LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
On this holiday weekend, it's a time to relax and step back from the frantic news cycle, a perfect moment for us to kick off something we're calling The Weekendlong Listen (ph), stories by reporters on the ground that take you somewhere, stories we're airing throughout the summer that, yes, you just have to listen to.
This morning, let's turn back the clock about a hundred years, when parents were in desperate need of advice for taking care of their kids. But there were no parenting books, no YouTube, no social media like today. Nope. They wrote letters to, of all places, the United States government. As part of NPR's series How To Raise A Human, Rebecca Davis tells us how this helped us rethink what it means to be a kid.
REBECCA DAVIS, BYLINE: In October of 1916, a pregnant woman named Alice Phelps committed an act of what must have felt like pure desperation. She pulled out a sheet of paper and wrote a letter to Julia Lathrop, the director of a government agency some 2,000 miles away. (Reading) Dear Miss Lathrop, her letter begins...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading) I live 65 miles from a doctor, and my other babies were very large at birth - one 12 pounds, the other 10 1/2. I have been very badly torn each time.
DAVIS: Julia Lathrop was used to getting letters from mothers eager for advice. She was director of the United States Children's Bureau in Washington, D.C., but Alice Phelps's letter made an especially deep impression. She lived on a ranch in Wyoming and described riding miles through subzero temperatures to help a distant neighbor, a woman in the middle of childbirth.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading) She was nearly dead when I got there and died after giving birth to a 14-pound boy. I am so worried and filled with perfect horror at the prospects ahead. If there is anything I can do to escape being torn again, won't you let me know?
DAVIS: Julia Lathrop heard this cry for help, but what could she do? Her agency wasn't designed to provide health care. In fact, it had very few resources. And it was created with a narrow mission - to conduct research. Historian Kriste Lindenmeyer says that's because the Children's Bureau was created out of an idea that was still very new at the time, that the federal government would have a role in the welfare of children and families. Lindenmeyer wrote a book about the Children's Bureau called "A Right To Childhood."
KRISTE LINDENMEYER: The federal government had dealt with economics. It dealt with trade, had dealt with building roads and bridges and things like that but certainly not social welfare issues.
DAVIS: By the late 1800s, the U.S. and the needs of its citizens were quickly changing. The population was growing. Millions of immigrants had entered the country. And Kriste Lindenmeyer says more people were living in cities.
LINDENMEYER: Americans thought of their country as a very modern and industrializing country - in fact, the model for the rest of the world.
DAVIS: A model on the one hand. But, in reality, many people's lives were a downright struggle.
LINDENMEYER: Poverty, poor sanitation, ignorance of modern health practices, parents who don't have access to good care or information.
DAVIS: And child death was a fact of life. Historian Molly Ladd-Taylor wrote the book "Raising A Baby The Government Way: Mothers Letters To The Children's Bureau." She says that in 1915, 1 out of 10 white infants and 1 out of 5 African-American infants died before their first birthday.
MOLLY LADD-TAYLOR: Babies died in the summer. There was nothing to do. That's just - it was God's will. Babies died. To try to change that is changing nature.
DAVIS: And of those who did survive, many dropped out of school and went to work in mines and factories. Increasingly, Americans were becoming aware that many children lived in awful conditions. Kriste Lindenmeyer says social reformers of the time, many of which were women, took up the cause, arguing to lawmakers that...
LINDENMEYER: Children are a resource, a national resource. If we don't do something to help the next generation thrive, what's the future of the country?
DAVIS: And they were mad that the federal government had spent tens of thousands fighting the boll weevil and yet had done nothing about the deaths of children, which sometimes topped 300,000 a year.
LINDENMEYER: So there began this movement calling for the establishment of a federal agency that would focus solely on the needs of the nation's children and youth.
DAVIS: In 1912, the United States Children's Bureau opened its doors with Julia Lathrop as its first director. She soon commissioned several studies that investigated the causes and conditions of infant mortality. Lathrop wanted to dispel some common ideas of the time - that child death was inevitable, an act of God, the fault of defective parents.
Her studies showed that, in fact, children often died from things that could be prevented, like contaminated milk and water or poor nutrition, things many parents didn't know about or didn't have the money to do something about. So the Bureau published a series of advice pamphlets on infant care. And soon, women were writing to the Children's Bureau by the thousands.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Dear sir, my 28-month-old baby is very sallow-looking. Tongue is always coated, sometimes...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: A year ago last March, I gave birth to a beautiful fat boy, and it lived for three days...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Her bowels have been (unintelligible) all the time since birth...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: ...The doctors claimed the baby had a weak heart...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: ...And most of the time, it's a greenish-looking mucus. Her bowels move from six to 12 times a day...
DAVIS: And women wrote about personal matters, like birth control and abusive husbands.
LADD-TAYLOR: Really treating the Children's Bureau women more as kind of distant relatives.
DAVIS: The effect of all those letters was to bring into focus how difficult it could be to raise a child in America, to be a mother in America. Molly Ladd-Taylor says Julia Lathrop heard...
LADD-TAYLOR: ...How much women wanted health care for themselves and for their children.
DAVIS: So Lathrop pushed for passage of a new law, the Sheppard-Towner Maternal and Infancy Protection Act (ph). The act funded state programs that dispatched health care workers, especially to rural communities. It set up nearly 3,000 prenatal clinics. It was the first federal effort of its kind.
LADD-TAYLOR: Julia Lathrop really clearly believed that health education programs should be universal programs, an entitlement for citizenship.
DAVIS: But the Sheppard-Towner Act had many influential critics who saw this federal program as a step towards socialism. The act was repealed in 1929. Julia Lathrop's dream was slipping away. But Kriste Lindenmeyer says the Children's Bureau under Director Lathrop created a powerful legacy that every child has a right to childhood.
LINDENMEYER: That every kid has a right to dependency, that they don't have to be able to support themselves and that the government is the parent of last resort if everything else fails.
DAVIS: As for Alice Phelps, the pregnant ranch wife, Julia Lathrop did figure out a way to help her. When it came time for Phelps's baby to be born, Lathrop made sure she delivered in a hospital. Mrs. Phelps later wrote to Lathrop to say she'd given birth to a darling of a baby, an 8-and-a-half-pound blue-eyed boy. What that healthy baby couldn't have known is that Julia Lathrop paid for his hospital birth not out of her slender federal budget but out of her own pocket.
Rebecca Davis, NPR News, Washington.
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