The Child and the American Welfare State
RESOLVED, II -- That we [the children of America assembled] declare ourselves to be helpless and dependent; that we are and of right ought to be dependent, and that we hereby present the appeal of our helplessness that we may be protected in the enjoyment of the rights of childhood.
-- A. J. McKelway, "Declaration of Dependence," 19131
In 1913, the assistant secretary of the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), A. J. McKelway, borrowed a phrase or two from Thomas Jefferson and drafted a "Declaration of Dependence" for the working children of America. The document says children are "in bondage in this land of the free" because they have no control over the conditions of their labor or any right to the rewards of their service. Repeating the ideals that informed the child labor movement, the declaration asserts "childhood is endowed with certain inherent and inalienable rights," including freedom from toil, the right to play, the right to an education, and the right to equal opportunity. On behalf of the children of America, the petition demands "the restoration of our rights by the abolition of child labor in America."2
McKelway "Declaration of Dependence" dramatically reminds us of the fundamental values and changed perceptions that were the foundations of modern child welfare policy. 3 Before the Progressive Era, for example, state legislators often expected children to contribute to their own support and to their family's economic survival. This expectation was so strong that even as the states tightened up their control over child labor, they simultaneously exempted orphans, the children of widows, and/or the chil-