In 1883, my twelve-year-old grandfather, George Williams, lived in a Minneapolis orphanage with his younger brother and many other four- to fourteen-year-old boys. But he had family nearby. His family members had food, and some of them had a place to stay. So, why was he in an orphanage?
He was lucky. That’s why.
Lucky? Many children were orphaned, abandoned, homeless, or just in a family that was having a hard time. Was 1883 any different from today for families and children? What was life like for kids in the United States back then?
Statistics about families of that time are difficult to find because our country was still young, the population on the East Coast was expanding rapidly, and many people were moving west, across territory that collected little information. An excellent history of how Americans cared for orphans from colonial times until the late twentieth century was written by Catherine Reef, an award-winning author of nonfiction for young adults. She cited the animosity against immigrants, African Americans, and Native Americans as a strong factor affecting the type of care that was offered to children and their struggling families, who often had no place to live. After 1850, children’s aid societies in a few large cities on the East Coast transported more than two hundred thousand orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children on orphan trains to the Midwest for adoption, which often turned out to be indentured work. No national social safety net for children existed until 1912, when the federal government established the Children’s Bureau, which was focused solely on the needs of children and addressed topics such as dependent children and child labor. Whether supported by orphan train placements or helped by Children’s Bureau initiatives, many children of the late 1800s and early 1900s lived with foster families.
My grandfather’s story reflects the time of his birth, in 1870. His father, John Williams, was an Irish immigrant who had fought in the Union Army during the Civil War and then married the seventeen-year-old daughter of a Texas rancher who had fought for the Confederacy. My grandfather was the oldest of five children, all born soon after the marriage. After the 1873 U.S. financial panic affected John’s ability to support the family in Kansas, they moved to the Texas ranch. A Union soldier from Ireland living on a Confederate’s ranch in Texas? We don’t know why John ran away, leaving his wife and young children, but I can imagine that animosity played a role. Family lore says that John went to Mexico. By the time that George’s grandfather was killed on a cattle drive to the railroad stockyards in Kansas in 1879, the Texas ranch was failing. George’s mother took four of her children to live with her immigrant in-laws in Minneapolis, leaving the baby behind to be cared for by her own relatives in Texas. So, again, why was George in the orphanage in Minneapolis? More about that another time.
In the 1880s, many families were still suffering from the terrible events of the Civil War that killed more six hundred thousand fighters and left many veterans disabled.2 Male deaths had a strong effect on widowhood, orphanhood, family structure, and postwar marriages. Housing for families, especially for blacks and immigrants, frequently was limited. By 1900, almost one out of every hundred women delivering a live birth in the United States died of pregnancy-related complications. Many babies and children were left in need of care from another family member, if any was available and able. Are children and families any better off today than in 1883?
Fast-forward to the beginning of the twenty-first century. Improved statistics about births, deaths, housing, and families tell us more about the situations of children and adolescents today. Maternal mortality rates decreased almost 99 percent between 1900 and 1997, 5 providing a higher proportion of young children with a living mother. However, other family members still may be responsible for a child’s basic needs when the child’s primary family struggles to support him or her or experiences crisis. Child Trends, a national research organization, produces research briefs and databases based on several sources of national data. One of their research briefs, “Children Living with and Cared for by Grandparents”, described grandparents as responsible for the care of more than five million children between 2008 and 2010.
Today, there are far fewer orphanages and more foster families than in the late 1800s. Another Child Trends research brief, “Children in Foster Homes: How Are They Faring?”, described arrangements made by public agencies after a determination that the child’s parents are either unable or unwilling to care for him or her. Children may be placed with relatives or with unrelated adults. Many children stay in foster care for a brief period—sometimes just a few weeks—before being returned to their families. Others remain in foster care for months or even years. As of 2001, foster care was serving approximately 805,000 children in the United States; by 2014, that number had decreased to approximately 400,000.
Another Child Trends report on Homeless Children and Youth estimated that an estimated 104 million students were homeless as of the start of the 2013-14 school year. Almost by definition, because their living situations change frequently, homeless children and youth are difficult to count. Children not enrolled in school may be counted through services that they seek at formal shelters. Homeless families and children that live in motels, cars, or other less-typical housing push the estimated number of homeless children and youth significantly higher.
Do you want to learn more? To find out about the status of children nationally and in your own state, check out the resources available from Child Trends and take a look at Kids Count, an annual report produced by the Anna E. Casey Foundation.
 U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1957. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1960.
 Catherine Reef, Alone in the World: Orphans and Orphanages in America. New York: Clarion Books, 2005.
 Marilyn Holt. The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Achievements in Public Health, 1900–1999: Healthier Mothers and Babies,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, October 1, 1999, 48:849–858.