In new book, TTU's Lindenmeyer probes the nation's 'least-protected citizens'

Industrialization and a population shift to cities in the early 1900s led to a public perception of increased crime, widespread disease and growing poverty -- and no one appeared to be more victimized by these trends than children.

The United States was slow to recognize that its children were its least-protected citizens -- indeed, children had few rights at all. The low wages and long hours of factory sweatshops were distributed among all members of many poor, urban families. Education and medical care were considered luxuries. Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions resulted in rising infant mortality and child morbidity rates ... even as the adult life expectancy rate was increasing.

The irony of this situation did not escape the social reformers blasting American government and industry for increasing the nation's fortunes at the expense of its youngest citizens. In 1912, in answer to these concerns, the U.S. Children's Bureau was established. And although it would last only 34 years, the Children's Bureau played a primary role in lowering infant mortality rates and passing legislation regarding child labor. The bureau would be dismantled due in part to criticism that the bureau's mission was an example of government intrusiveness -- or, worse yet, socialism.

Until this spring, no single book has covered the history of the U.S. Children's Bureau or analyzed its contributions to American public policy. In April, the University of Illinois Press released "A Right to Childhood": The U.S. Children's Bureau and Child Welfare, 1912-1946, authored by Kriste Lindenmeyer, associate professor of History at Tennessee Technological University.

"A Right to Childhood" is a comprehensive examination of how a federal agency fought for and won improved living conditions for children in a time when the concept of social welfare was as controversial as it is today. Lindenmeyer addresses the bureau's successes -- chiefly in labor legislation and improved medical services -- but also its ultimate failure to resist the criticism that led to its abolishment as a stand-alone agency. The bureau was dismantled and, in diminished form, tucked under the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1946.

"Despite the fact that many find it hard to 'oppose' children, minors are a particularly vulnerable constituency who have little power in a government controlled by adults," says Lindenmeyer, who adds that "the most defenseless children tend to come from socioeconomic groups with little political voice.

"Prohibiting welfare benefits to illegal immigrants or single teenage mothers might discourage what many view as undesirable adult behavior, but the children who are the products of such circumstances suffer for the actions of their parents."

By recounting the successes and failures of the U.S. Children's Bureau, Lindenmeyer examines America's changing values concerning women, children and social welfare. Before the bureau's establishment, no one questioned why mothers and infants were dying at such alarming rates, and no single group was powerful enough to enact labor and education reform for children. The agency was the source of many of today's most controversial federal programs, such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children. But it also was responsible for changing the role of children in American society; no longer, for instance, do American children go to work before they go to school.