White House Conferences on Children

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White House Conferences on Children

The first White House Conference on Children, called in 1909 by President Theodore Roosevelt, was a watershed event in the history of American child welfare. Roosevelt charged the conference to consider the care of dependentchildrenthat is, children who depended for support on any person or institution other than their parents or other relativesand to make recommendations regarding them.

In the nineteenth century, dependent children were cared for primarily in orphanages. Before the U.S. Civil War, orphanages were small, located in towns rather than rural settings, and run almost invariably by women. A typical Protestant orphanage was headed by a board of "lady managers," religiously motivated and usually elite women. A typical Catholic orphanage was run by the Sisters of Charity or a comparable women's religious order, who also ran a school for poor children from the parish (and often paying boarders) as well as the orphans. Heavy Catholic immigration and the formation of many new dioceses led after the war to a reorganization of the Catholic orphanages. The orphanages became larger diocesan institutions, physically dissociated from parish life. Protestant orphanages also increased in size after the war and their lady managers became increasingly distracted by other social and charitable activities.

The major alternative to the women-run orphanages was found in the foster-family movement, begun on a grand scale by the orphan trains of Charles Loring Brace and the New York Children's Aid Society. Late in the century, men whose experience lay in corrections, joined by early social workers, also mainly men, adopted Brace's approach, advocating that orphanages be replaced by "home-placing agencies" run by men, and championing women as foster mothers, not lady managers.

A direct challenge to the orphanages came after the turn of the century. In September 1907, the Delineator, a women's magazine edited by the novelist Theodore Dreiser, launched a campaign to "rescue" children from orphanages and place them in foster families. In December 1908, Dreiser and others wrote President Roosevelt, asking him to call the first White House Conference. A month later, the conference assembled, hosting 185 men and 30 women. The conference's conclusions would become a foundational text for the then-emerging profession of social work: "Home life is the highest and finest product of civilization. Except in unusualcircumstances, the home should not be broken up for reasons of poverty. As to the children who for sufficientreasons must be removed from their own homes or have no homes, if normal in mind and body and not requiring special training, they should be cared for in families whenever practicable" (Hart et al., pp. 910).

The second White House Conference, titled "Child Welfare Standards," was called by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919. The standards recommended by the conference were more general but similar to those of a decade earlier. The standard on maternity and infancy was incorporated in the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act of 1921, which authorized grants-in-aid to the states to support child health and prenatal conferences, primarily for poor and rural women.

Sheppard-Towner was administered by the U.S. Children's Bureau, which had been created in 1912 following strong recommendations by the first White House Conference. Sheppard-Towner represented an early step toward a more active role for government in welfare matters and was intensely controversial, as was the Children's Bureau, for the same reason. Congress's refusal to renew Sheppard-Towner in 1929 set the stage for the third White House Conference, "Child Health and Protection," called by President Herbert Hoover in 1930. Controversy over child welfare in the late 1920s turned on not just the role of government but also on which agency within the federal government should administer federal programs. On the one side stood the male-dominated Public Health Service and on the other, the female-dominated Children's Bureau. The issue was debated to a dramatic but inconclusive standstill at the 1930 conference.

Passage of the Social Security Act in 1935 reoriented the White House Conferences for the rest of the century. The 1940 conference was titled "Children in a Democracy," and the next four conferences, 1950, 1960, 1970, and 1980, were equally noncommittal, three of them being called "Children and Youth" and the fourth "Families." The focus on poor children gave way to a general concern with problems and issues that affected all children: how best to rear them for citizenship in a democracy, the role of family, religion, community, and government in children's lives, current research in developmental psychology. Specific problems covered included juvenile delinquency, school failure, drug use, child abuse, daycare centers, racial and religious discrimination, teen pregnancy, single-parent familiesall problems which, while linked with poverty, placed nonpoor as well as poor children at some degree of risk. As conference concerns widened, committees proliferated, recommendations increased in number, and conference proceedings were published in multiple volumes over a period of years. The increase in scope and volume was inversely related to its impact. References in the scholarly literature to any White House Conference after the third are rare.

1990 passed without a presidential call for another White House Conference on Children. When the next conference, on early childhood development and learning, was called in 1997 by President Bill Clinton, it continued the pattern set in 1940 by focusing on issues and problems of possible relevance to all children.

See also: Child Care: Institutional Forms; Foster Care; Progressive Education; Social Welfare: History.


Dreiser, Theodore. 1909. "The Child-Rescue League: The Delineator Starts a New and Aggressive Campaign for Doing Away with the Old-Fashioned Orphan Asylum." Delineator 73 (January):102.

Hart, Hastings H., Francis J. Butler, Julian W. Mack, Homer Folks, and James E. West (Committee on Resolutions). 1909. Proceedings of the Conference on the Care of Dependent Children. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

McCarthy, Kathleen D. 1982. Noblesse Oblige: Charity and Cultural Philanthropy in Chicago, 18491929. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Muncy, Robyn. 1991. Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform, 18901935. New York: Oxford University Press.

U.S. Children's Bureau. 1967. The Story of the White House Conferences on Children and Youth. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare Social and Rehabilitation Service.

Marshall B. Jones