Childrens Defense Fund

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The Children's Defense Fund (CDF) is a national organization that is committed to the social welfare of children. Founded in 1973, the nonprofit group uses its annual $9 million budget to lobby legislators and to speak out publicly on a broad array of issues on the law, the family, and society. It is involved in the welfare debate: The CDF has consistently fought for federal welfare programs that directly help poor children, a cause that has enjoyed significant success in Washington, D.C. In the 1980s, its intensive lobbying efforts saved billions of dollars in proposed funding cuts, and in the early 1990s, close ties with the administration of President bill clinton increased its influence, leading to new federal legislation. Besides its work on Capitol Hill, the organization issues reports on the health and the economic and social well-being of U.S. children. The organization owes much of its effectiveness to the work of its founder and director, civil rights attorney marian wright edelman.

The first black woman to pass the bar exam in Mississippi, Edelman fought racial discrimination in the 1960s. She initially came to national attention by stopping efforts in Mississippi to deny African Americans money from the federal Head Start program. By the end of the 1960s, she ran an advocacy group called the Washington Research Project, whose chief focus was antidiscrimination law. The group acquired powerful allies—one staff attorney was Hillary Rodham, who would become First Lady. Edelman lobbied extensively for federal health care and child care, but to little avail. By 1973, she realized that "the country was tired of the concerns of the sixties. When you talked about poor people or black people, you faced a shrinking audience. I got the idea that children might be a very effective way to broaden the base for change." She renamed her organization, made children's issues its primary focus, and began building the corporate sponsorship that has grown to include such major donors as American Express and Coca-Cola.

The CDF has taken a stand against cutting federal programs that benefit poor children. Leading its list are the Head Start and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition programs. Although viewed as a liberal organization, it has blasted presidential administrations from Jimmy Carter's to George H.W. Bush's whenever budgets have been threatened. It has attacked social spending cuts as "callous" and motivated by "greed," arguing that welfare is properly seen as a children's issue. In a display of its influence during the Reagan era, the CDF convinced Congress to spare approximately $2.5 billion in cuts. In addition to supporting existing programs, the CDF has argued in favor of greater federal support for underprivileged families in the areas of housing, day care, child immunization, so-called family preservation programs, and employment training.

The organization's research and recommendations are often the catalyst for debate. For example, its 1991 study Bright Futures or Broken Dreams: The Status of the Children of the District of Columbia and an Investment Agenda for the 1990s—noting items such as infant mortality, teenage pregnancy and murder, and child abuse—concluded that "across almost every indicator of health, income, and social wellbeing, the status of children in the District is abysmal." Edelman opened the CDF's first local office in the District of Columbia. She called society's failure to save children's lives unforgivable and blamed it on local and federal governments. Such conclusions sit well with traditional liberals but not with conservatives. Nationally syndicated columnist Mona Charen, for example, attacked the CDF for wanting "a bigger and bigger welfare state, with less and less emphasis on personal responsibility and self control." Even neoliberals such as author Mickey Kaus found the CDF's social analysis to be outdated and its answers impractical. "Are American taxpayers more likely to open their wallets for someone with an unvarnished analysis of the underclass problem," Kaus wrote in the New Republic, "or someone who tries to overwhelm analysis with emotionalism about children?"

Despite such criticism, the organization's agenda flourished during the Clinton administration, in part due to long-established personal and political ties between the Clintons and Edelman: hillary rodham clinton was CDF chair from 1986 to 1992. The president promoted several of the CDF's positions in his legislative goals: He signed family-leave legislation and stepped up enforcement of child support

Best States Worst States
Rank Rate Rank Rate
SOURCE: Children's Defense Fund, The State of Children in America's Union, 2002.
1New Hampshire7.1%51District of Columbia30.9%
2Minnesota9.3%50West Virginia27.7%
5New Jersey10.8%46Arkansas25.5%
46New Mexico25.5%

payments with the help of the internal revenue service. He also proposed budgets that would fully fund or expand Head Start and WIC; advocated a comprehensive federal immunization program for children; and supported health care reform that would ensure care for children and pregnant women.

The CDF has been critical of the administration of george w. bush with respect to federal support for poor children. Edelman and the organization have embarked upon a mission called Leave No Child Behind, calling for comprehensive legislation to provide federal support for the health, safety, and education of all children. The mission is named similarly to an initiative by Bush that resulted in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-110, 115 Stat. 1425 (20 U.S.C.A. §§ 6301 et seq.), which was primarily an educational bill. Edelman and other CDF supporters have disapproved of several of Bush's initiatives relating to children's programs.

further readings

Children's Defense Fund. Available online at <> (accessed November 12, 2003).


Family Law.

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Children's Defense Fund

The Children's Defense Fund (CDF) was founded in 1973 as an outgrowth of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The CDF quickly became a powerful advocacy agency for impoverished and at risk children, more effective than the U.S. Children's Bureau ever was. Marion Wright Edelman, its founder and vigorous leader, was born June 6, 1939, in Bennettsville, South Carolina, the daughter of an African-American Baptist minister, Arthur Bennett, who taught that Christianity necessitated service to the world. The elder Bennett idolized A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a hero of the civil rights movement. Edelman studied at Spelman College, in Atlanta, and abroad, including in the Soviet Union. When she returned to Spelman in 1959, she abandoned her Foreign Service plans for the law, and threw herself into the civil rights movement. She took her law degree at Yale in 1963. She then worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York, then Mississippi, where she worked on civil rights issues and established a Head Start program. When U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy was touring Mississippi, she met Peter Edelman, a Kennedy assistant, and moved to Washington, D.C. a year later to marry him. In 1968 she helped found the Washington Research Project, Inc., a private, not for profit institution that helped poor people investigate and monitor the federal programs that Congress had designed for them. Marian Wright Edelman developed a double-barreled style: vigorous, no-nonsense public advocacy and investigatory research.

In 1973, Edelman and her allies in the Washington, D.C. area organized the Children's Defense Fund using the personnel and knowledge that had accrued in the Washington Research Project. Edelman eschewed direct dependence on government agencies, budgets, and officials. Instead she and her associates organized the CDF as a private, not for profit organization of lawyers, monitors of federal policy, researchers, and community liaison persons, all of whom were dedicated to long-term systematic advocacy and reform on behalf of the nation's children. An early CDF project probed why children of varying ages and backgrounds were not in school. Between July 1973 and March 1974, forty-two part time and summer staffers, plus Edelman and three full time associates knocked on 8,500 doors in thirty areas of nine states, and talked to over 6,500 families. From this interviewing came the first of many hard-hitting, often shocking, reports of how many poor children fall between society's cracks. Often CDF surveys were more thorough than the United States Census in investigating these problems and issues.

When Bill Clinton became President in 1993, CDF staffers hoped for child-friendly policies. Instead Clinton terminated Aid to Families of Dependent Children (AFDC), and other similar programs. Edelman vigorously attacked these actions. By 2003 the CDF employed a staff of 130, raised and spent about $25 million a year from private corporations as it continued its advocacy work for the most needy and underserved children.

See also: Aid to Dependent Children (AFDC); Law, Children and the; Social Welfare; Welfare Reform Act (1996).


Children's Defense Fund. 1974. Children Out of School, a Report by the Children's Defense Fund of the Washington Research Project, Inc. Cambridge: Children's Defense Fund.

internet resource

About Women's History. "Marian Wright Edelman." Available from <>.

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