History Of U.S. Children’s Policy, 1900-Present

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History of U.S. Children’s Policy,1900-PresentBY ANDREW L. YARROW, PUBLIC AGENDAAPRIL, 2009“Children are our most valuable natural resource.”- President Herbert Hoover1“It must not for a moment be forgotten that the core of any social plan must be the child.”- President Franklin Roosevelt2uring the last century—since the Progressive Era and the first White House Conference on Childrenin 1909—the federal government has vastly expanded its role in promoting the welfare of America’schildren and youth. While families remain the bulwark for successful child development, and states,localities, and a host of private entities provide services to infants, children, youth, and their families, thefederal government has long supported and provided services ranging from health care to education andenforces a wide range of laws and regulations to protect and enhance the well-being and rights of Americansunder age 21.3DThis essay offers a brief survey of the development of federal policies affecting children and families from theearly 20th century to the early 21st century. The focus is on federal legislation and important federal courtdecisions; state policy developments largely are excluded.THE AMERICAN CHILD IN 1900:THE SETTING FOR PROGRESSIVE REFORMThe turn of the 20th century was a time ofprofound transition both in the status of childrenin American life and in the role of the federalgovernment in child policy. Childhood increasinglywas seen as a developmentally distinct stage of life,and children were viewed with greatertenderness—reflecting a new, middle class belief inchildhood’s importance and concern withchildren’s vulnerability.4 Concurrently, the federalgovernment was becoming much more involved inimplementing policies to promote the welfare ofAmericans, young and old.Social dislocations of the late 19th century, sparkedby rapid industrialization, population growth,urbanization, and immigration, together with theeconomic crises of the late 1870s and 1890s, led tosocial reform movements in the 1890s and duringthe Progressive Era at the beginning of the 20thcentury. With respect to children, many reformersbecame part of a diffuse “child-saving” movementto combat the real and perceived problems of poorchild health, abusive child labor, delinquency,poverty, failed families, and the institutionalizationFirst Focus 1.

of children. Progressivism, which had manystrands, encompassed private and public-sectorefforts to ameliorate suffering and injustices; a newfaith in the ability of science to address socialproblems; and strengthening the moral fiber ofAmericans of all ages. These threads informedmuch of the advocacy and federal and state policyin areas ranging from child labor and education tocare of dependent children and child and maternalhealth.thIndeed, at the turn of the 20 century, U.S. childmortality rates were high, millions of children wereemployed, school attendance was low, poverty waswidespread, and countless children dependent onthe community languished in almshouses andorphanages. Such institutions, created in part tohouse Civil War orphans, were already in declineby 1900, as reformers sought to place orphans—aswell as many children in poor families—in eitherchild-specific institutions or middle-class homes asfoster children. By 1910, more than 1,150institutions, with varying conditions, held 150,000children. The health of young children wasabysmal by modern standards, as about 1 in 4children in 1900 died by age 5. Likewise, twomillion children between the ages of 10 and 15worked in factories, on farms, and on urbanstreets.At the same time, educational reformers debatedthe relative merits of seeing education as amechanism for social and moral change, as JohnDewey argued, or more strictly as a process toinstill basic knowledge and cultivate needed skills.School attendance and the number of schools hadincreased sharply between 1870 and 1900, yet only8 percent of high school-age children were inschool in 1900, and most children of all agesattended school only irregularly. While vast stridesin expanding school attendance occurred duringthe first two decades of the 20th century, little ofthis progress could be attributed to federal policy.The Bureau of Education, established in theDepartment of the Interior after the Civil War,served mainly to collect school enrollment andfinancial data. 51909 WHITE HOUSE CONFERENCE ONTHE CARE OF DEPENDENT CHILDRENThe first White House conference on childrengrew out of growing public sentiment to protectthe welfare of dependent children. The 1909conference, conceived and organized by lawyerJames West for President Theodore Roosevelt,focused on the harmful effects of institutionalizingdependent and neglected children, and urged thepromotion of child well-being within families andby private charities, rather than by government.Reacting to the horrors of almshouses andorphanages, the 200 attendees concurred thatpoverty alone should not be a reason for removingchildren from their families. The conference issuednine major proposals, among them to establish anational foster care program, expand adoptionagencies, and provide mothers’ pensions to keeppoor families intact. This last recommendation wasadopted by 20 state legislatures between 1911 and1913. Attendees and social reformers such asconsumers’ and workers’ advocate Florence Kelleyand Lillian Wald, organizer of the Henry StreetSettlement in New York, also won Roosevelt’ssupport for creating the first federal children’sagency dedicated to protecting the welfare of thenation’s children.First Focus 2.

THE CHILDREN’S BUREAUCHILD LABOR REFORMMassachusetts Sen. Winthrop Crane introducedlegislation to create a federal Children’s Bureau,first in 1906 and again after the 1909 White HouseConference. Its proposed mission was to monitorstate legislation affecting children, and to gatherand disseminate data on child welfare. Earlier,private charities and states had initiated efforts toprotect children during the 19th century, but manystates—even into the early 20th century—bundledchild protection with animal protection or boardsof correction, or both. Roosevelt told Congressthat he would “most heartily urge” theestablishment of a Children’s Bureau, and IdahoSen. William Borah reintroduced a bill to createsuch an entity within the Department ofCommerce and Labor. In 1912, Congress passedthe legislation and President William Taft signed itinto law.Between the 1880s and 1930s, few issues sodominated the nation’s social reform agenda aslimiting and outlawing child labor. Late 19thcentury industrialization led to significant increasesin child labor, to the point that one-third ofSouthern mill workers in 1900 were children, andone-fifth of all U.S. children between 10 and 15were employed.7 By 1899, 28 states had passedsome child-labor legislation, with Colorado andNew York taking the lead in the 1880s. However,most were limited to manufacturing industries andonly restricted the labor of children under the ageof 12. Progressive Era reformers ranging fromJohn Dewey and psychologist G. Stanley Hall tothe National Child Labor Committee, organized in1904, attacked child labor as exploitative, hinderingeducation, and harming child development.President Roosevelt, in 1904, called for a nationalinvestigation into child labor conditions, whichCongress authorized in 1907. A first bill to preventemployment of children in factories and mines wasunsuccessfully introduced in Congress in 1906.The Children’s Bureau, which became operationalunder the new U.S. Department of Labor in 1913,was charged with investigating and reporting“upon all matters pertaining to the welfare ofchildren and child life among all classes” and helpstate and local agencies protect children fromabuse and neglect, although it had little power toaffect children’s lives.6 During the Administrationof President Woodrow Wilson, the Bureauexpanded, helped professionalize child-welfareadvocacy, and conducted notable studies of infantmortality and other aspects of child health. JuliaLathrop, the first woman to lead a federal agency,served for nine years as the small bureau’s firsthead. The Bureau remains in existence as part ofthe Department of Health and Human Services’Administration on Youth and Families.By the 1910s, the Committee, working with theChildren’s Bureau, mobilized a vast publicrelations and lobbying campaign that led topassage of the Keating-Owen Act of 1916. Itprohibited interstate commerce in goodsmanufactured by children. Supported by PresidentWilson, the legislation was ruled unconstitutionalby the Supreme Court in 1920. During World WarI, the federal War Labor Policies Board prohibitedthe use of government contractors that employedchildren. Efforts were launched in the 1920s byorganizations such as the American Federation ofLabor and the National Consumers’ League for aConstitutional amendment outlawing child labor.First Focus 3.

Introduced in 1924, the amendment was defeated.Nonetheless, advocates could claim success in thatevery state had enacted at least minimal child laborreforms by 1920, and the percentage of childrenworking began to rapidly decline—to just 5percent—by 1930.8OTHER PROGRESSIVE REFORMSThe influx of southern and eastern Europeanimmigrants between the late 19th century andWorld War I led many reformers to advocate for“Americanization” through the teaching of Englishand American cultural norms. The U.S. Bureau ofNaturalization taught immigrant children andadults basic information about the United States aswell as ways to become more naturalized membersof American society.At the same time that child labor increasingly wasseen as a scourge and educators pushed forexpanded, more humanistic education for children,rapid industrial development prodded federallawmakers to support increased vocational trainingfor youth. With support from business, Congresspassed the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917 to makefederal funds available for classes and programs toteach young Americans various job-specific skills.Always controversial, vocational educational was—and is—viewed by many as an inferior “track” tomore academic schooling.Juvenile justice was another significant area ofchild-oriented Progressive Era reform. Many sawthe need for distinct judicial standards andprocedures given the increasingly acceptedrecognition that children and adolescents wereemotionally and intellectually different from adults.Seeing the failures both of many reform schoolsand the adult criminal-justice system in addressingthe special needs of troubled and delinquentchildren, Illinois became the first state, in 1899, toprovide special trials and detention procedures forjuveniles.By the late 1910s, virtually all states had establishedjuvenile courts. Youth were no longer tried as adultoffenders, and states assumed a parens patriae, orguardian, role. Many states authorized children’said societies to represent children’s legal interests.Bernard Flexner, an early Zionist leader, and RogerNash Baldwin, the first director of the AmericanCivil Liberties Union, were instrumental advocates,saying: “The whole function of the probation andsupervision of delinquent and neglected children iscoming to be recognized as a positive method oftreatment,”9 reflecting the increased medicalizationof issues previously seen in moral terms.1919 WHITE HOUSE CONFERENCEON STANDARDS OF CHILD WELFAREPresident Wilson declared 1919 as the “Children’sYear,” and convened the second White Houseconference on children, with meetings held inWashington and eight other cities. It focused onsetting minimum standards for child and maternalhealth, labor, and needy children. The conferenceproduced a comprehensive report on children’sneeds, with particularly detailed recommendationsfor the care of infants and mothers. Julia Lathropadvanced the idea that the federal governmentshould provide grants to states for educationalprograms to reduce infant and maternal mortality.First Focus 4.

THE 1920STHE 1929-30 WHITE HOUSE CONFERENCEON STANDARDS OF CHILD WELFAREThis latter proposal bore fruit in the 1921 passageof the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and InfancyProtection Act. It empowered the federalgovernment to oversee and provide matchingfunds to states for centers to disseminate healthinformation under the aegis of a Board ofMaternity and Infant Hygiene. Supported by thenew League of Women Voters but opposed by theAmerican Medical Association and challenged inthe Supreme Court, funding was allowed to expirein 1929.The emergence of a consumer culture and newmass communications media such as motionpictures and radio in the early 20th century not onlyhad profound impacts on children and families,but began to engage the courts and federal policymakers. Several federal court decisions during the1910s mostly unsuccessfully tried to limit theability of jurisdictions to censor “obscene” moviecontent that could “create a harmful impression onthe minds of children.”10 At least a dozen billswere introduced in Congress in the 1910s and1920s to create an agency within the InteriorDepartment’s Bureau of Education to censor filmsshown to children. Although Hollywood studioswere pushed to create their own self-censorshipmechanism in the Hays Office, proposals tolicense or monitor the content of moviescontinued in the wake of 1920s and 1930sromantic, gangster, and musical films.The Progressive impulse to improve children’shealth, education, and morality largely languishedduring the 1920s, until the Hoover Administration.President Herbert Hoover convened the thirdWhite House conference on children to “study thepresent status of the health and well-being of thechildren of the United States and its possessions;to report what is being done; [and] to recommendwhat ought to be done and how to do it.”11 Thismassive undertaking brought together expertsacross the country over a 16-month period,culminating in a November 1930 Washingtonmeeting. Four committees—focusing on medical,public health, education and training, and disabilityissues—issued a 643-page report to 3,000attendees and the public, as well as a 32-volume,10,511-page set of appendices. A Children’sCharter made 19 proposals, calling for increasedscientific research to improve child well-being, andpublic assistance to 10 million mentally andphysically “deficient” children. Labor SecretaryJames Davis called for special federal efforts tohelp “socially handicapped children—those infoster homes, the juvenile justice system, and blackand Indian children.12THE NEW DEAL AND WORLD WAR IINo era in U.S. history has been characterized bygreater change and expansion in the role of thefederal government than during FranklinRoosevelt’s presidency, from the New Dealthrough World War II. As a result of programsintended to assist millions of Americans and pullthe economy out of the Great Depression, federalFirst Focus 5.

spending rose from about 3 percent of nationaloutput in 1929 to 10 percent in 1939, soaring to ahistoric peak of 44 percent of GDP by 1944 tofund the U.S. war effort. Child-labor, youthemployment, day care, education, and maternitycare laws were enacted under FDR, but the mostsignificant New Deal policy development affectingchildren and families—and all Americans—was theSocial Security Act of 1935.SOCIAL SECURITYAmerica’s landmark social insurance program wasintended to alleviate poverty and provide not onlyretirement security for the elderly but othersupport for needy segments of the population,including children. The principle of socialinsurance, as it has developed since the Bismarckera in late 19th-century Germany, is to insurepeople against defined risks such as old age,disability, unemployment, and death. When FDRsigned the Social Security Act on August 14, 1935,he said: “We can never insure 100 percent of thepopulation against 100 percent of the hazards andvicissitudes of life, but we have tried to frame a lawwhich will give some measure of protection to theaverage citizen and to his family against the loss ofa job and against poverty-ridden old age.”Although Social Security initially providedretirement benefits to workers in businesses with10 or more workers, the program was expandedthroughout the succeeding seven decades to coverever more Americans. Amendments in 1939 addedbenefit payments to the spouse and minor childrenof a retired worker and survivors’ benefits todependents of an eligible retiree who had died.While Titles I and III of Social Security providedbenefits to retirees and the unemployed,respectively, Title IV was designed to help needyfamilies and their children. Drafted with theassistance of Grace Abbott, chief of the Children’sBureau, this provision enabled the Bureau to makematching grants to state child-welfare agencies tosupport children under 16 who had lost one orboth parents.Title IV’s Part A created the Aid to DependentChildren (ADC) program, later changed to Aid forFamilies with Dependent Children (AFDC). Itprovided cash assistance to low-income familiesuntil 1997, when it was superseded by theTemporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF)program. Federalizing efforts by some 45 states toprovide limited aid to mothers during thepreceding quarter century, ADC provided meanstested benefits but also added moralisticrequirements; the stricture that recipients live in a“suitable home” initially excluded most singleparent families. The program, which was notaccepted by all states until the mid-1940s, wasexpanded during the 1950s and 1960s, helpingmillions of children, even though only a fraction ofthose eligible ever received benefits. Despite thefact that aid for disadvantaged children was seen assecondary to Social Security’s original intent, FDRjustified ADC’s creation, and his Committee onEconomic Security declared in early 1935: “It mustnot for a moment be forgotten that the core of anysocial plan must be the child. . . Old-age pensionsare in a real sense measures in behalf ofchildren.”13Title V of the Social Security Act, alsoadministered by the Children’s Bureau (whichremained a part of the Department of Labor until1946), provided grants to states to promote theFirst Focus 6.

health of poor mothers and children. Title Vinitially supported state “crippled children’sservices, maternal and child health services, andchild welfare services,” but also was amended andexpanded over succeeding decades. This titleenabled federal dollars to support state efforts “forthe protection and care of homeless, dependent,and neglected children, and children in danger ofbecoming delinquent.” During the first four yearsafter Social Security was enacted, federal grants forchild and maternal health, disabled children, andother child-welfare programs increased 73percent.14The Works Progress Administration (WPA)established “emergency nursery schools” for 2-to4-year-olds of parents eligible for other federalrelief. By 1937, before the initiative ended, about40,000 children were enrolled in 1,500 federallyfunded preschools. The WPA and the FederalSurplus Commodities Corporation also fundedschool lunches for up to several million lowincome children, as well as the construction of1,600 nursery schools and 2,000 playgrounds. Inaddition, the federal Office of Education wasmoved in 1939 from the Interior Department tothe new Federal Security Agency, where it wasgiven more autonomy.OTHER NEW DEAL/WORLD WAR IIWorld War II brought additional federal supportfor child care. Under an amendment to theCommunity Facilities (or Lanham) Act in 1942, theFederal Works Agency provided 50 percent of thefunding for nursery schools for poor children,creating jobs for unemployed teachers, nurses, andothers. Before the Act was terminated in 1946, itfinanced day care and after-school care forhundreds of thousands of children.CHILD-POLICY INITIATIVESEarly New Deal initiatives such as the CivilianConservation Corps (CCC) included eveningvocational and academic programs for youth atnearly 1,500 CCC camps acros

Social dislocations of the late 19th century, sparked by rapid industrialization, population growth, urbanization, and immigration, together with the economic crises of the late 1870s and 1890s, led to social reform movements in the 1890s and during the Progressive Era at the beginning of the 20th century. With respect to children, many reformers

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