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July 2012Vol. 13, No. 6Centennial Series: The Children's Bureau and the Great Depression

This is the third article in our second Centennial Series, CB Decade-by-Decade. These articles will examine highlights from each decade of the Children's Bureau's first 100 years. The first Centennial Series addressed some of the social issues, practices, and policies that laid the groundwork for the creation of the Children's Bureau.

The United States experienced a short-lived depression during 1921 and 1922, during which the Children's Bureau studied the effects of unemployment on child welfare. Its findings concluded definitively that children, during times of industrial depression, "suffered not temporary but permanent losses." During the Great Depression of the 1930s, similar studies occupied much of the Bureau's efforts. Bureau staff examined loosening child labor laws and the cause of and effects on transient adolescents. Their research laid the foundation for child welfare provisions in the groundbreaking Social Security Act of 1935.

The Bureau was instrumental in immediate fact-finding to gauge the effects of the failing economy and the need for relief. In 1930, President Hoover dispatched Bureau investigators to survey coal mining towns. Stories from investigators revealed that communities had been nearly abandoned and were thoroughly struggling. People were on the brink of starvation because even the partially employed could not afford to sufficiently feed and support their families.

The Children's Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics jointly examined the effects of economic conditions on children and families through the lens of the railroad industry. The study, Earnings and Standard of Living of 1,000 Railway Employees During the Depression, revealed that between July 1929 and April 1933, earnings dropped by at least 20 percent for two-thirds of the men surveyed. For half the men surveyed, earnings were reduced by at least 30 percent. Despite these shrunken wages, many families took in other struggling friends or family members and gave groceries and other essentials to needier families. Just 72 families of the men surveyed received public or private agency relief.

Because home life was so difficult, many youth fled to look for work. These transient youth were not welcomed in the towns through which they passed. Times were tough everywhere, and an additional mouth to feed was a burden. Children's Bureau representatives visited States and spoke with those who interacted with these homeless youth, later reporting their findings to the Bureau. At a congressional hearing in 1933, Chief Abbott made a suggestion: "The experience with work camps in which there is an opportunity for training in a wholesome environment had been excellent. There ought to be opportunity for vocational classes and for work relief in the cities and towns." Her proposal was echoed in the Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Youth Administration, public work relief programs established as part of President Roosevelt's New Deal.

Results from the Bureau's study of unemployment during the 1921 depression indicated that economic struggle caused mothers to leave the home for work and children to leave school for work. The same trend held true during the Great Depression, and a breakdown in child labor law enforcement occurred. The Bureau published more than 30 reports on child labor conditions. Studies indicated the number of 14- and 15-year-old workers in the shirt industry had spiked. Thirteen-year-olds were working in Pennsylvania coal mines. Another study revealed that children younger than 11 slaved over piecework in their homes, earning less than $.10 an hour. In December 1932, an emergency conference was held regarding the Depression’s impact on child labor. The Bureau's focus on the effects of economic strife on children and families laid the groundwork for the crucial child welfare provisions in the Social Security Act.

Children's Bureau Chiefs Grace Abbott, Katharine Lenroot, and Martha May Eliot authored pieces of the act pertaining to child welfare. Among these provisions were the allocation of Federal funds to States, especially in rural areas, for improving maternal and child health, disabled children's health, and child welfare services. The Children's Bureau was given authority over these apportionments. The act also included the Aid to Dependent Children Program, which helped States maintain their mothers' aid programs, many of which had been eliminated in States between 1931 and 1933.

The research and other efforts by the Children's Bureau during our nation's Great Depression laid the groundwork for important social service legislation, whose child welfare provisions continue to benefit children and families today.

(This article is based on historical material found mainly in the Five Decades of Action for Children, by Dorothy E. Bradbury, published by the Children's Bureau, and available here: [9 MB])

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Read the first two articles in the second Centennial Series: