A History of Foster Care and the American Welfare State
Fall 2017 History Colloquium Series
At the heart of MU Associate Professor of History Catherine Rymph’s new book, Raising Government Children: A History of Foster Care and the American Welfare State, is a struggle not necessarily unique to her research’s 20th-century focus. From indentured servitude in the 17th century, to European alms houses and adult prisons, to the orphan trains of mid-19th century America, which sent the eastern seaboard’s homeless children west to work on heartland farms, the global community has long flailed at answering the questions of what society’s responsibility toward children is, as well as how best to act upon this responsibility.
As Prof. Rymph detailed in her October 20 colloquium at the Kinder Institute, while it might be a point on a larger continuum, examining the 20th century history of foster care in the United States sheds important light on tensions that existed (and still exist) within this system, in particular, and the American welfare state in general. When it comes to the former, these tensions began to take nascent shape around the 1909 Conference on the Care of Dependent Children. Here, Prof. Rymph noted, the central tenet of the Progressive-era child welfare system—that no child should be separated from his/her family of origin for reasons of poverty—rose to the surface. More importantly, though, with the introduction of mothers’ pensions and increased state interest in boarding houses, we also see a blurring of the line between public and private responsibility that would become far more pronounced in later decades.
State involvement in promoting family security would ramp up during the New Deal, Prof. Rymph explained, particularly with the passage of the 1935 Social Security Act, which, in providing unemployment insurance and aid to dependent mothers, both stabilized and professionalized the system of child welfare services. Though considered an option of last resort, it was also during this time that the foster care system began to emerge as a state-funded program that was more widely available than those forms of aid which still narrowly tethered families’ access to child welfare resources to poverty alone. (The qualifier ‘more’ before ‘widely available’ should be carefully heeded, Prof. Rymph stressed, as a reminder that access to these resources did not then extend to African-American families.).
More relevant to the thematic scope of her talk, however, it was also during the 1930s and 40s that the state’s ideal conception of the foster care system—as a therapeutic, temporary, individualized, and quasi-professional form of aid provided by licensed foster families—collided with the distressed economic landscape of mid-20th century America. Specifically, two separate but very related financial realities—(1) that the foster care system would require significant government subsidization; and (2) that it served as a viable income option for women who, at the time, had few such options—came directly into conflict with legislators’ and reformers’ widespread anxiety that a vocational notion of foster parenting might attract applicants more interested in profit than a desire to help. Add in the emphasis placed on the temporariness of foster care, and the result was an almost impossibly narrow definition of a “normal” foster family: a married, financially-independent, licensed couple who were of child-bearing age and whose care and concern for the child would not trend toward extreme love or “unbridled attachment.”
For the state apparatus in control of the foster care system, attracting these normal candidates—i.e., not attracting profit seekers—required keeping the rate of payment to foster families low. The negative consequences of this were both local and universal. As for the former, the scant compensation for foster parents meant that private families—oftentimes families of limited to modest means to begin with—ultimately ended up subsidizing the state’s responsibility for maintaining child welfare standards. As for the latter, this arrangement ultimately depressed the salary and status of care workers at large, who then, as now, were largely women. The end result, Prof. Rymph argued in closing, is not only that a narrative of poverty has been woven through the history of foster care from the early-20th century to the present, but also that this narrative has reinforced larger trends related to inequality and the gender pay gap.
Catherine Rymph joined the MU Department of History in 2000, after teaching at the University of Iowa and as a Fulbright Lecturer at the University of Greifswald in Germany. She specializes in recent U.S. history, especially U.S. women’s political history. She is the author of Republican Women: Feminism and Conservatism from Suffrage to the Rise of the New Right (University of North Carolina Press, 2006), a political history of feminism and conservatism within the Republican Party, and Raising Government Children: A History of Foster Care and the American Welfare State (UNC Press, 2017). Prof. Rymph regularly teaches courses on U.S. women’s political history, historical perspectives on child welfare and the family, and twentieth-century U.S. history.