive Child Development Act (CCDA) of 1971, which would have funded universal preschool but was vetoed by President Nixon, the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (a.k.a ‘welfare reform’), and the Family and Medical Leave Act.

The authors argue that the current patchwork of state and federal programs "is predicated on . . . [a] causal story . . . that parents’ need for child care is an unusual, unexpected, or temporary condition” (p. 118). Programs such as Head Start and the Child Care Development Fund are designed for families in poverty, and federal and state parental leave laws offer only very restricted, time-limited protections to a subset of new parents. This is in sharp contrast to the vision of universal child care that motivated the CCDA back in the early 1970s, let alone the far more robust child care policies in other highly industrialized economies.

Palley and Shdaimah go on to heighten this contrast, detailing not only the shortcomings of the contemporary U.S. child care framework but also offering brief overviews of possible alternatives. They emphasize that government-supported child care policy takes many forms, some of which might be better suited to the American context than others. Social welfare-oriented Western European nations such as France, Sweden, and Denmark provide substantial universal child care support, of course, but the authors note that countries like England and Canada, which have more market-based economies, [*501] also offer models of successful child care policies that the U.S. might do well to emulate. Indeed, Palley and Shdaimah describe two domestic programs that already provide subsidized, high-quality child care: the U.S. military child care system; and Educare, a public-private partnership that supports care for low-income children. Such programs, they suggest, might offer preliminary models for a more universal national child care policy.

In the last third of the book, the authors present their own original data, the results of a study of child care and early education activists. Palley and Shdaimah interviewed twenty-three advocates and researchers in the area, asking them about their organizations’ efforts and challenges. Drawing on these surveys, the authors seek to explain why advocacy organizations have not coalesced around a broader social movement for universal child care.

One key problem, according to Palley and Shdaimah, is that child care advocates are divided amongst themselves about priorities and strategies. Some organizations identify child care as primarily about work support for parents, especially poor mothers. Others are mainly concerned with improving the quality of care. A number of policy advocates have tried to reframe child care as ‘early childhood education,’ particularly for low-income children, on the theory that public educational services for three- and four-year olds are more politically palatable than government-funded babysitting for infants. Other activists disagree with this approach and have concentrated on custodial care.

The authors note that the activists they interviewed do, in fact, often work together. Furthermore, their interview subjects overwhelmingly supported a broader vision of government-supported universal child care. However, believing universal care to be simply of out of the realm of political possibility, many advocates feel as though they have no choice but to focus on narrower goals. In particular, many of the respondents have strongly prioritized support for low-income families, for both practical and ideological reasons. Philanthropic priorities and strategies further reinforce this fragmentation.

Palley and Shdaimah conclude the book with a passionate call for redefining child care as an urgent, public problem. They argue that this requires, above all, strong advocacy for a more expansive vision of government itself. Progressives must push back against a conservative movement that has successfully defined government as the problem and has fiercely opposed both taxation and public spending. Universal child care can only happen as part of such a bigger social movement. "Ultimately," they conclude, "we do not need more information or more models and we do not need minor changes to existing policies. We need a revolution" (p. 220).

This book's main contribution, and it is a valuable one, is to illuminate some of the specific organizational and strategic hurdles that lie in the way of a universal, government-supported child care system. Many commentators have lamented the United States’ failure to establish such a system, and indeed, as noted above, the first part of this book is mainly a synthesis of the substantial literature examining child care policy both outside and inside the U.S. However, Palley and Shdaimah's research into what child care advocates actually think about their own work brings a unique perspective on this issue. Their discussion of these interviews, which happily includes a number of quotes from subjects, is both interesting and thought-provoking. Based on this research, the authors are able to offer a remarkably fine-grained critique of current advocacy efforts, along with very specific recommendations for change. Indeed, at a moment when quantitative research methods seem to increasingly dominate the social science world, this work is a useful reminder that for some questions, there is simply no [*502] substitute for systematic, thoughtful, qualitative research.

IN OUR HANDS was clearly a labor of love for its two authors. Both Palley and Shdiamah's interest in child care policy evolved out of their respective research in other areas of child and educational policy, but just as importantly, they are themselves both mothers of young children. In notable departures from academic convention, they make a point of thanking their children's caretakers and teachers by name in the acknowledgments, they mention their children in their author descriptions, and the book ends with a short afterword in which Palley and Shdaimah briefly describe their personal struggles to find affordable, high-quality childcare. The book is scholarly in tone and scope, but there is an underlying note of urgency that amplifies the authors' arguments

In constructing their survey, Palley and Shdaimah reached out to groups that they assumed would oppose government-supported universal child care, mainly conservative pro-business organizations. However, only one opponent – Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum -- was willing to participate in the study. Through no fault of their own, then, the authors' research therefore overwhelmingly reflects the perspectives of advocates who, like the authors themselves, strongly support a much more expansive federal family policy.

This is unfortunate, because at times the book's commitment to a particular normative vision seems to obscure some important complexities. Some commentators have noted, for example, that from certain perspectives the American small-government, market-oriented approach to family policy has actually been quite successful. Political scientist Kimberly Morgan, who has closely compared child care policies in several Western European countries and the U.S., points out that the American system has resulted in both relatively high rates of maternal employment and a lively market for child care services, both for-profit and nonprofit (Morgan 2006). Furthermore, while in some countries low birth rates have been an impetus for national family policies, the United States continues to have one of the highest fertility rates among developed nations (Central Intelligence Agency).

This is certainly not to say that the authors' critique of the status quo is unfounded. As Palley and Shdaimah emphasize, the current system has devastating consequences for low-income families. Indeed, Morgan too suggests that the U.S. model benefits higher-income women at the expense of poorer women, not least of all child care workers themselves. And the authors' core argument, that advocates must work to reframe child care as a public rather than a private issue if they are to make any meaningful political progress at all, seems unassailable.

However, contrary to Palley and Shdaimah's claim that "we do not need . . . more models," the best hope for a more comprehensive child care system in the United States may in fact require just that. Edward Zigler, who, as the first head of the Office for Child Development and chief of the Children's Bureau, helped to draft the 1971 Comprehensive Child Development Act, has asserted that today, such legislation would be "unrealistic both pragmatically and politically" (Zigler, Marsland and Lord 2009). Any workable U.S. child care program will have to be tailored to the particular realities of this country, which include substantial ethnic, economic, and religious diversity, a tradition (albeit somewhat waning) of local control of education; and a relatively flexible economy. In the end, this may well be the work of policy wonks, rather than revolutionaries, after all.

IN OUR HANDS is a thoughtful, carefully written book that is a welcome addition to the literatures on child care policy, social movement theory and organizational politics. [*503]


Central Intelligence Agency. "The World Factbook." (September 2, 2014).


Zigler, Edward, Katherine Marsland, and Heather Lord. 2009. THE TRAGEDY OF CHILD CARE IN AMERICA. New Haven: Yale University Press.

©Copyright 2014 by the author, Jenny Diamond Cheng.