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  • The Origins of Modern Child Welfare:Liberalism, Interest Groups, and the Transformation of Public Policy in the 1970s
  • Ethan G. Sribnick (bio)

In 1973, Marian Wright Edelman, a veteran of the civil rights movement, founded a new Washington-based interest group, the Children's Defense Fund (CDF). By focusing attention on issues affecting children, Edelman hoped to create the type of interracial, cross-class alliances needed to facilitate real change in public policy. "CDF came into being in the early 1970s," she later explained, "because we recognized that support for whatever was labeled black and poor was shrinking and that new ways had to be found to articulate and respond to the continuing problems of poverty and race, ways that appealed to the self-interest as well as the conscience of the American people."1 In orienting itself in this way, CDF reflected a larger trend among liberal interest groups in the 1970s. The rise of this new interest group that married a 1960s-ambivalence toward the state and expertise with an inside-the-Beltway sophistication had wide-reaching influence on public policy for children. The development of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, the legislation that provided the first national guidelines for child welfare policy, demonstrates the importance of these new interest groups and their ideological orientation in shaping public policy from the 1970s to today. [End Page 150]

Policymaking in the 1970s underwent both structural and ideological shifts—changes that were closely intertwined. The decade of the 1970s paradoxically witnessed an increased national focus on public policy, an "erosion of confidence" in government, and the rise of new interest groups in a range of policy areas.2 Issues such as hunger, consumer rights, and the environment, galvanized the creation of new Washington-based advocacy groups.3 The new interest groups of the 1970s that were successful found a niche in a world of proliferating congressional subcommittees, think tanks, and publicinterest organizations. But they also succeeded because they manifested an ideological orientation that challenged the state-centered assumptions of the New Deal order and they distilled sometimes-imprecise critiques of social policy into concrete legislation.

Hugh Heclo astutely observed that the lesson of the 1960s for many Americans was that "so far as the governing system is concerned, one should both expect more and trust less than ever before."4 This lesson certainly shaped politics and public policy in the 1970s. As scholars have recounted, this orientation created new roles for courts, strengthened the authority of administrative agencies, and transformed the structure and role of Congress.5 But it also reshaped the legislative process itself, placing new problems on the agenda and opening the policy-making process to new solutions.6 This post-1960s paradox was particularly acute in efforts to reform child welfare policy as advocates, like CDF, called for a new set of standards and expectations for state action while at the same time questioning the ability of the state to intervene successfully in families.

The development of child welfare policy in the United States was a haphazard occurrence. No overarching plan shaped what would become known as foster care; instead, policy developed piecemeal as institutions, states, and the federal government developed discrete child welfare programs and legislation. While care for children in large congregate shelters or in surrogate families was a common occurrence in the nineteenth century, the reigning experts campaigned in the twentieth century for transfer payments so that poor families could afford to keep children at home. As the 1909 White House Conference on children declared, "The home should not be broken up for reasons of poverty."7 The result, well documented by scholars, was the proliferation of Mother's Pensions programs across the United States, and, eventually, the creation of Aid to Dependent Children (later Aid to Families with Dependent Children or AFDC) in the Social Security Act of 1935.8 Yet programs for substitute care for children [End Page 151] were not completely neglected by the federal government. The Social Security Act included a small provision for child welfare services, and, by the 1960s, a program had been developed to provide federal support to children in foster care. Known...


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