Franklin D. Roosevelt

Radio Address at the White House Conference on Children in a Democracy. Washington, D.C.

January 19, 1940

Miss Perkins, Members of the White House Conference on Children in a Democracy:

I come here tonight with a very heavy heart because a little while ago I received word of the passing of an old friend of mine, a very great American, Senator Borah. I had known him for a great many years and I had realized that, although on this or that or the other political problem we may have differed from time to time, his purpose, my purpose and the ultimate objective of everybody in this room interested in the future of America were identical. The Nation has lost one of its great leaders in his passing.

I come here with the thought that Senator Borah of Idaho would want us to go on with the work of building a better citizenship in the days to come in the United States.

You know I go back not as far as he did, but I go back a great many years. I go back to my days in college when I worked for an organization called "The Social Service Committee." After that, my wife came into the picture, and, when we were engaged, I discovered that she was teaching classes of children on the East Side in New York.

Then, very soon after I was admitted to the Bar, I got to know another very great American, an old friend of yours and mine, Homer Folks. Probably Homer does not remember it himself, but in New York in those days we were just beginning to take up the problem of providing milk for babies and mothers, in all parts of that big city. Wanting to do something in addition to learning a little law, I went in with an organization which has since been absorbed by greater organizations, the New York Milk Committee, and I worked for two or three years helping to place milk stations for babies on the East Side and West Side and up in the Bronx.

Homer Folks was one of the principal moving spirits behind that venture and it is rather interesting that the woman who was most responsible for helping to provide milk for dependent poor children in the great city of New York was Mrs. Borden Harriman. I sent Mrs. Harriman as United States Minister to Norway two years ago.

Last April when this Conference first met in this room I asked you to consider two things: first, how a democracy can best serve its children; and, the corollary, how children can best be helped to grow into the kind of citizens who will know how to preserve and perfect our democracy.

Since that time a succession of world events has shown us that our democracy must be strengthened at every point of strain or weakness. All Americans want this country to be a place where children can live in safety and grow in understanding of the part that they are going to play in the future of our American Nation. On that question, people have come to me and have asked, "What about defense?" "Well," I have replied, "internal defense and external defense are one and the same thing. You cannot have one unless you can have both."

Adequate national defense, in the broadest term, calls for adequate munitions and implements of war and, at the same time, it calls for educated, healthy and happy citizens. Neither requisite, taken alone and without the other, will give us national security.

It is my pleasure to receive from you the General Conference Report with its program of action. You have adopted this report after days of careful deliberation, preceded by nearly a year of study and discussion.

I felt that the Nation as a whole ought to realize that the subject of children covers several pages of a catalogue. There are so many interests and problems involved. Almost everybody who is hearing me tonight in every State of the Union thinks of children in terms of two or three of these subjects on the average, those in which he or she has special experience or special interest, such as education, recreation or the health of children. Or he or she may have some great enthusiasm for one particular kind of child welfare service. For instance, I myself am tremendously interested in crippled children.

But this Conference report rightly calls on us to think of children as a whole. Each child is related not only to his own life but to the lives of his brothers and sisters, the life of his family and then, inevitably, to the life of his community, county, State and Nation.

That is why if people in this country are going to think of this problem as it really is, they have to listen to a catalogue for the next ten minutes.

I can illustrate best the extent to which the interests of children are interwoven with the interests of families and communities by giving you these main topics of the conference. I do not think there is any one of these topics of which we can say, "Well, that is awfully nice, but what relation has it to the problem of my child?"

The first part of the Conference report reminds us sharply that by every step we take to protect the families of America, we are protecting the children also. Put that in another way: it means that what Federal Government and State Government, county Government, town Government, village Government, are doing to coordinate the economy and the social problems of their own communities in relation to the whole population necessarily has an effect on every child in that community. Here we find in this report recommendations which constitute an argument for buttressing and strengthening, in the first instance, the institution of the family as it relates again to a whole, and of other things-health, training and opportunities of children in a democracy.

This part of the discussion includes families and their incomes, families in need of assistance, families and their dwellings and the family as a threshold to the future democracy of this country.

Following that group of topics, the report discusses many other things that enter into the life of every American child; schools, religion, leisure time activities—mind you, these are all separate topics that we are trying to coordinate into one national picture- libraries, protection against child labor, youth and the needs of youth, the conserving of child health, the social services for children, children in minority groups, and, something that a lot of people forget, as I have good reason to know as the Chief Executive, the subject of public financing and administration.

But what I am specially pleased about is this: that this Conference, made up of men and women that belong to every political party in every part of the country, has found that we have definitely improved our social institutions and our public services during these past ten years. The only thing that good old Homer Folks said that I do not agree with is this: he called them "these terrible ten years." I do not. I think they have been the most interesting ten years since the Civil War, and maybe since the Revolution. We are all glad we have had a part in them, because I believe that though we have had lots of trouble, lots of difficulties, these past ten years have been ten useful years and, on the whole, ten years of definite progress in democracy.

The Conference concludes, and rightly, that to have made progress in a period of hardship and strain proves that America has both strength and courage.

I agree with the Conference that we still have a long way to go. Too many children—and you can find them in every State in the Union-are living under conditions that must be corrected if our democracy is to develop to its highest capacity. The Conference tells me that more than half of the children of America are in families that do not have enough money to provide adequate shelter, food, clothing, medical care and educational opportunities.

I have been called to task, as you all know, because I have reiterated many times something about one-third of America the ill-clothed, ill-housed, ill-fed—on the ground that I was saying something derogatory. I have been telling the truth, and you good people have sustained me by your statement that more than half the children of America are in families that do not have enough money to provide fully adequate shelter, food, clothing, medical care and educational opportunity. Why should we not admit it? By admitting it we are saying we are going to improve things.

You are rightly concerned that provision be made for those who are unemployed, whether for economic or personal reasons. Merely to keep families from starving while the fathers walk the streets in vain in search for jobs, will not give children the best start in life.

Social insurance to provide against total loss of income, and appropriate work projects adjusted to fluctuations in private employment constitute the first lines of defense against family disaster. . . .

You tell me, in effect, in this report what I have been talking about for many years, that we have been moving forward toward the objective of raising the incomes and the living conditions of the poorest portion of our population, that we have made some dent on the problem, and that, most decidedly, we cannot stop and rest on our rather meager laurels.

I agree with you that public assistance of many kinds is necessary. But I suggest to you that the Federal treasury has a bottom to it, and that mere grants in aid constitute no permanent solution of the problem of our health, our education, or our children, but that we should address ourselves to two definite policies: first, to increase the average of incomes in the poorer communities, in the poorer groups and in the poorer areas of the nation; and, second, to insist that every community should pay taxes in accordance with ability to pay.

The Conference report has called attention also to the need for continuing and expanding public and private housing programs if the families in the lowest income groups are to live in dwellings suitable for the raising of children.

Last April I referred to our concern for the children of the migratory families who have no settled place of abode. I spoke casually to the Press today about a study I am making. Up in the State of Washington we are spending a great many millions to harness the Columbia River, to put a great dam up there which will pump the water up onto a huge area of land capable of providing a living for 500 thousand people—irrigated land, today a desert, which can be made a garden with the process of modern science. Who ought to go there? Are we going to treat that project, two years from now, just as we treat the average irrigation project?

I have read a book recently; it is called "Grapes of Wrath." There are 500,000 Americans that live in the covers of that book. I would like to see the Columbia Basin devoted to the care of the 500,000 people represented in "Grapes of Wrath."

Migratory families, children who have no homes, families who can put down no roots, cannot live in a community. That calls for special consideration. But I am being practical. I am trying to find a place for them to go. This means, in its simplest terms, a program for the permanent resettlement of at least one million people in the Columbia Basin and a lot of other places. And remember that the money spent on it after careful planning is going to be returned to the United States Government many times over in a relatively short time.

Your report has devoted many pages to family economics. We all recognize that the spirit within the home is the most important influence in the growth of the child. In family life the child should first learn confidence in his own powers, respect for the feelings and the rights of others, the feeling of security and mutual good will and faith in God. Here he should find a common bond between the interests of the individual and the interests of the group. Mothers and fathers, by the kind of life they build within the four walls of the home, are largely responsible for the future social and public life of the country.

Just as we cannot take care of the child apart from the family, so his welfare is bound up with a lot of other institutions that influence his development—the school, the church, the agencies that offer useful and happy activities and interests for leisure time. The work of all these institutions needs to be harmonized so as to give our children rounded growth with the least possible conflict and loss of effort. And the money and hard work that go into these public and private enterprises are, again, repaid many times.

Religion, religion especially, helps children to appreciate life in its wholeness, to develop a deep sense of the sacredness of human personality. In view of the estimate that perhaps one-half of the children of America are having no regular religious instruction, it seems to me important to consider how provision can best be made for some kind of religious training. We can do it because we are capable of keeping in mind both the wisdom of maintaining the separation of Church and State and, at the same time, the great importance of religion in personal and social living.

I share with you the belief that fair opportunity for schooling ought to be available to every child in this country. I agree with you that no American child, merely because he happens to be born where property values are low and where local taxes do not, even though they should, support the schools, should be placed at a disadvantage in his preparation for citizenship.

Certainly our future is endangered when nearly a million children of elementary school age are not in school; when thousands of school districts and even some entire States do not pay for good schools. This situation has been reported by many agencies, private and public, and needs to be more widely understood. I should like to put on the front page of every newspaper in the United States, a list of the most backward school districts and the most backward school States in the United States.

That is rough treatment, but if every person in the United States could know where the conditions are worst-education and health—those areas would get the sympathy, the understanding and the help for improving those conditions. Again, I have to suggest that the permanent answer is not mere handouts from the Federal Treasury, but that the problem has to be solved by improving the economics in these poorer sections and an insistence, hand in hand with it, that there be adequate taxation in accordance with ability to pay.

We must plan also, on a larger scale, to give American children a chance for healthful play and worthwhile use of leisure. I agree with you that a democratic Government has a vital interest in those matters. And I am glad that you have suggested a national commission, under private auspices, to study leisure time needs and recreational resources.

More than in any previous decade we know how to safeguard the health of parents and children. Because of the advance of medical knowledge and the growth of public health work, we have it in our power to conquer diseases that we could not conquer ten years ago, and the ability to promote general good health.

New opportunities to us mean new duties. It was one thing to let people sicken and die when we were helpless to protect them. It is quite another thing to leave a large portion of our population without care at all. It is my definite hope that within the next ten years every part of the country—just to use an example-and I believe that hope can be fulfilled—every part of the United States will have complete and adequate service for all women during maternity and for all new-born infants. That we can do.

So, too, good nutrition is the basis of child health. And I am equally in sympathy with your suggestion that I appoint a National Nutrition Committee to review our present knowledge and to coordinate our efforts, looking toward the development of nutrition policies based on the newest and best methods, and we are making new discoveries every day.

You, all the members of the Conference, have charted a course for ten years to come. Nevertheless, the steps that we take now, in this year of 1940, are going to determine how far we can go tomorrow, and in what direction.

I believe with you that if anywhere in the country any child lacks opportunity for home life, for health protection, for education, for moral or spiritual development, the strength of the Nation and its ability to cherish and advance the principles of democracy are thereby weakened.

I ask all our fellow citizens who are within the sound of my voice to consider themselves identified with the work of this Conference. I ask you all to study and discuss with friends and neighbors the program that it has outlined, to study how its objectives can be realized. May the security and the happiness of every boy and girl in our land be our concern, our personal concern, from now on.

You, the Members of this Conference on Children in a Democracy, you are leaders of a new American Army of peace.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Radio Address at the White House Conference on Children in a Democracy. Washington, D.C. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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