For most of American history, parents feared their children might die - and until relatively recently their fears were justified. As late as 1900, one out of six babies would die before the age of one. The death rate was even higher for poor children. Many of them died because of malnourishment, lack of access to clean water and overcrowded living conditions. As a result they became vulnerable to tuberculosis, cholera and diphtheria, as well as mumps, measles and influenza. Also, child labor in factories and mines threatened the health and safety of children.
The poor health of men entering the military during World War II convinced Congress in 1946 to establish the School Lunch Program, later expanded to breakfasts. In 1972, Congress created the Women, Infants and Children Program to provide food, nutrition education, and to encourage breastfeeding and help women gain access to prenatal care and health insurance. Medicaid in 1965 and Children's Health Insurance Programs (CHIP) beginning in the 1990s greatly increased access to health care for children.
Exposure to toxins like lead paint, which causes learning disabilities and brain damage, continues to threaten children's health. Despite the paint industry's knowledge of lead's dangers dating back to the 1920s, the federal government did not ban it until 1978. Even now, lead paint in poorly maintained older buildings poisons children, especially African-Americans, who are sickened at twice the rate of the general population.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, settlement house workers, nurses who visited poor homes, local departments of health officials and public school teachers emphasized hygiene, helping to save many children's lives. Vaccinations nearly eliminated diseases like smallpox, polio, measles and diphtheria by the late 20th century.