Sheppard–Towner Act

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The Sheppard–Towner Act was a bill passed in 1921 that established the first federal Welfare program in the United States.[1][2]

The Sheppard–Towner Act, also known as the Promotion of the Welfare and Hygiene of Maternity and Infancy Act, was sponsored by representatives Morris Sheppard and Horace Mann Towner.


President Warren Harding signed the bill into law on November 23, 1921. Once the act was passed, it was administered by the United States Children's Bureau,[3] which was directed by Julia Lathrop.[2] As a presidential candidate, Harding supported the bill[4] and said of it:

In the realms of education, public health, sanitation, conditions of workers in industry, child welfare, proper improvement and recreation, elimination of social vice, and many other subjects, the Government has already taken a considerable range of activities. I assume that the maternity bill, already strongly approved, will be enacted promptly, thus adding to our manifestations of human interest.[5]

The act was designed as a Grant-in-aid program, meaning that funds were given to the states for them to administer.[6][7] The act was controversial from its inception, being deemed "an imported socialist scheme".[8]


The act was due for renewal in 1926, but because of increasing opposition congress only sought a two-year extension.[9] By 1929, with aid from the American Medical Association and the Woman Patriots,[10] the act was effectively repealed[11] by being defunded.[12]

The Woman Patriots made their case to the Maine Legislature that:

The Communists and socialists seek every opportunity that cunning can discover to use the 'general welfare' clause of the Constitution, plus all the emotion and sentimentalism which modern propaganda methods can associate with the word 'welfare' when coupled with women and children 'to undermine that which can not be directly overthrown.'"[10][13]


Some historians regard the act as a landmark in the development of social welfare programs which would explode into every aspect of American life a decade later.[14]

See also[edit]