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Choosing to Care

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Choosing to Care

By: Kyle E. Ciani

Video Interview

Kyle Ciani and Robin Morris discuss Ciani's book, Choosing to Care: A Century of Childcare and Social Reform in San Diego, 1850–1950. You can also watch the interview here, or listen to it as a podcast here. Other episodes of the SHCY podcast are available at our podcast website, or you can subscribe on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts.

Kyle Ciani is Professor of History at Illinois State University. Robin Morris is Associate Professor of History at Agnes Scott College.

This review originally appeared in the Pacific Historical Review 90, no.1 (Winter 2021), 125-127.

Choosing to Care: A Century of Childcare and Social Reform in San Diego, 1850–1950.

Kyle E. Ciani.

Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019. 342 pp

Kyle Ciani’s extensively researched Choosing Care: A Century of Childcare and Social Reform in San Diego, 1850–1950 focuses on four areas where San Diego reformers, civic leaders, and businessmen built local systems that provided urgently needed programs for the care and protection for poor children. She concentrates specifically on interventions that departed from or contributed to national welfare agendas. These programs addressed the enduring impact and economic insecurity of families who crossed the U.S. and Mexican border for work, provided civic-supported educational programs to build a literate and vocationally trained workforce for local industry, opened nursery schools that enabled some women to work full time, and established emergency day-care programs during the Great Depression and World War II.

These efforts played out against multiple seismic economic and demographic shifts in the San Diego area between 1850 and 1950. There, diverse participants—social reformers, religious orders, philanthropists, local governments, and to some degree the poor ethnically diverse families needing help—shaped and reshaped child welfare to meet changing economic realities. Ciani’s inclusive definition of who participated in shaping welfare programs is combined with a broad definition of what constitutes child welfare beyond long-term institutional care or foster care to include social programs intended to improve child health, education, and well-being.

A theme gaining strength in the scholarly field of child welfare reform is how national welfare agendas are refracted through race, ethnicity, national origin, and class hierarchies in local practice. Ciani’s study documents local reform initiatives but also brings into high relief the gross inequities suffered by mostly poor nonwhite populations displaced or migrating to the area, beginning with Native displacement and continuing through boom and bust cycles after WWII.

Ciani does not propose that poor parents and guardians were equal partners with white reformers and civic leaders in determining control and care of vulnerable children, but rather that they had some limited agency. For example, most parents, of all racial-ethnic backgrounds, resisted permanent relinquishment of children, seeking instead to maximize their meager earnings using available resources to protect the integrity of the family unit.

Nevertheless, race defined settlers’ and reformers’ approaches to child welfare from the beginning. For example, from the 1850s through the 1880s, Native children were routinely indentured to Anglo settlers or kidnapped for forced labor. Later Native populations were displaced with their families to reservations and by the 1890s, Indian children in the region were forced from their homes and communities and sent to board- ing schools. Once Indian populations were removed from San Diego proper, white civic leaders and benevolent reformers refocused on the condition of the children of Mexican immigrants with provision of basic schooling to build a literate workforce and policing for underage prostitution. Settlement housing for mostly Mexican families offering a variety of services came next.

More progressive programs followed that linked local reform initiatives to national resources, resulting in one of the nation’s first comprehensive day- are programs during the Great Depression. Daycare programs later enabled parents to work in the war industries, although San Diego families continued to struggle in the post-WWII recession.

Improvised through multiple waves of economic upheaval, population displacement, and transnational migrations, yet remote from direct oversight of eastern social welfare establishments, child welfare efforts in San Diego were shaped as much by race, place, and circumstance as by civic purpose. Ciani’s book deftly balances and documents these forces.

Patricia Hart, University of Idaho

About Kyle Ciani

Kyle E. Ciani is Associate Professor of History and a Core Faculty Member for the Women’s, Gender & Sexualities Studies Program at Illinois State University. Ciani’s research, teaching, and service interests revolve around the diverse histories of gendered wage earning and social reform in the United States. Ciani is involved with efforts by museum professionals at the national level and with K-12 school districts in Illinois to more thoroughly integrate the histories of women and girls in the Americas into their exhibitions and social studies curricula. She is currently studying how the state of Arizona expanded its public education system to under-served communities such as American Indian children living on reservations in the 1950s and 1960s. She earned her Ph.D. in the history of women and gender from Michigan State University, and M.A. and B.A. degrees in History from the University of San Diego. 

This post is part of the SHCY Featured Books series, which provides conversations about important contributions to the history of childhood and youth.