top of page


The Children's Bureau

   Julia Lathrop from Chicago's Hull House was named to head the U.S. Children's Bureau in 1912. Initially, the Children's Bureau's role was limited to conducting research and collecting data on children's issues. One of the first studies undertaken by the new organization was of maternal and infant mortality. Armed with statistics showing a shockingly high rate of maternal deaths, bureau workers began a campaign for programs to directly address the problem.

   The Sheppard-Towner bill was introduced in 1918 by Congresswoman Jeanette Rankin. Ms. Rankin was the first congresswoman in the U.S. Congress and a social worker. The proposed legislation provided funds to local health departments for maternal and infant health services and after considerable opposition from conservative legislators was finally signed by the president in 1921. This legislation was so successful that funding, initially due to expire in 1927 was extended for an additional two years. When the act  finally expired in 1929, there were more than 3,000 local programs and maternal and infant mortality rates were significantly improved.

The Widow's Pension

   An important recommendation of the 1909 White House Conference On Children was that most children should be cared for in their own home as opposed to the all to common practice of removing children from the homes of poor single parents.  Reformers led by leaders from juvenile courts, Children's Bureau, settlement workers and some members of charity organizations began the campaign for what was then known as a widow's pension. As was often the case, the argument for this reform frequently waved the twin banners of efficiency and economy.

We are paying more for a child's care in an asylum or orphanage than it would cost to pay the mother to take care of her children at home.
Judge Julian Mack of the Chicago Juvenile Court.

   In 1911, Missouri enacted the first widow's pension. By 1919, 39 states had similar programs.

Child Labor

   The same leaders who fought so prodigiously for maternal and infant health programs and widows’ pensions were also prominent in the crusade against child labor. That problem proved to be more recalcitrant than either widow's pensions or health programs. Both industry and many poor families opposed laws that limited or prohibited young children from working. Industry for the obvious reason that child workers were cheap. Poor families often needed the paltry contributions of their working children just to survive.

   The fight against child labor was initially led by indefatigable Florence Kelly and she enlisted settlement stalwarts from around the country. In 1906, they created the National Committee on Child Labor (NCLC) which sponsored investigations and lobbied for legislation protecting children. Finally, in 1916 Congress passed the Wicks Bill which prohibited many forms of child labor. This legislation was ruled unconstitutional 18 months later. Child labor was not eliminated until new legislation was passed as part of the NEW DEAL, during the depression.

Peace and Social Justice

   Settlement leaders became involved in many issues beyond child saving. Florence Kelly was a leader in both the suffrage and labor movements. Jane Addams' contributions were too numerous to list. They included advocacy of labor, civil rights, suffrage and peace. Her contributions in the peace movement were so significant that she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.


   Settlement leaders also played an important part in combating racism. In 1908, after race riots in President Lincoln's hometown of Springfield Illinois, concerned citizens called a conference on race. Led by settlement workers William Walling and Mary Ovington this original group was soon joined by Henry Moskowitz, Florence Kelly and Lillian Wald. The conference was attended by a large number of people including Oswald Villard, grandson of abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. Du Bois, John Dewey, Ida Wells and Jane Addams. Plans were made at this conference for the creation of a permanent organization which then evolved into the National Association For The Advancement Of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP's first central committee included both William Walling and W.E.B. Du Bois.

The Children's Bureau even made an impact in rural communities

"Far from the fresh air farm" by William Glakens

A particularly poignant example of child labor was the case of the breaker boys. These young men spent their formative years breaking coal into small pieces. Mother Jones said the breaker boys were...
"like little men. They formed breaker boy unions, beat up breaker boy scabs and frequented breaker boy bars and houses of prostitution"

Women's Peace Party delegates including Jane Addams

The Ku Klux Klan were often romanticized in white press.

William Walling, founding central committee member of the NAACP

Adapted from

Special thanks to the late Professor Dan Huff and Boise State University School of Social Work

bottom of page