Roberta Wollons. Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood: In History and Society. Editor: Paula S Fass. Volume 1, Macmillan Reference USA, 2004.
The contemporary idea of childhood in the United States is distinctly domestic: it regards the home and its appendages, such as schools and churches, as the child’s proper places. Although U.S. attitudes toward childhood and children have European roots, approaches to child welfare in parts of Europe and non-Western societies often differ from American attitudes, since they have included the separation of children from their homes for purposes of maturation, apprenticeship, and early employment. From the American view, such practices are aberrant, harmful, and tantamount to abandonment in so far as they fall short of providing children with nurturing, parental home environments. Contemporary Western notions of abandonment sprang from this particular representation of domestic childhood and from normative judgments about a child’s actual and ideal life course.
The Years Prior to the Civil War
Dependent children are those who, through various circumstances, become dependent on private charity or public assistance. In the United States, ideas about children’s welfare were inherited from the English Poor Laws under the principle of parens patriae, whereby the state is the ultimate parent of all children. In the colonial era, this resulted in two forms of relief for dependent children: indoor relief (assistance to parents in the home) and outdoor relief (alternate homes, such as orphanages and poor houses). For most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, public administration was local and the household was the immediate source of authority, with the result that dependents had little direct contact with the state. Many thousands of children were brought to the colonies as indentures and the death rate in the Chesapeake was high for children as well as adults. Consequently, the indenture system tried to maintain household governance and the family system by placing children in homes while training them for future employment. It made little difference whether the child was poor, illegitimate, or orphaned and, regardless of cause, children who were left on their own were regularly indentured or apprenticed. Indenture afforded a reasonable solution to uncared-for children while reducing public responsibility for colonial dependents, including those who were orphaned, whose parents were unfit, or who misbehaved. In 1648 Virginia, for example, following the British model, the state could remove a child from a home with parents who were overly fond or if the child was “perversely obstinate.”
The first private orphan asylum in North America appeared in 1738 in Georgia, and the first public orphanage did not open until a half century later, in 1790, in South Carolina, with 115 orphans. Others followed in New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. The founding of orphanages demonstrates that by the late eighteenth century, congregate alternatives for dependent children were being tried. Whereas binding out and indenture favored the family setting and foreshadowed the subsequent shift to foster care and adoption, almshouses and orphanages foreshadowed a preference for congregate institutions.
The years prior to the Civil War witnessed a movement away from indenture and apprenticeship toward the rise of congregate institutions, based in rising objections to indenture for children, and an increase in the real numbers of dependent children. Moreover, as industrialization changed the size and nature of the family, the value of children shifted from their productive contribution to the family to parental bonds of affection for the child. The nineteenth-century cult of motherhood eroded the traditional patriarchal control over child custody, forging instead a romanticized ideology in which children were innocent and vulnerable and mothers had a special responsibility for protecting them. In 1838, a new judicial policy marked the shift from father’s rights to mother’s love in the adjudication of child custody. Ex partecrouse declared that children have needs, not rights; that they need custody, not liberty; and the place for a child was school, not prison. While the case is noted for shifting the parental responsibility of child custody from the father to the mother, it was also pivotal for legitimizing and elevating the practice of institutional custody.
Between 1820 and 1860, 150 private orphanages were founded across the United States, some in response to epidemics that orphaned many children. Orphanages were largely religious and largely for white children under ten years of age. Most orphanages indentured the older children, and few received public funds. It was not long before congregate institutions became overcrowded, underfunded, and less and less rehabilitative. By mid-century, congregate institutions that only a few years earlier had been models of care were losing their luster. An 1855 report to the New York State Legislature chastised almshouses for the outrageous conditions in which they sheltered some 3,000 children under sixteen. The problems were intensified with the children orphaned in the Civil War and as numbers of immigrants multiplied. Nevertheless, despite criticism, congregate institutions grew through the end of the nineteenth century.
The idea of placing out marked a departure from apprenticeship, indenture, and congregate homes. Whereas removing children from the home under those circumstances did not necessarily sever ties with the children’s families, placing out included permanent transfer to foster or adoptive homes, illustrated by the New York Children’s Aid Society (NYCAS) and Charles Loring Brace’s famous orphantrains in the mid-nineteenth century. Brace was a critic of congregate institutions, and the NYCAS placed thousands of dependent youth in private homes. (NYCAS, however, over-whelmingly favored white western European children, who represented 95 percent of its placements; it could not or would not place black or eastern European children.) Brace romanticized the image of children being “rescued” from urban streets and placed in families in the midwestern countryside and the plains states. He spoke passionately about the practice that eventually affected some 200,000 youngsters over seventy-five years. As rapid urbanization, immigration, and industrialization widened social class divisions, reformers like Brace looked to protect society by removing children from those “dangerous” classes.
Brace’s objective was to place children in caring, moral, and stable family environments, and this program signaled the triumph of the ideology of domesticity, with its emphasis on affection, romantic marriage, and innocent children. He preferred foster care to adoption, as most of his children’s parents were destitute but not absent or dead, and ties of affection and Christian charity to legal bonds. Brace found a middle ground between involuntary apprenticeship or indenture on the one hand and adoption on the other. With the support of New York’s upper-class reformers, he shared their concern for the waif as well as disdain for the poor and immigrant parents.
In the colonial era children outside the bloodline could not share legal status with natural-born children. However, by the mid-nineteenth century the courts, under the best interests of the child doctrine, were more willing to consider the place of affection, choice, and nurture in the family structure. In 1851, two path-breaking court cases terminated the natural rights of birth parents. More and more, judges moved the parent-child relationship from patriarchal kinship lines to a contractual relationship that reflected sentimental ties and emphasized child nurture. That year, Massachusetts passed an act to provide for the adoption of children, substituting artificial ties for those of birth. By the end of the century, the Massachusetts model existed in almost every state, and adoption became routine.
While Brace’s system of fostering challenged institutional care for dependent children, asylums continued to grow in size and number but increasingly were on the defensive. In 1864 the Boston Children’s Aid Society (BCAS), for example, rejected long-term care in favor of keeping the families intact to the greatest extent possible. Where Brace wanted homes for children who were homeless or in jeopardy, the BCAS developed strategies for placing dependent children, paying other families to board them, and finding places where single mothers could both work and keep their children, carefully selecting and monitoring the foster homes. Taken together, these projects encouraged the formation of foster care and the passage of adoption laws intended to place children in family environments where the relocated children would be treated like natural sons and daughters. Brace wanted to place children permanently, separated from their birth families, which, especially regarding poor or immigrant families, he considered to be incapable of raising good “American” children. The BCAS, on the other hand, wanted to place children in ways that their parents could see them, and perhaps reclaim them when their situations improved. Moreover, Brace and his peers succeeded in articulating new language that included the rights of the child, not for independence or personal liberty, but for safety from risk and corruption. Welfare policies were profoundly influenced by the idea of the child as a special category of citizen, and state-sponsored children’s institutions supported this view. By the end of the nineteenth century, the best interest of the child doctrine facilitated the creation of agesegregated state laws restricting child labor and prohibiting children from buying tobacco or alcohol. It also shaped adoption and custody laws. The new laws rested on an assessment of the child’s needs and the public good rather than the parents’ interests. Poor and black families after the Civil War were particularly vulnerable to having their children bound out for apprenticeships without parental approval, and the best interest of the child idea sometimes resulted in injustices as the authority to control the child shifted from the parent to the state.
The first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children, which assembled 200 leading child welfare advocates to discuss the problem of the dependent child, was convened by Theodore Roosevelt in 1909. The White House Conference marked a turning point in state responsibility for the care of dependent children where advocates sanctioned the idea that poverty alone should not justify disrupting the home became official policy. It introduced ideas upon which the modern welfare state would be based and signaled a new relationship between women, the family, and the state, while retaining familiar patronizing judgments about women in poverty, the working class, and race. Consensus among reformers reified the ideal of the nuclear family as the best environment in which to raise children. They encouraged placing out and making congregate institutions more homelike with family-style cottages and self-governing formats. In principle, however, the conferees agreed to keep children with their natural families whenever possible, an objective that set the groundwork for the most important innovation regarding child dependency: widows’ pensions, intended to enable needy and morally “fit” widows to care for their children in their home.
In 1910, the report of the New York State Commission on Relief for Widowed Mothers claimed that, “No woman, save in exceptional circumstances can be both homemaker and the breadwinner of her family.” By and large, interest in working mothers reflected the reformers’ preoccupation with children as a national resource rather than with the needs of mothers themselves. According to this view, a mother’s employment negatively influenced her child’s development. The commission found that the work available to poor women outside the home inevitably broke down the physical, mental, and moral strength of the family. It disrupted the home life through an inadequate standard of living and parental neglect due to the enforced absence of the mother at the time the children most needed her care. Through this reasoning, working mothers were blamed for juvenile delinquency and other problems children faced.
Such was the first modern public welfare program in the United States focused on keeping children with their families of origin. In 1911 Illinois enacted the first statewide law, and within eight years thirty-nine states had their own versions. States, one by one, adopted laws that concurred with the White House Conference report that said, in part, “Children of … deserving mothers who are without the support of a normal breadwinner, should as a rule be kept with their parents, such aid being given as may be necessary to maintain suitable homes for the rearing of children” (Abramovitz, p.194). The nineteenth-century desire to save the child was transformed into a twentieth-century desire to save the family. Mothers’ pensions continued the nineteenth-century pattern in which the state interposed itself between parents and children; however instead of breaking up poor families by removing children from homes viewed as unfit, the twentieth-century strategy was to help families stay together on the grounds that no child should be removed from home for reasons of poverty alone.
From the beginning, however, pension rules emphasized that subsidies should go to only the “fit and worthy poor,” elevating the image of the blameless widow while at the same time creating a category of those who were deemed unworthy. Inefficiency or immorality were justifications for withholding support. The pensions no longer stigmatized pauperism or blamed its victims for idleness, but they did establish a new moral litmus test. “Suitable home” provisions allowed for surveillance and investigation, and “unfitness” devolved into a set of moral judgments, especially regarding immigrants and minorities. For example, in Los Angeles, prior to the Social Security Act of 1935, no Mexicans were eligible and nationally few African Americans received pensions. While mothers’ pensions worked for some, for others the program excluded whole categories of poor women with children.
The shift from institutional care and placing out to mothers’ pensions as a means for the care, support, and socialization of poor children reflected not only the desire to keep families united, but also the existing social welfare system’s declining ability to protect children. Private charities could not provide adequately for destitute children, and family management ideas generated by social workers were gaining confidence. Indeed, mothers’ pensions reflected both a critique of institutional care and the placing out system and also the belief that money going to institutions could be redirected to mothers in their homes at less cost. The acceptance of mothers’ pensions constituted public recognition by the states that the contribution of the unskilled or semiskilled mothers in their own homes exceeded their earnings outside the home and that it was in the public interest to support the child-rearing function of mothers. Nevertheless, inadequate pensions, prohibitions against supplemental work, and traditional moral surveillance over women limited the effectiveness of the program from the beginning.
The Century of the Child
The Progressive Era ushered in the century of the child. States took on enlarged public responsibility for needy children, and juvenile courts collected information about dependent and neglected children, which was used in deciding matters of placement. Emerging groups of social science professionals focused their expertise on the special needs of children. Among educators, a crusade against corporal punishment in the public schools was added to concerns about child labor and parental neglect. Over the next decade, however, despite the best intentions of reformers, the limitations on who could receive support meant that too few children would be beneficiaries of the new thinking. By the end of the 1920s, less than one percent of all children under the age of fourteen benefited from aid to mothers.
In 1934, in the depths of the great depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Committee on Economic Security to draft a social security plan that went beyond emergency relief programs and established permanent federal governmental strategies to deal with recurrent problems such as unemployment. The U.S. Children’s Bureau, author of the mothers’ pensions, was called upon to draft the provision for aid to children, and in 1935 Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) was established by Title IV of the Social Security Act.
Harry Hopkins, director of the Federal Emergency Relief Act programs and a trained social worker, favored a comprehensive welfare system that included an income maintenance program. In his view, direct assistance to the poor was more important than rehabilitating families. Hopkins defined a dependent child as anyone under sixteen for whom no adult person, other than one needed to care for the child, could work and provide a reasonable subsistence compatible with decency and health. This definition broadened the concept of dependent children to include those who lived in two-parent families in which unemployment or underemployment prevailed, or in foster homes, or with relatives. Congress, however, rejected this expansive plan.
Aid to Dependent Children, was a more comprehensive version of the mothers’ pension program. From the beginning, it was “designed to release women to their natural role as mothers, and to save children from social misfortune, but more affirmatively to make them citizens capable of contributing to society” (“The Report on the Committee on Economic Security,” pp. 35-36). The program provided funds to the states rather than cities or counties to establish financial assistance programs for needy children. The Social Security Administration (SSA) required ADC programs to be implemented statewide, unlike mothers’ pensions which were not always distributed by the local units authorized to do so. This system increased women’s access to relief funds. Moreover, the program expanded the reasons children could receive support and the range of possible caretakers. However, most states delayed putting the program into place. By 1939 ten states still had not implemented a program for dependent children.
From the beginning, a pattern of lower payment rates was set for ADC participants than for the blind and the aged. The lower wage, it was reasoned, would guarantee that public aid would not become more attractive than the lowest paying job, or more attractive than conventional marriage and family life. ADC remained limited to single parents, despite efforts to extend it to two-parent households if both were unemployed. Roosevelt’s Committee on Economic Security rejected the Social Security Advisory Council’s 1935 efforts to include two-parent families, fearing that if it asked too much for ADC it might undercut the whole Social Security Act. The effort failed again in 1949 on the grounds that it undercut the work ethic.
The Social Security Act established a two track welfare system. One track was oriented toward social insurance whereby government would make up for wages lost by injury, unemployment, or retirement; the other focused on public assistance. Social insurance flowed automatically from one’s age or condition. However, public assistance in the form of ADC was discretionary and had the taint of public charity. Congress rejected the Federal Emergency Relief Administration’s broad definition of dependence and funded ADC at $18 per month for the first child and $12 for any others, a sum that was “utterly inadequate and completely out of line with pensions of $30 per month to individual old people” (quoted in Gordon, p. 278). Congress further weakened ADC by enlarging state control; many states refused to pay anything, or paid well below any standard of subsistence. States demanded “suitable” homes as an eligibility requirement and, although the Social Security Act did not require it, they were allowed to do so. From the beginning, the dilemma was whether to meet the economic needs of children or judge the morals and behavior of adults. The suitable home requirement immediately became discriminatory.
In the years following World War II, the number of ADC recipients more than doubled, growing from 372,000 families in 1940 to 803,000 in 1960. ADC costs rose from $133 million to $994 million, and the profile of the ADC recipient changed. By 1961, widowed families were no longer the face of ADC, comprising only 7.7 percent of the ADC caseload, down from 43 percent in 1937; the majority of ADC mothers were separated, divorced, or unwed. Absolute numbers of white women were higher, but the percent of black women receiving ADC benefits was higher than in the general population. Nonwhite Hispanics and blacks produced a nonwhite majority, and whites were 42 percent nationwide. Discrimination against black men in the workplace led to low-wage and vulnerable employment situations. In 1940, black unemployment exceeded white by 20 percent, and in 1955 was twice that of whites. Black women were equally vulnerable to workplace discrimination; in 1950, sixty percent of employed black women worked in domestic service, compared with sixteen percent of white women. Between World War II and the 1960s, ADC’s policies also became more punitive and moralistic, focusing on the personal characteristics of the ADC mother.
Changing ADC from Needs to Rights
The civil rights and social protest movements of the 1950s and 1960s, however, created a context for new ideas about the rights of mothers, the rights of children, and the very definition of the family. Social attitudes shifted from the idea that mothers should stay home to the idea that mothers should work, and shifted from the idea that the best interest of the child meant the child should be protected to the idea that children have rights. In the early 1960s, moreover, the nation rediscovered poverty. Although the percentage of poor persons dropped from 22.4 percent in 1959 to 21 percent in 1961, the real numbers remained very high. Inside the White House, it was thought that providing services rather than giving direct assistance would both rehabilitate families and move them off welfare rolls. In 1962 President John F. Kennedy added amendments to the Social Security Amendments to strengthen family and self-support for ADC families. One amendment authorized ADC funds for foster care when children were removed from an “unsuitable” home; another provided funds to assist two-parent homes in which the wage earner was unemployed and no longer entitled to unemployment insurance. For the first time, unemployed men could remain present in an ADC household. With this change, the government symbolically changed Aid to Dependent Children to Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) had two fundamental and warring goals: to provide a decent standard of living for children and to encourage the self-sufficiency of parents. It was held that cash transfers to families with children could eliminate child poverty, but not without discouraging parents from working. The inherent conflict led to insufficient funding and provisions that made work an unattractive option. Mothers who worked lost benefits for every earned dollar and faced the loss of Medicaid, food stamps and other AFDC benefits. Moreover, AFDC was administered at the state level, allowing states to choose the standards that determine eligibility, set income and asset limits, and chose benefit levels. As a result programs varied considerably from state to state. Despite its flaws, however, the program grew. By the end of 1964, AFDC rolls numbered 975,000, and during the next four years AFDC expanded by 58 percent, to more than 1.5 million families. This and other factors provoked a backlash against AFDC mothers. Detractors thought recipients were lazy and undeserving. In the face of a developing National Welfare Rights Organization, some states began to channel AFDC mothers into the labor market. A punishing 1967 amendment (the Work Incentive Program), imposed a freeze on all federal aid to states for AFDC cases arising from desertion or births outside of marriage and continued unlimited matching funds for cases where the father had died or was unemployed. Outrage over this policy caused two presidents not to enforce it, and it was finally repealed in 1969. A dramatic reversal in congressional attitudes toward working mothers was almost complete: in 1935, the best interest of the mother, the child, and the nation was to keep the mother at home. In 1969, to receive AFDC, mothers had to register to work.
Meanwhile, between 1950 and 1970, the system of foster care became an integral part of the child protection network. In 1958, the number of children in foster care was 38 per 10,000-lower than it had been in 1933, when 59 per 10,000 were in the system. In 1969, however, 75 per 10,000 of all dependent children were in foster care. A heightened awareness of child abuse accounted for some increase; the 1962 increase in payments to AFDC foster families and the decline of children’s institutions may account for more of it, as may other factors. While orphanages were in decline (an unexpected consequence of ADC) in favor of foster care, even foster care came under criticism for its intrusions into the homes of the poor and minorities. In the climate of returning to “family values,” foster care was criticized for being class biased in its removal policies, and too emotionally destabilizing for children. The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act passed by Congress in 1980 privileged adoption over long-term foster placements and redefined fostering as a temporary situation until the child could be returned home or adopted. No child was to enter the foster care system without a long-term plan in place. In contrast to the 1974 Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, the 1980 law was to be noninterventionist and sought to protect children from extended foster care itself.
Adoption proved to be an alternative to foster care and unsafe familial homes, but adoption, too, was subject to the race and class divisions existing in the larger society. In 1972 the National Association of Black Social Workers declared that black children should only be adopted by families of their own race, and over the next twenty years 77 percent of state and almost half of private agencies had unwritten understandings which enforced that policy. Similar questions arose regarding native American children. In 1978, some 90 percent of adopted Native American children were in the custody of non-Indian families. Between 1969 and 1974, states had placed 35 percent of Native children in adoptive or foster care, often in forced separations from parents. The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 discouraged the removal of children from Indian settings, preferring, where possible, that the child should remain in the Indian community. Consequently, by 1986 some 62 percent of Indian children were placed with Indian families.
Under the Reagan administration (1981-1989) criticism of welfare programs intensified. The failed 1979 Family Protection Bill attempted to end federal spending for child abuse prevention; however, conservatives continued to criticize AFDC, which for them symbolized the welfare state, collapse of the family, and a decline of morality. Cutbacks under Reagan reduced AFDC income to 47 percent of what was necessary for basic needs. With food stamps, AFDC income was at 70 percent of the poverty threshold. By 1989, one in four children lived in poverty. As the federal government shifted responsibility to the states between 1980 and 1992, real state spending on AFDC per poor family declined by 31 percent. The 1990s saw a developing consensus in favor of reduced federal budgets, family restoration, and a reinvigorated national debate about adoption. Issues arising from open records and new reproductive technologies emerged, exposing tensions between birth and adoptive parents, and between surrogate and adoptive parents. States tested the acceptance of homosexual adoption, and how open the adoption process should be. With the foster care system overwhelmed with a new class of drug-addicted parents and babies, the courts, legislatures, and welfare professionals believed that the goal of family reunification was not always in the best interest of the child.
In the 1990s, various new ideas were proposed for dependent children, while some old ones, such as a return to congregate institutions (orphanages) were also discussed, although it was clear that this proposal was unlikely to prosper. Dissatisfaction with welfare did, however, bear fruit. On August 22, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed a bill to abolish the sixty-year-old AFDC program. The Welfare Reform Act set a five-year lifetime cap on welfare benefits and required most recipients to enter the workforce within two years. It provided federal block grants to states to establish their own programs. The law was opposed by the Children’s Defense Fund, the Urban Institute, and other groups, which estimated that it would increase the number of children living in poverty by a million. Others argued that AFDC, by supporting children in their own homes, was less expensive than the alternatives, which would have to include expenses for day care. Nonetheless, by 1993, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, 15.7 million children, including 27 percent of all American children under the age of three, already lived in poverty. Poverty remains unevenly distributed. According to statistics issued in the spring of 2003, almost a million African-American children live in extreme poverty and the number of all African-American children who are poor has increased by almost 50 percent since 1999. Clearly, the problem of poverty and social dependency has not disappeared, but the solution has become much less clear.
Historically, society’s obligation to assist dependent children has been undisputed and has produced a range of alternatives, from reproducing the home through indenture, apprenticeship, fostering, and adoption, to replacing the home with orphanages and group homes. Each solution involved children’s separation from their families of origin. In the twentieth century, both reformers and mothers preferred to keep children at home wherever possible, agreeing that poverty alone should not separate children from their parents. By the end of the twentieth century, however, the question of assistance to dependent children was inextricably linked to the country’s deep ambivalence about what children need, which mothers deserved help, the size of the welfare state, and the degree to which government should intervene in private family matters. Welfare rights supporters asserted that the programs were insufficient and created family disruption, while opponents countered that the family was being undermined by interference from the state. Laws geared to protecting children from abuse and neglect both protected children and undermined parental authority. At the heart of the matter was conflict over the rights and needs of the child, set against equally powerful beliefs about the proper responsibility of the poor single mother: whether she should work or to be home with her children. Attitudes toward mothers reflected larger national attitudes toward race, class, sex roles, ethnicity, and values surrounding work and welfare. Public assistance to children was thus linked not only to the social construction of children’s rights and needs, but also to the social construction of mothers in poverty.