U.S. Children's Bureau

Progressive reformers Florence Kelley and Lillian Wald are generally credited with coming up with the idea for a federal children's bureau. The NATIONAL CHILD LABOROMMITTEE endorsed the idea in 1905 and the 1909 White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children called for the agency's creation. The Senate passed the Children's Bureau bill by a vote of 54 to 20 and the House passed it by 177 to 17. President William Howard Taft signed legislation on April 8, 1912, establishing the agency within the Department of Commerce and Labor. Taft's signature made the United States the first nation in the world to have a federal agency focused solely on children. The president's naming of Julia C. Lathrop as the bureau's first chief symbolized the important role of female activists in the agency's creation and made Lathrop the first woman to head a federal agency in the United States.

Despite its popularity, the U.S. Children's Bureau faced powerful critics. Some felt that the bureau overstepped federal authority. Manufacturing interests feared that the agency would push for the regulation of CHILD LABOR. Fiscal conservatives contended that the bureau duplicated work already under the jurisdiction of other federal agencies (primarily the U.S. Public Health Service and the Bureau of Education). The Catholic Church warned that the agency might interfere with parochial education or promote birth control. Lathrop sought to quiet criticism by steering clear of partisan politics and focusing on INFANT MORTALITY. Further, under Lathrop's leadership the Children's Bureau embraced the middle-class family ideal: a nuclear family where the father worked as the sole breadwinner, mother served as a full-time housewife, and children attended school, were well-fed and cared for, had a secure future, and labored only at household chores.

With a staff of fifteen and budget of $25,640, the U.S. Children's Bureau relied on data collected by other federal agencies and an army of female volunteers. In 1913 the bureau estimated that the United States' annual infant mortality rate of 132 deaths per 1,000 live births placed it behind New Zealand (83), Norway (94), Ireland (99), Sweden (104), Australia (108), Bulgaria (120), and Scotland (123). Armed with this information, the bureau conducted the nation's first infant mortality study. Staff concluded that poor sanitation, lack of good medical care, and poverty were the major factors contributing to infant deaths. Educating mothers, improving public sanitation, and requiring birth certificates would help save babies' lives. Advice pamphlets published by the bureau became very popular and Congress declared 1918 Children's Year.

In 1921 Congress passed the SHEPPARD-TOWNER MATERNITY AND INFANCY ACT, giving the Children's Bureau administrative authority. Although limited to education, diagnosis, and investigation, by 1926 the Sheppard-Towner Act faced strong opposition from the American Medical Association. The AMA condemned Sheppard-Towner as socialized medicine and disliked the fact that the physician-controlled Public Health Service did not control the program. The Children's Bureau's two physicians, Grace L. Meigs (hired in 1915) and Dorothy Reed Mendenhall (hired in 1917), were not enough to pacify the AMA. Funding ended in 1929, but infant mortality rates had decreased to 67.9 deaths per 1,000 live births.

The Children's Bureau also had an important role in New Deal legislation. Bureau representatives wrote the child welfare sections of the 1935 Social Security Act. Title V provides federal funding for maternal and infant care for poor mothers and children. During World War II Title V expanded to include medical care for the wives and newborns of enlisted men in the military. From 1942 to 1946 one of every seven babies born in the United States benefited from this Emergency Maternity and Infant Health Program. In addition to infant and maternal health care, the 1935 Social Security Act included the AID TO DEPENDENT CHILDREN Program (ADC, later renamed Aid to Families with Dependent Children) and Title VII, which establishes federal funds for handicapped children.

During its first decades of work the Children's Bureau also addressed child labor and those dependent on the state. The 1910 census counted 1,990,225 children under fourteen years of age working for wages (18.4 percent of the total cohort). Beginning in 1915 the bureau lobbied to end the worst abuses of child workers. But the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a 1916 child labor law (the Keating-Owen Act) and a 1922 constitutional amendment was never ratified. The onset of high adult unemployment during the GREAT DEPRESSION led to the first permanent federal restrictions on child labor, included in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. The U.S. Children's Bureau was responsible for enforcing prohibitions on the employment of youngsters less than fourteen years of age and the restrictions on the paid labor of those fourteen through seventeen. Children dependent upon the state or those accused of crimes also drew attention from the Children's Bureau during its early decades of work. By 1920 forty-five of the then forty-eight states had some form of juvenile or family court. Minors charged with delinquency or children whose families could not care for them came before juvenile and family courts.

These victories for children did not end the exploitation or suffering of all American children, nor did they translate to an expanding role for the U.S. Children's Bureau. The Social Security Board (established in 1935) was given authority for administering ADC and the Public Health Service handled Title V's maternal and child health program. Moreover, in 1946 government reorganization lowered the Children's Bureau status within the federal hierarchy, set the stage for the eventual removal of all bureau administrative and regulatory responsibilities, and removed the "U.S." from the agency's name. The bureau relocated again in 1969, this time to the new Office of Child Development in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Since 1972 the Children's Bureau's focus has continued to narrow. By the 1990s the agency was one of four bureaus within the Department of Health and Human Services' Administration on Children, Youth, and Families. With an annual budget of over $4 billion, the Children's Bureau works with state and local agencies to prevent CHILD ABUSE; a role much smaller than its original responsibility to investigate and report on the whole child. Overall, everyday life for American children has improved since 1912. However, at the start of the new millennium, children remain the most likely constituency in the United States to experience abuse, poverty, and exploitation.

See also: Child Guidance; Child Saving; Compulsory School Attendance; Juvenile Justice; Social Welfare; White House Conferences on Children; Work and Poverty.


Goodwin, Joanne L. 1997. Gender and the Politics of Welfare Reform: Mothers' Pensions in Chicago, 1911–1929. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ladd-Taylor, Molly. 1986. Raising Baby the Government Way: Mothers' Letters to the Children's Bureau, 1915–1932. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Ladd-Taylor, Molly. 1994. Mother-Work: Women, Child Welfare, and the State, 1890–1930. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Lemons, J. Stanley. 1973. The Woman Citizen: Social Feminism in the 1920s. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Lindenmeyer, Kriste. 1997. "A Right to Childhood": The U.S. Children's Bureau and Child Welfare, 1912–1946. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Meckel, Richard. 1989. Save the Babies: American Public Health Re-form and the Prevention of Infant Mortality, 1850–1929. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Michel, Sonya. 1999. Children's Interests/Mothers' Rights: The Shaping of America's Child Care Policy. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Muncy, Robyn. 1991. Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform, 1890–1935. New York: Oxford University Press.

Trattner, Walter I. 1970. Crusade for Children: A History of the National Child Labor Committee and Child Labor Reform in America. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.