You Can’t Pauperize Children

by Eleanor Roosevelt, Ladies’ Home Journal 62 (September 1945): 128-129.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt

You have been reading of Mrs. Smith and the marvels she has accomplished on her allowance in California. California is a fairly liberal state, but even in California there are strange rules that are difficult to understand. Mrs. Smith cannot take on any extra work at home and add to the opportunities of her children or to the comforts of her home, because if she does she forfeits from her allowance the amount that she makes. Unless the job pays her more than her total allowance and is completely secure, she is not going to risk being without any income at a given point, because the procedure to get back on to the state welfare will probably leave her without resources for a period of time.

It might be possible in some cases for a child to earn a little money here and there, but if he is enterprising enough to do so that also, according to the story of Mrs. Smith which you have been reading, is deducted from the allowance, so we discourage initiative and a desire to become better off.

It seems to be fairly evident that no child under sixteen or eighteen, attending school, could possibly earn such large sums of money that they would be defrauding the state. A mother might be allowed only certain kinds of homework, since we do not want to return to the old sweatshop-labor conditions in any home. Certain services could be rendered by a woman at home, however, and she could add something perhaps to her meager allowance.

What can a child do when it is deprived of its mother’s care by death or illness, and the father has to go to work? What can a child do if the father is removed from the family circle for any one of a number of good reasons? The mother may go to work, you say, but in many cases that is impossible, because it means no care at home for the child.

Every now and then I hear murmurs against certain programs developed in the interests of giving people, young and old, a greater sense of security in their daily lives. I have had people tell me that this stepping in of government with unemployment insurance, old-age compensation, and so on, “was really a very dangerous and pauperizing program, since people should be thrifty and lay up money themselves for bad times, emergencies, old age, and not count on government to look after them.”

During the depression I think that it was pretty well proved that there are many cases in which it is practically impossible for people to lay up anything in the way of savings to make a family secure for any length of time.

Many of us may differ as to the value of much assistance which is given to older people in the community. But no matter how much we argue, where young children are concerned there can be very little difference of opinion, since obviously they have had no opportunity for saving money themselves and are helpless to do anything for themselves during their early years.

Children, rich and poor, are the wealth of a nation. Their hands and their heads are going to determine what happens in every country in the world, as they grow to maturity. So I think we look with great interest on what is being done to make it possible for children to grow up under healthy conditions even when adversity of various kinds comes their way.

Assistance to dependent children, which is a program carried on under the Federal Security Agency, has been, of course, a very great help, but it seems to me that we should constantly be scrutinizing our program for aid to children to see how we can make an improvement in it.

First let us review the past. Before the Social Security Act was passed, most of the states had what was called Mothers’ Aid laws or Widows’ Pensions. The effect of the Social Security Act was that the legislatures revised and broadened their laws because they had to comply with the more liberal provisions of the Social Security Act.

The difference between the old laws for assistance to dependent children and the Social Security law is that in order to get the money, the assistance must be made statewide. In the past, the assistance was not statewide, and one city or county would give assistance here and there.

Many of the laws were permissible rather than mandatory. Some left the entire administration of the program to local units with no state supervision provided. Even now, in general, the payments made under Aid to Dependent Children are lower than those made under Old Age Assistance and Aid to the Blind.

In April, 1945, the average aid to a family was $46.83 per month, the family consisting of a mother or a relative and two and a half children as a unit of survey. The lowest average was $20.79 in one state and the highest was $87.24, and five states averaged payments less than $25.00 a month.

Also, under the old laws, a child had to live with a mother. Under the Social Security Act the child can live with any relative. Even after the Social Security Act went into effect, some states did not provide the money to carry out the program.

All states now, except Nevada, have broadened their laws to comply with the Aid to Dependent Children provision of the Social Security Act. Nevada still has a mothers’ aid program, but it is not statewide and not so broad as the Social Security Aid to Dependent Children.

In a survey which was carried on by sixteen states on a voluntary basis, it was found that while the Federal definition of a dependent child is fairly liberal, states are often very rigid. The Federal Government defines a dependent child as one under sixteen or under the age of eighteen if still attending school, who, because of death, continued absence from home or mental or physical incapacity, is deprived of parental care. The child, to obtain assistance, must be living with a parent or other specified relative. Many of the states, however, have rules and regulations which prevent the giving of aid for a variety of technicalities. In some cases, the child or its parents must have lived for a year within the state; in others, if they become dependent children, it has to be proved that the parent has been absent for a year and that legal steps have been taken against the parent to make him contribute support. Otherwise the state will not allow them to receive aid.

These are just examples of the kind of differences that make the dependent child’s life precarious.

Most of us know there are two things all children need above all others—one is love, and the other is a sense of security. No matter how much the mother and father may love a child, if there is no assurance that there will be shelter and food and clothing for that child, and at least a minimum standard of living in the home, the child’s sense of security is endangered.

The laws in the various states are so very different that it is not possible to say what the general program for the care of dependent children really is throughout the country. We can only say that we have succeeded in creating an awareness of the need and in meeting it better since the Social Security Agency came into being than when society depended entirely on private charity to meet its obligations.

We cannot say that every child in this country is getting an opportunity to grow up under favorable conditions. That would not be true. We can be grateful, however, that families like the Smith family—though the conditions under which they live may not be ideal, and all women may not be as capable and intelligent as Mrs. Smith—still have the advantages of medical care, for instance. This means a great deal to the mother with a growing family, even if the allowance for food in some states seems absurdly small even with the most careful budgeting.

A widow whose case was brought to my attention a few days ago could not give her children adequate meals, and yet the welfare department insisted that they were extremely careful to have a dietitian go over the allowance. In this particular case, there were two young children in the family, and the allowance for milk alone would have left for the other food requirements six cents per meal per day.

On the other hand, I remember a case in West Virginia where the man was killed in a mine accident, leaving a large family of children. In that case, in the past, there would have been a purse made up, to which the owners and the managers of the mine would have made substantial contributions, but much of the money would have been paid out for funeral expenses and before long the family would have been destitute. When that time arrived, everyone would have forgotten about the man’s death. The result would have been grudging charity or inadequate state-welfare assistance. The children might have been sent to homes away from their mother and the woman might have gone to work when undoubtedly she was far better fitted to look after her family at home than to do an outside job. In the case to which I refer, what the woman and her children received under Social Security kept the home together and made for a greater sense of security than would have been possible otherwise.

Even when we know of these good results, however, we must not complacently sit back and think, “Now the job for widows and children is done, the children are cared for in their homes, widows and widowers do not need to be separated from their children, our obligation as citizens is finished.” In our own interest we must strive as citizens to improve the conditions of children throughout the country, because every child who grows up a good citizen, self-respecting and self-supporting, adds to the wealth of the country. Every child who grows up physically and mentally unstable, morally insecure, may cost us, as citizens, far more when they grow older than it could cost us for good care at home throughout their childhood.

Source: Roosevelt, Eleanor, “You Can’t Pauperize Children,” Ladies’ Home Journal (September 1945): 128-129. New Deal Network, (April 30, 2014).


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