Children at the White House

By Jessica Portner — February 24, 1999 6 min read

In roughly 10-year intervals throughout the 20th century, the White House has brought together prominent academics, physicians, social workers, community leaders, and others to address issues involving America’s children. Whether the country was at war or at peace, prosperous or in an economic slump, each White House conference reflected the challenges facing children at the time. Some of the presidential gatherings were catalysts for significant and enduring reforms in child welfare, while others produced few lasting results.

1909: White House Conference on Dependent Children

This first conference, chaired by President Theodore Roosevelt, was the brainchild of James West, a young lawyer and presidential appointee who had been raised in an orphanage in Washington. Roosevelt intended the two-day conference to examine the needs of destitute and neglected children, and it helped pave the way for a federal agency devoted to promoting child welfare. The Children’s Bureau was started in 1912 and remains today as part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It primarily focuses on foster care, adoption, and child-care standards.

1919: White House Conference on Child-Welfare Standards

President Woodrow Wilson had proclaimed 1918, while the United States was at war in Europe, the “Children’s Year” to try to inspire support for safeguarding American children during a time of national peril. The Children’s Bureau organized the conference to set minimum standards for children’s health and welfare. Guests from other countries joined more than 200 American participants, including social workers, pediatricians, public-health nurses, economists, judges, and parents. The panelists’ recommendations helped steer legislation setting standards for child labor and employment, child protection, and medical care for infants and mothers. Recommendations from the gathering laid the groundwork for maternal- and child-health programs under the Social Security Act passed by Congress in 1935.

1930: White House Conference on Child Health and Protection

In the midst of the Great Depression, as child advocates were working overtime to care for increasing numbers of impoverished children, President Herbert Hoover saw a national conference as a way to build public support for children’s services and laws designed to protect young people. The president tapped the secretary of the interior to be chairman and the secretary of labor to act as vice chairman. The event was financed with $500,000 in leftover funds from the First World War. More than 1,200 participants divided into 138 committees to review subjects such as pediatric-health services and education and training. The committees’ reports combined to form the first national “Children’s Charter,” which laid out the rights of children to attend schools that were “safe from hazards, sanitary, [and] properly equipped,” to be raised in safe environments, and to be provided with proper medical care. The conference has been credited as being a catalyst for advances in pediatric medicine. The charter--endorsed by Hoover--set in motion employment protections that eventually would shield underage workers from exploitation on the job.

1940: White House Conference on Children in a Democracy

The fourth White House conference focused on all children, not just those who were poor. With World War II already under way in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt charged the 700 or so conferees with considering “how a democracy can best serve its children and how children can be helped to grow into the kind of citizens who will preserve democracy.” Though the 1940 recommendations were modest compared with those of previous conferences and called for no new programs, the gathering itself may have helped provide momentum for subsequent federal action. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1941 declared the Fair Labor Standards Act constitutional, making its child-labor provisions the permanent standard of protection for children.

1950: Midcentury White House Conference on Children and Youth

The theme of the midcentury conference--understanding child development--reflected the significant gains in research on human development and child psychology during that period. President Harry S. Truman’s White House gathering brought together more than 4,800 participants, 500 of them younger than 21. The diverse group of professionals, students, pediatricians, labor leaders, and others examined ways of fostering children’s mental and emotional health. The conference endorsed the need for research in developmental psychology, the importance of early intervention to promote healthful lifelong habits, and the virtues of leisure time for building children’s social skills. After this conference, several governors convened similar state-level meetings.

1960: Golden Anniversary White House Conference On Children and Youth

In a time of material abundance, scientific discoveries, and breakthroughs in technology, President Dwight D. Eisenhower used this conference to address people’s growing interest in children’s values. The conference, attended by 11,000 people, examined the role of family, religion, community, and government in children’s lives. The conferees focused on the emerging problems of juvenile delinquency, school failure, and illicit drug use by youths that many said symbolized a moral decline. Though 670 recommendations emerged from the conference, none formed the basis for enduring nationwide action.

1970: White House Conference on Children and Youth

The 1970 conference on children, chaired by President Richard M. Nixon, focused on such topics as the effect of racism on young people, family neglect and abuse, juvenile justice, and child care. The well-attended gathering, which included state leaders, was a springboard for several national social and educational initiatives. The meeting helped build public support for the idea of a U.S. Department of Education and helped promote initiatives to prevent child abuse. After the conference, Nixon proposed an expansion of child-care services. But just a year later, in 1971, he vetoed the Comprehensive Child-Development Act, which would have laid the foundation for a national network of child-care centers.

1980: White House Conference on Families

Changing trends in the family was the theme of the conference called by President Jimmy Carter. Conferees considered how cultural and social changes, such as an escalating divorce rate and the growth of single-parent households, affected children. The participants also looked at how economic circumstances had fostered certain migration patterns--from rural to urban, and urban to suburban communities--during the 1970s and how the increased mobility had affected young people. The leading areas of concern included the availability of child care, the quality of education, the availability and quality of health care, and work discrimination. At the conclusion of the conference, Carter called on each state governor to designate a coordinator to address children’s issues.

1997: White House Conference on Child Care

Citing the importance of the first three years of a child’s life, President Bill Clinton focused on the importance of child care in the latest White House conference on children. Child-development experts, medical professionals, and directors of local programs met to share scientific findings on how children learn and how best to provide enriching care for them. Of the five initiatives Clinton proposed at the meeting, an effort to reduce the number of uninsured poor children was perhaps the most significant. In 1998, Congress approved a children’s health-insurance bill that extended coverage to 3 million previously uninsured children through an expansion of Medicaid.

A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 1999 edition of Education Week as Children at the White House