Sonny's Corner: Grace Abbott as Progressive Crusader for America's Children


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Sonny Foster"Sonny's Corner" is a regular column in Prairie Fire, featuring commentary on civil rights and justice issues. Our friend and Omaha colleague, Joseph P. "Sonny" Foster, died suddenly at age 54 in August 2005. He left an uncompleted agenda, as did many of our civil rights and justice mentors and heroes. We shall attempt to move forward on that unfinished agenda through this column.

Prairie Fire hopes that the 2012 Nebraska Legislature will follow the lesson and spirit of this essay and take responsibility for the downward spiral of children’s services that Nebraska has seen over the past several years. We read that other states are likewise experiencing dramatic deterioration of services as they try to privatize and outsource the provision of these services. The lack of much legislative oversight (until Sen. Kathy Campbell arrived on the Unicameral scene) is regrettable. We applaud the senator’s efforts to right the ship of state through vigorous oversight by her committee and her legislative colleagues.

By Jane Renner Hood

As Nebraskans and their legislative representatives wrestle with important issues this next session—children’s welfare will be one, although at last report, it seems that immigration will not be for now—it may be useful to consider what a Nebraskan who played a vital role in shaping our nation’s social policy in the 20th century had to say about both issues. We considered Grace Abbott’s important work with the Immigrants Protective League in the last issue of Prairie Fire. This second half considers Abbott’s work as the nation’s foremost voice for children during the Progressive Era up through the early years of the New Deal with her work in the U.S. Children’s Bureau.

Politically, her work’s history is remarkable for the support as well as the opposition to her goals on both sides of the aisle, just as it had been for her work on behalf of immigrants. Grace Abbott was admired and reviled by both Republicans and Democrats. Prior to the New Deal, Republicans were often critical to the success of progressive change in America. Democrats, especially those from the reactive southern states, often were opposed to social change that would benefit the poor or women and children, fearing that black citizens would benefit and gain some of the equality promised them by the party of Lincoln in the years during and immediately following the Civil War.

But by the end of her too-short life, Abbott had made a significant contribution to our nation’s evolving realization that the education and well-being of America’s children were too important to our country’s future to allow their fate to be determined by economic factors beyond their families’ control or, for that matter, their families’ direction when that failed to serve their children well. To keep this precious national resource well nurtured, the state and federal governments would have to take on an important and sustained role on the behalf of the nation’s children, one not envisioned at the beginning of the 20th century by most elected officials. And if the states did not assume their responsibility adequately, it was up to the federal government to assure our children’s care.

The U.S. Children’s Bureau had been established by Congress in 1912—the very first such government entity in the world—as part of the Department of Labor, and President Taft turned to the Hull House leadership for its first head: Julia Lathrop. The passage of the 1916 Child Labor Law—which had taken a decade to achieve and was one of the great accomplishments of the Progressive Era—was to be administered by the Children’s Bureau, and its administration was to bring Grace Abbott to the second of her most significant accomplishments—child welfare.

The Child Labor Law drew upon the federal government’s right to regulate interstate commerce, and it outlawed persons under 16 from working in mines and quarries and those under 14 from working in mills, factories or manufacturing if the results of that work were to be shipped across state lines. Additionally, children in those establishments were not allowed to work more than eight hours a day, six days a week and not at night. The act didn’t touch children working in agriculture or home industries, but it was a significant step forward in asserting that the federal government had a legitimate role in protecting the most vulnerable in our society when the individual states did not.

The Children’s Bureau worked closely with the states to implement the law both because Congress hadn’t appropriated enough funding to support a large field staff but also because Congress didn’t want to impose burdensome regulatory machinery on the states. Abbott and Lathrop were also philosophically committed to federal-state cooperation that respected the initiative and sense of responsibility that could be encouraged in the states. Abbott stated: “All wisdom did not reside in Washington: constructive and creative leaders could be found in state and local government.” (Costin, Lela B., “Two Sisters for Social Justice,” University of Illinois Press, 1983, p. 104) Obviously her own work in Illinois with Hull House and the Immigrants Protective League influenced her thinking about the federal-state partnership.

Abbott’s charge was to craft the rules and regulations, with full public input, that would implement the legislation; to determine which states met the federal criteria and which didn’t and then to focus on those states that fell short. During the year between the passage of the act and its implementation, many states had scrambled to enact legislation that raised their standards to meet the new law so as to minimize the possibility of federal inspectors’ intrusion. In the first year’s review, five states—all in the south—had child labor standards far below what the new federal law required. North and South Carolina had the largest number of working children, but it was very hard to determine how many of these children were 14 or older because birth certificates were available for less than 1 percent of the children who had applied for work permits.

A canning machine and some of the small boys who worked at and around these sometimes dangerous machines, July 7, 1909, Lewis Wickes Hine, photographer, LC-DIG-nclc-00752 (color digital file from B&W original print). (Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)A canning machine and some of the small boys who worked at and around these sometimes dangerous machines, July 7, 1909, Lewis Wickes Hine, photographer, LC-DIG-nclc-00752 (color digital file from B&W original print). (Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)The Child Labor Act faced extraordinary opposition from Southern textile mill owners who had argued that children had to “learn to spin when they were young to provide a skilled labor supply” and by parents who depended upon their 12- and 13-year-old children’s earnings for the family’s survival. (Costin, pp. 102–03) The act was also opposed by Southern state governments that feared that if children under 14 could not work, compulsory attendance in public schools might follow, and that would mean education for black children as well.

Southern cotton mill owners organized, and three days before the law was to take effect in North Carolina, a federal district judge known for his opposition to child-labor laws ruled against its imposition as a result of a case brought by a father dependent upon the earnings of his 13- and 15-year-old sons. Each worked in a cotton mill, and the law would mean that the younger son could no longer work and that the older son couldn’t work the 11-hour day required by the mill. Nine months later, the U.S. Supreme Court on a five-to-four decision ruled that the child-labor law was unconstitutional on the basis that the act was not a legitimate exercise of Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce. In his vigorous dissent, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “If there is any matter upon which civilized countries have agreed, it is the evil of premature and excessive child labor.” (Costin, p. 111)

The end of federal regulations and the demand for child labor in a wartime economy in 1917 sent thousands of children back to the factory, the mill and the mine. But Grace Abbott and Julia Lathrop were not discouraged. In fact, the groundwork that had been done in developing the standards and investigating the status of child labor, particularly in the Southern states, resulted in data further documenting the defeating cycle of child labor, poverty, ignorance and poor physical development. It was evidence that could be used to demonstrate the necessity of addressing the shameful status of children’s welfare in America.

It paved the way for the Maternity and Infancy Act—The Shephard-Towner Act—in 1921, which again would be administered by the Children’s Bureau. Grace Abbott had been instrumental in drafting the legislation and in getting it passed. And in 1921 she succeeded Julia Lathrop as the chief of the U.S. Children’s Bureau.

The Shepard-Towner Act had been a campaign issue in the 1920 national elections, and the new Republican President, Warren G. Harding, was a proponent. He had said in his campaign, “The Children’s Bureau’s work must be extended. It is for us a grim jest, indeed, that the Federal Government is spending twice as much money each year for the suppression of hog cholera as it spends for its entire program for the welfare of the American child.” (John Sorensen and Judith Sealander, eds., “The Grace Abbott Reader,” p. 35)

The goal of the legislation was to reduce maternal and infant mortality and to promote the health of mothers and babies. Abbott implemented the Shepard-Towner Act through a variety of means in collaboration with state and local health agencies. The Children’s Bureau developed informational pamphlets and produced a film, “Well Born,” that was widely used.1 The Bureau sponsored workshops led by local doctors and nurses for women and children where they could be weighed and examined and if physical problems were found, follow-up could be arranged and the parents could receive instruction on normal child growth and development. A “Child Welfare Truck” equipped as a child health center was sent out to rural areas and then adapted by many states for their own use. As radio became widely used, Abbott seized this venue, and for many years the Children’s Bureau sponsored a weekly program, “Your Child,” on NBC and CBS. Grace Abbott became one of the first female broadcasters to a national audience. The Children’s Bureau also worked to enhance professional training by sending instructors in maternal and child care to work with county nurses and supported training for midwives in rural communities.

Despite President Harding’s embrace of the Shepard-Towner Act, it had many opponents, and when it was time to reauthorize the legislation in 1927, the opposition grew from four main sources:

1. A residue of anti-suffrage sentiment about women’s place coalesced around the “radicals” in the Hull House leadership that many critics saw as running the Children’s Bureau

2. The patriotic opposition who believed the Shepard-Towner Act was leading the U.S. toward communism and who were actively opposed to the “Russian influence”

3. Those who resisted the enlargement of the federal government and believed that the government had no business interfering with family life. Their pamphleteering asked: “Shall the Children of America Become the Property of the State?”

4. Internal turf battles between the Children’s Bureau and the Surgeon General who wanted the Shepard-Towner act to be transferred to a Department of Health, which he hoped to establish and head

Grace Abbott was personally attacked as a communist and a childless spinster who was interfering with families. Sen. James Reed, a leading Democrat from Missouri, proposed on the floor of the Senate that “We provide a committee of mothers to take charge of the old maids and teach them how to acquire a husband and have babies of their own.” (Costin, p. 142–47)

The reauthorization was also complicated by the succession of Calvin Coolidge, who approved of the Children’s Bureau and the Shepard-Towner Act but believed that the federal funding to improve maternal and children’s health should be gradually withdrawn and the states should assume its funding. As Edith Abbott observed to her beleaguered sister: “President Coolidge, like many other brave New England men, was quite willing to accept a $90 million subsidy for good roads but his searing New England conscience made him afraid of a subsidy of $1,249,000 for mothers and babies.” (Costin, p. 147)

After a grueling battle in Congress, a compromise amendment extended the Shepard-Towner for two years with its repeal set for 1929. However, Grace Abbott had great hopes for social reform for children with the election of Herbert Hoover to the presidency in 1928 because of the work he had done with the American Relief Commission in Europe following the devastation of World War I. During the campaign, Hoover had said, “If we could grapple with the child situation in one generation, our public health, our economic deficiency, the moral character, sanity, and stability of our people would advance three generations in one.” (John Sorensen, “Grace Abbott: An Introduction,” The Grace Abbott School of Social Work, University of Nebraska at Omaha, 2010, p. 25)

When the Secretary of Labor resigned in early 1930, a national campaign by Progressives and various newspaper editors to appoint Grace Abbott to head the department caught fire with thousands of letters and petition signatures sent to Hoover to appoint Abbott as Secretary of Labor, the first woman to hold a cabinet position. This included a formal proposal to appoint his fellow Nebraskan as Secretary of Labor by Republican Sen. George Norris. However, Hoover and Abbott had locked horns over the direction of the Children’s Bureau, and he had come to see her as inflexible and self-righteous. Hoover appointed, instead, William Doak, of the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen.

Failure to become Secretary of Labor did not keep Abbott from taking action to redress the effect of the Depression on children, however. The Children’s Bureau research had shown that “the most important factor in all of our child welfare problems is the regular employment of the father at a reasonable wage.” (Costin, pp. 154–56) She worked with senators to develop the Costigan-LaFollette bill to grant $600 million to the Children’s Bureau for unemployment relief. President Hoover was opposed, and the two fought it out in the press. Hoover stressed that it was not the federal government’s responsibility; rather, such relief should be supported by private charity.

They met head-to-head as the two keynote speakers at the annual convention of the American Red Cross in April 1931. Hoover lauded the Red Cross’s work in the growing Depression, saying that if the federal government had taken on their relief work, “It would have been the destruction of something even greater than voluntary service—it would have injured the spiritual responses of the American people.” (Sorensen, pp. 30–31)

Grace Abbott spoke the next day to the immense and immediate disaster facing American children in the Depression, saying that

“All kinds of expansion of public and private undertakings are necessary if we are to meet the challenge of American children. The only time we can save the babies who are going to die this year, is this year. If we wait until next year, they will be dead. The only time we can care for children in any particular period of life is now. If a child does not get what he needs, he will permanently bear the effect of that lack. If you postpone assistance … you post-pone it indefinitely as far as that child is concerned, and the result will be a permanent marring of the life of the child because of the period of neglect.” (Sorensen, p. 31)

As the Depression grew more desperate and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, it would be Grace Abbott’s vision for children, and the role of the federal government in the welfare of their families, that would finally be implemented, not Herbert Hoover’s.

Grace Abbott observed in a 1934 commencement address: “Perhaps you may ask: ‘Does the road lead uphill all the way?’ And I must answer, ‘Yes, to the very end.’ But if I offer you a long, hard struggle, I can also promise you great rewards.” (Sorensen and Sealander, eds., p. 80)

That was the story of her life: a road leading uphill to the end with great rewards for America’s children and immigrants. Grace Abbott’s work laid the basis for much of the social reform adopted during FDR’s administration, including the provision in the Social Security Act that secured benefits to children surviving a parent, and it envisioned much of what would be enacted in later decades to provide basic care and protection for our nation’s most vulnerable. She would not live to see many of the results of her long struggle; they would come after her death from cancer at age 60 in 1939.



1. The Jane Addams Hull-House Museum on the University of Illinois-Chicago campus has a special section on Grace and Edith Abbott that includes a video presentation of “Your Child,” which evidences careful attention to the dignity and diversity of the audience it was intended to reach.


Image courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.


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