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Children in poverty: progress report

THIS year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of John Spargo's moving portrayal of child poverty in America: ``The Bitter Cry of the Children.'' The New York Times hoped it would ``mark the turning of the tide in the treatment of children'' -- from conditions of ill health, undernourishment, child labor, and unsatisfactory recreation facilities. Without doubt, Spargo's book stirred local, state, and federal governments to deal with these problems, but the task was enormous. For even today, the typical victim of poverty in America is a child. That children and their mothers were largely neglected in social policy at the turn of the century was an understatement. The nation's attention was focused on industrial abuses that affected competitors and consumers as well as on inequities in the democratic process -- such as the lack of an income tax for wealthy Americans. Spargo argued that children didn't start life as equals, and that the result was a legacy to the nation far worse than these other social problems. ``And herein lies the greatest hope of the race,'' Spargo wrote. ``We are not handicapped from the start; we can begin with the child of today to make certain a brighter and nobler tomorrow as though there had never been a yesterday of woe and wrong.''

Spargo's depiction of child labor had the greatest impact on reformers, with some state laws effected as well as a congressional movement begun that reached its peak in 1924 with the passing of a child labor amendment. Cities and states also began to pay more attention to the health of schoolchildren, and private welfare, as illustrated by the work of various settlement houses and children's aid societies, was stimulated. Infant and maternal health care was a field the federal government entered in 1921. Then in the Great Depression, Washington brought into existence the school lunch program as well as the Social Security Act with its dependent-child provisions.

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To be sure, Spargo's pioneer work on child poverty in 1906 is written in a style that appears anachronistic today, and some of its recommendations are strongly paternalistic, as opposed to the compromising path that most federal legislation has taken. But Spargo concluded that the American child was an exception to the general rule: ``If the nation realizes that the demand for protection of the children is the highest patriotism, and enfolds every child within its strong, protecting arms, then and not till then will it be possible to look with confidence toward the future, unashamed and unafraid.''

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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