The Children's Bureau

photo of children

The Creation of the Children's Bureau

The Children's Bureau was formally created in 1912 when President William Howard Taft signed into law a bill creating the new federal government organization. The stated purpose of the new Bureau was to investigate and report "upon all matters pertaining to the welfare of children and child life among all classes of our people."

The signing of this law culminated a grass-roots process started in 1903 by two early social reformers, Lillian Wald, of New York's Henry Street Settlement House, and Florence Kelly, of the National Consumer's League. Along the way, their efforts picked up support from President Theodore Roosevelt, among other prominent supporters, before finally becoming law nine years after they launched the initiative.

After several false starts in Congress, the successful bill was sponsored by Senator William E. Borah. The bill authorized the creation of a 16-person organization, with a first-year budget of $25,640. Initially part of the Department of Commerce, the Children's Bureau was transferred to the Department of Labor in 1913. The law also called for the Bureau to be headed by a Chief, who would be a Presidential appointee, subject to Senate confirmation. The first Chief of the Children's Bureau was Julia Lathrop.

photo of Julia Lathrop

Julia C. Lathrop, first Chief of the Children's Bureau.
SSA History Archives.

The Social Security Act of 1935

A large part of the Social Security Act of 1935 was intended to support and address the programs of the Children's Bureau. Staff from the Bureau, especially Katherine Lenroot and Martha Eliot, worked with the President's Committee on Economic Security which designed and drafted the Social Security Act.

Title V of the Act, Grants to the States for Maternal and Child Welfare, was assigned to the Children's Bureau and gave the Bureau equal status with the unemployment compensation and old-age provisions of the Social Security Act. Indeed, Title IV of the Act, the Aid to Dependent Children program, was also in furtherance of the general mission of the Bureau, although formal oversight responsibility for the ADC program was assigned to the Social Security Board.

The Children's Bureau Joins SSA

The Children's Bureau continued to be part of the Department of Labor until 1946. As part of the same reorganization that created the Social Security Administration, the Children's Bureau was transferred to SSA, effective July 1946. This was done, according to President Truman's executive order, because "The transfer of the Children's Bureau . . . will strengthen the child-care programs by bringing them in closer association with the health, welfare, and educational activities with which they are inextricably bound up."

This transfer was deeply significant in terms of the Bureau's mission. The Children's Bureau began life in an era when child labor was commonplace, and one of its core initial missions was to work to relieve the misery caused by exploitative child labor. It was natural, therefore, to think of the Children's Bureau as aligned with the labor-related agencies, first Commerce and then Labor. Over time, as child labor was outlawed, the focus of the Bureau had shifted more to health and welfare issues--a shift which was, in many respects, an expression of the Bureau's success.

The year 1962 saw both the 50th anniversary of the Children's Bureau and the end of its placement within SSA. The Public Welfare Amendments of 1962 expanded the role of the Bureau in the welfare area, and increased the emphasis on the Bureau's work. One result was a reorganization of the Department of Health Education and Welfare, in which both SSA and the Bureau were components. This reorganization created a new Welfare Administration and the Children's Bureau become a component in the new organization. Over time, the organizational placement and role of the Children's Bureau continued to evolve. In 1968 the Children's Bureau became part of the Social and Rehabilitation Service; in 1970 it was submerged in a new Office of Child Development; later in the 1970s it became part of the Public Health Service; it is currently part of the Department of Health & Human Services' Administration for Children and Families.

Brief History of the Children's Bureau  (1962)
Prologue to a report of the Children's Bureau

Extended History of the Children's Bureau (in Adobe pdf format)
A formal history of the Children's Bureau written in 1956 by Dorothy Bradbury and Martha Eliot.
PART 1: Pre-1912 to 1933
PART 2: 1934-1956