The Children's Bureau

"It's Your Children's Bureau"


THE ORIGINS of the Children's Bureau are not buried deep in the past. They are just below the surface of today. Only 50 years ago, the idea for an agency of government devoted solely to advancing the well-being of children was a hope and a dream.

In the twentieth century, as a nation, we have been able to realize many of the child health and welfare goals seen only dimly during the first decade. A large measure of our success in reaching these goals is due to a hardy band of practical dreamers who, beginning about 1903, studied the past and present circumstances of children in order to chart a course for the future. These idealists, reformers, and crusaders ruffled our complacencies and pricked our consciences until, as a people, we turned reluctantly from our rosy misconceptions to study what was really happening to youngsters in the present.

Public dismay followed disclosures which described in vivid terms the unhealthy and dangerous conditions in which a large proportion of the Nation's children were living. Today, it is hard to believe that only a few years ago, it was possible for children 10 to 12 years of age to labor in coal mines, for babies to die during their first summer because mothers did not have the most elementary knowledge about sanitary measures and infant care, for small orphan children to be crowded into large institutions with little care or attention, for countless numbers of mothers to die in childbirth because they lacked proper care.

Lillian D. Wald, founder of the Henry Street Settlement in New York City, and her friend, Florence Kelley of the National Consumers League, were responsible for the idea and coined the name for a Federal agency to promote the health and welfare of children. These two practical dreamers and fearless critics of the status quo met together for friendly conversation as often as their busy lives allowed in the years between 1903 and 1912. Very seldom did these talks end without suggestions for next steps needed to correct some of the social ills of the day. A firm operating principle was--the people must know the facts; influential leaders must be the spokesmen.

On a day in 1903, while they were having their morning coffee at the Settlement, two letters came in the mail. "Why is it so many children die like flies in the summer time?" one of these letters asked. "Is there something I can do to help matters?" The other was from a mother whose husband had died. She was troubled because now that she would have to go out to earn support for her children, she would have to place them in an institution.

"There must be thousands of mothers all over the United States in just such situations," observed Miss Wald. "I wish there were some agency that would tell us what can be done about these problems."

Miss Wald and Mrs. Kelley turned to the morning newspaper. The Secretary of Agriculture, the paper reported, was going south that day to find out how much damage the boll weevil was doing to the crops.

That gave Miss Wald an idea.

"If the Government can have a department to take such an interest in what is happening to the Nation's cotton crop, why can't it have a bureau to look after the Nation's crop of children?" she asked.

A friend of Miss Wald's, impressed with the idea, wired President Theodore Roosevelt. "Bully," the President wired back-, "Come down and tell me about it."

Seven years of nationwide campaigning by individuals and organizations helped to mobilize public opinion. The National Child Labor Committee worked unremittingly for the bills introduced in Congress between 1906 and 1912. Eleven bills, eight originating in the House and three in the Senate, met with failure although each one served the important function of developing a more positive acceptance of the necessity for a new Federal agency.

Midway in the campaign, President Roosevelt called the first White House Conference on Children. This 1909 meeting brought together social workers, educators, juvenile court judges, labor leaders, and civic minded men and women concerned with the care of dependent children, who endorsed the idea, of a Federal Children's Bureau. On February 15, 1909, President Roosevelt sent a message to Congress urging favorable action on the pending bills establishing a, Federal Children's Bureau. He said:

"It is not only discreditable to us as a people that there is now no recognized and authoritative source of information upon these subjects relating to child life, but in the absence of such information as should be supplied by the Federal government many abuses have gone unchecked; for public sentiment, with its great corrective power, can only be aroused by full knowledge of the facts. In addition to such information as the Census Bureau and other existing agencies of the Federal government already provides, there remains much to be ascertained through lines of research not now authorized by law; and there should be correlation and dissemination of the knowledge obtained without any duplication of effort or interference with what is already being done."

"There are few things more vital to the welfare of the nation than accurate and dependable knowledge of the best methods of dealing with children, especially with those who are in one way or another handicapped by misfortune; and in the absence of such knowledge each community is left to work out its own problem without being able to learn of and profit by the success or failure of other communities along the same lines of endeavor."

During the next 3 years, national organizations of women's clubs, consumers' leagues, labor unions, college and school alumnae associations, societies for the promotion of special interests of children, and various State child labor committees--representing in their memberships and executive committees, education, labor, law, medicine, and business--gave their endorsement and urged the Congress to act.

The year 1912 brought to an end the long citizen campaign when the Congress passed the Act creating the Children's Bureau and charged it "to investigate and report . . . upon all matters pertaining to the welfare of children and child life among all classes of our people."

The United States led the world in a pioneering step when President William Howard Taft signed the bill on April 9, 1912, and the first appropriation of $25,640 became available in August of that year. Since then, the Children's Bureau ha's advanced the well-being of children in the Nation and the world along every path open to it.

Since fact gathering was to lead to action, it was not enough that the Bureau find out what was happening to children. It must study, too, why it was happening, and how "abuses" could be "checked." The history of the Bureau's investigations and reports is alive with the what, the why, and the how.

With a stream of facts flowing out to citizens on good jobs that were being done, and how they might be done, it was a logical next step for citizens, eager for action, to look to the Bureau for help in doing good jobs.

Responding to this demand, from its earliest days and throughout its life, the Bureau has, with the help of outstanding authorities, developed standards of care in many fields.

It has put the technical knowledge and skills of its specialists at the service of public and voluntary agencies working for children.

But knowing what is good to do is not always enough. There must be wherewithal, as well as know-how, to bring good practices to life.

So a third logical development came when the Children's Bureau was made responsible for administering financial aid to the States to help them improve conditions for children.

In 19211 the Congress passed the Maternity and Infancy Act which authorized $1,200,000 to be given each year to the States to help them improve their health services for infants and for mothers during childbearing. The Children's Bureau was made administrator of these history making grants-in-aid.

This Act-popularly known as the Sheppard-Towner Act-had a relatively short life. It expired in 1929, But it established the national policy that the people of the United States, through their Federal Government, share with State and local governments responsibility for helping to provide the health and welfare services children need for a good start in life. It also provided the blueprint for Title V of the Social Security Act, passed in 1935 and in operation continuously since then, which authorizes financial aid to the States to help them extend and improve their maternal and child health, crippled children's, and child welfare services. By delegation, the Children's Bureau administers these grants.

In 1960, one-third of all registered births were to residents of metropolitan areas, a reflection of the increasing urbanization of our society. To help meet the problems of urban children and youth, Congress extended the child welfare provisions of the Social Security Act to them in 1958. The Bureau also responds to population shifts by seeking to build stronger municipal maternal and child health and crippled children's services, especially where voluntary resources are inadequate.

A new program of grants for research and demonstration. in the field of child welfare was authorized in 1960 under Title V of the Social Security Act-and funds for implementing it were appropriated in 1961.

The Children's Bureau has, in a variety of ways, helped to develop and strengthen health and welfare services in other countries.. At present,, the Bureau participates in the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and works with international agencies and agencies of the Federal Government that are responsible for the administration of programs of technical assistance. A new appropriation makes possible cooperative research in countries where "counterpart" funds are available.

The International Health Research Act, enacted in 1960, gave the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare new means for carrying out the Bureau's responsibilities under its basic Act of 1912.

These then are the purposes of the Children's Bureau today:

  • to assemble facts needed to keep the country informed about children and matters adversely affecting theft well-being;
  • to recommend measures that will be effective in advancing the wholesome development of children, and in preventing and treating- the ill effects of adverse conditions;
  • to give technical assistance to citizens and to voluntary and public agencies in improving the conditions of childhood; and
  • to administer the financial aid that the Federal Government appropriates each year to aid the States in building the health and welfare of their children.

The citizen interest which marked the movement for a Children's Bureau in the Federal Government was based on the knowledge that children have special needs-needs that differ from those of adults both in kind and in amount. The process of growing up is complex and often requires very specialized help. To meet these developmental needs of children and youth, programs for them require workers who have made a specialty of the study of children and their care.

Because the Act of 1912 was broader than a single functional service, it has been possible for the Children's Bureau to initiate as well as participate in many different kinds of activities which affect the welfare of children.

In each decade of the twentieth century, the United States has held a great national conference devoted to the circumstances and prospects of the Nation's children. Convened in Washington, sponsored by the President of the United States, and having one or more sessions in the White House, they have been known as White House Conferences on Children and Youth.

The first White House Conference on Care of Dependent Children (1909) was instrumental in establishing the Children's Bureau. For all subsequent conferences, the Children's Bureau has been the initiator by alerting the President and gathering together suggestions for planning.

The Bureau's approach to the problems of children proceeds from a concern for the child with his family or wherever else he must live. The interrelationship between the physical, emotional, and social factors in child growth, child health, and child welfare permeates all that the Bureau does, and that it stimulates others to do, in research and action for children.

The cultivation of positive well-being in children and the prevention of h4ndicaps growing out of adverse conditions have been complementary concerns of the Bureau from its earliest days. The Bureau has proceeded on the basis that the prevention and treatment of the ills of children flow together. These are the long-time premises of a Federal Children's Bureau-and they stand as useful guides today and for the future.

They are clearly reflected in the Bureau's publications and reporting activities.

Long famous as the Government's most popular publications, the Bureau's bulletins for all parents are constantly revised and rewritten to keep them abreast with the soundest current knowledge drawn f rom many fields concerning child-rearing and practice at different stages of children's development.

The Bureau's technical publications and its bimonthly journal CHILDREN help to keep professional people working with children in touch with new knowledge, program practice, and research.

Gathering and interpreting the ever-increasing bodies of social and scientific facts about children and child life and finding ways to translate current knowledge into action so that it may become effective in the lives of children no matter where they live or what their economic status are the overriding concerns of the Children's Bureau.

Great gains have been made for children during the Bureau's lifetime. They are accomplishments of the Nation in which this Bureau has played a. part, but only a part. Citizens, civic and professional groups, voluntary and other public agencies have furthered this progress greatly.

Some contributions the Bureau has made in the past are recounted in Five Decades of Action for Children, a companion Bureau publication. More than three decades were served in the Department of Labor; the last 16 years in what has now become the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and its Social Security Administration.

This pamphlet attempts to reflect the ways the Children's Bureau of the Federal Government presently works to advance the well-being of children and their families, through its own activities and through working with others in and out of Government.

The Bureau's past has truly been a prologue, and what the future will bring for children is not clearly outlined today. One certainty is clear-children will be a major concern of our democratic society and government. Citizens, Federal, State, and local public and voluntary organizations will continue to join forces to advance the one sure resource of the future, the Nation's children.


Chief, Children's Bureau

U.S. Department of Health Education and Welfare
Social Security Administration
children's bureau publication number 357 revised 1962