• March 2012
  • Vol. 13, No. 2

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Centennial Series: International Child Welfare

This is the eighth article in our Centennial Series, as we count down to the Children's Bureau's 100th anniversary in April 2012. These articles address some of the social issues, practices, and policies at the turn of the last century that laid the groundwork for the creation of the Children's Bureau.

As countries in the early 20th century began to embrace the concept of children as national resources, governments devised social programs aimed at improving maternal and child well-being. While most research collected by the Children's Bureau on other countries centered on Europe and English-speaking nations, it still paints a clear picture of bourgeoning international child welfare programs. Birth registries, home visitation, and mothers' pensions were just a few common initiatives around the world. 

Australia was one of the first countries to provide national assistance to offset the financial burden of childbirth. Through its Maternity Allowance Act of 1912, the Federal Government awarded £5—or roughly $25—to families of newborns. The Prime Minister was quoted as saying "It is the duty of the community and especially the duty of a national parliament to protect every possible life . . . " (Harris, 1919).

To help women avoid destitution, mothers' pension laws emerged around 1911. The first U.S. mothers' pension law—also called widows' pensions—was passed in Illinois and provided payments to widows with children (Leff, 1973). New Zealand's mothers' pension law, also passed in 1911, allowed any widow with "good character" and children under the age 14 to receive payments (Lathrop, 1914c).

Denmark's 1913 pension law aided widows with children younger than 14 so long as their income and property value were below a certain amount. Pension amounts graduated with the age of the child or children, and larger sums were awarded for children aged 2 and younger. The pension also was subject to the mother's parental fitness and the condition of her home (Lathrop, 1914c).

Infant mortality rates were also a common challenge around the world. According to the 1910 U.S. Census, there was an estimated 2.2 million children under 1 year of age (U.S. Census Bureau, 1910). That year, there also were approximately 300,000 infant deaths (babies under 1 year), at least half of which were due to poor sanitation, hygiene, and "individual and civic neglect" (Lathrop, 1914a).

Conditions were similar in England. George Newman, England's Chief Medical Officer for the Board of Education, devised a plan to address the issue—educating mothers on proper infant and child care. The British instituted similar educational efforts for young Boer women in South Africa during the South African War in the early 1900s (Van Heyningen, 2010). By 1913, England had 150 Schools for Mothers with curricula focused on domestic training. Several women's charitable organizations conducted health visits to working-class families to provide "sanitary and moral advice" (Foley, 2001). By 1905, English authorities established regulations governing charity visits and appointed paid female health visitors. The number of local maternity and child health visitors increased from 600 in 1914 to more than 2,500 in 1918 (Hendrick, 1994).

These efforts laid the groundwork for early health clinics, known as Infant Welfare Centres, and England's Notification of Births Act in 1907, requiring all births to be reported within 36 hours (Foley, 2001). These measures, among others, are thought to have contributed to the drop in England's infant mortality rate between 1891 and 1917 from 149:1 to 96:1 (Hendrick, 1994).

Unlike the United States and England, New Zealand's infant mortality rate was among the lowest in the world, attributed to the efforts of the New Zealand Society for the Health of Women and Children. Nurses visited families to educate parents in hygiene, homemaking, and proper infant and child care (Lathrop, 1914b).

Comparing the sparse U.S. birth and death records to those of New Zealand points out the stark contrasts. In 1910, the death rate of infants under 1 year per 100 births was 5.1 in New Zealand, compared to 12.7 in Connecticut, 13.1 in Massachusetts, 12.9 in New York, and 15.8 in Rhode Island.

Staff at the new Children's Bureau believed that the methods in place in New Zealand could be applied in the United States, and they set out to conduct the Bureau's first investigation of infant mortality. Work began in January 1913 gathering data from births in 1911 in Johnstown, PA (Duke, 1915). Female agents made visits to homes to gather information on the social, civic, and, industrial conditions of families and to mark the growth and development of babies.

It was determined that the incidence of infant death could be reduced through a number of efforts: 

  • The overall improvement of unsanitary living conditions (such as water and sewage systems) in cities and towns
  • The dissemination of literature and instruction on prenatal care
  • The creation of baby welfare clinics and consultation stations for expectant and nursing mothers
  • The availability of visiting nurses to instruct mothers (Duke, 1915)

This Johnstown study and subsequent report laid the groundwork for future infant mortality and child welfare studies in the United States and legislation geared toward improving the health and well-being of children and families.

Duke, E. (1915). Infant Mortality: Results of a field study in Johnstown, PA, based on births in one calendar year. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. Retrieved from

Foley, P. (2001). The development of child health and welfare services in England (1900-1948). In P. Foley, J. Roche, & S. Tucker (Eds.) Children in society: Contemporary theory, policy and practice (pp. 9–17). Houndsmills, UK: Palgrave, the Open University.

Harris, H. (1919). Maternity benefit systems in certain foreign countries. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. Retrieved from

Hendrick, H. (1994). Child welfare England 1972–1989. London, UK: Routledge.

Leff, M. (1973). Consensus for reform: The mothers' pension movement in the Progressive Era. Social Service Review, 47, 397–417.

Lathrop, J. (1914a). First annual report of the Chief, Children's Bureau, to the Secretary of Labor, for the fiscal year ended June 1913. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. Retrieved from http://www.mchlibrary.info/history/chbu/21867-1st.PDF (1MB)

Lathrop, J. (1914b). New Zealand Society for the Health of Women and Children: An example of methods of baby-saving work in small towns and rural districts (Infant Mortality Series, No. 2; Bureau Publication, No. 6). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. Retrieved from

Lathrop, J. (1914c). Laws relating to "mothers' pensions" in the United States, Denmark and New Zealand. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. Retrieved from  http://www.mchlibrary.info/history/chbu/20375.PDF (7 MB)

U.S. Census Bureau. (1910). Census of population and housing. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/decennial/1910.html

Van Heyningen, E. (2010). A tool for modernisation? The Boer concentration camps of the South African War, 1900–1902. South African Journal Of Science, 106(5/6), 1-10.

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