Children, the state, and the American Dream

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Just two days before the 2009 United States presidential inauguration, Parade Magazine published an article by president-elect Barack Obama. Entitled, "What I want for You-And Every Child in America," the essay was an optimistic message written in the form of a letter to Obama's daughters, ten-year-old Malia and seven-year-old Sasha. Obama recalled childhood memories of his Kansas-born grandmother reciting lines from the Declaration of Independence in order to teach him about the nation's core values and their relationship to the American Dream. He also acknowledged, however, that his grandmother's teachings included stories of struggle by brave individuals fighting to secure equality of opportunity as the key to accessing that dream. Obama cautioned, the United States "is not great because it is perfect, but because it can always be made better." Continually striving to provide "greater equality of opportunity for all⋯ is a responsibility we pass on to our children, coming closer with each generation to what we know America should be." The American Dream, Obama explained, is what "I want for you-to grow up in a world with no limits on your dreams and no achievements beyond your reach. And I want every child to have the same chances to learn and dream and grow and thrive you girls have."1 Barack Obama's words echo the hopes for America's children expressed by U.S. presidents and politicians for more than one hundred years. Beginning with Theodore Roosevelt's 1909 White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children, measuring the welfare of America's youngest citizens served as a litmus test for assessing the nation's progress in meeting its highest ideals. Talking about the anticipated effects of new policies on children is a popular tool for arguing both for and against proposed reforms. In a broad context, throughout U.S. history various groups of adults asked the federal government to protect an individual's right to independence, self-determination, and autonomy as the best means for ensuring access to the American Dream.2 For the nation's youngest citizens in the twentieth century, however, instead of arguing for greater independence and expanded individual rights, child welfare advocates asked the federal government in cooperation with the states to provide a protected dependency as every child's right. In other words, modern child welfare policy in the United States is built on the idea that it is a federal/state responsibility to enforce every child's right to a protected dependency as the key to securing equality of opportunity and thereby access to the American Dream. But in practical reality, the result is a U.S. child welfare system that is more pluralistic than uniform. In addition, policymakers, politicians, and the American public continue to struggle with balancing protections for children, and the perceived rights and values that are part of the nation's history. The United States became an early leader in shaping children's relationship to the modern nation state when President William Howard Taft signed legislation establishing the U.S. Children's Bureau (Stat. L., 79) on April 9, 1912. This federal agency was the first in the world to focus solely on a nation's youngest citizens. The legislation mandated that the bureau "investigate and report⋯ upon all matters pertaining to the welfare of children and child life among all classes of our people." The agency's creation acknowledged children as a distinct age cohort in need of special attention from the federal government. Its first two decades of work focused on defining cooperation between the federal and state governments with help from private philanthropies. Early initiatives were designed to help reduce the nation's high infant mortality rate, improve child health, end most forms of exploitive child labor, and promote the use of birth certificates. Birth certificates were important because they certified an individual's age as the determining factor for accessing the right to government-protected childhood dependency. In the early twentieth century, states and local governments held the responsibility for implementing and controlling child welfare policies, while the federal government's U.S. Children's Bureau lobbied for uniform standards and promoted a universal definition of a protected childhood as a civil right.3 By the 1930s, the New Deal opened the door for expansion of direct federal intervention in child welfare. Most important, passage of the 1935 Social Security Act (SSA) codified a universal dependent and protected status from birth through age seventeen in federal law for the first time.4 The SSA also included the most important federal programs for children that continued to be the core of U.S. child welfare policies throughout the twentieth century. At the turn of the twenty-first century, the modern ideal of childhood dependency is a fundamental part of the relationship between American children and the state. However, as President Obama's words suggest, that embrace did not secure universal access to the American Dream. In 2009, the U.S. Census Bureau counted 15.5 million American children living in poverty, one out of every five individuals under eighteen years of age. This is an improvement over the 1960 rate of just under 25 percent, but is clear evidence of weaknesses in the U.S. child welfare system.5 Furthermore, a 2009 study showed that economic mobility in the United States ranks behind Canada, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, France, Spain, and Australia: 42 percent of children living in households in the bottom fifth of U.S. income levels are likely to remain in poverty as adults.6 It is also revealing that a 2006 public opinion poll found, "for the first time in the nation's history, a majority of Americans believe that the next generation will fare worse than their parents." An unemployment rate since 2008 of just under 10 percent further adds to the public's anxiety about the viability of the American Dream.7 A variety of social and economic factors in the United States contribute to the mixed results of the more than century-long effort to establish a nation where every child has equality of opportunity. Part of the explanation for this situation is also ideological. Americans have not fully reconciled the idea of a government-protected childhood dependency from birth through adolescence in the context of traditional American values celebrating independence, individual responsibility, and individual achievement. On the flip side, American ideals may subconsciously equate dependency with incompetence and diminished value. Since 1945, the federal government's role as the ultimate protector of children's dependency expanded, but, as Obama's 2009 pledge to his daughters and all American children suggests, the ideal of providing greater equality of opportunity for every child to achieve the American Dream is still a work in progress.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationReinventing Childhood After World War II
PublisherUniversity of Pennsylvania Press
Number of pages26
ISBN (Print)9780812243673
StatePublished - 2012
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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