Insight Out: Damaged Children: Innocence, Inequality, and the Politics of Poverty in the Postwar United States, 1950 to 1990 by Prof. Molly Ladd-Taylor


LA&PS Professors received more than $2 million in 2020 Insight Grants from SSHRC. Keep reading the #LAPSInsightOut series to learn more about the amazing research happening in our Faculty. 

Molly Ladd-Taylor

Molly Ladd-Taylor

Professor Molly Ladd-Taylor, with the Department of History has received a 2020 Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) for $86,717. Her new research is titled, “Damaged children: Innocence, inequality, and the politics of poverty in the postwar United States, 1950 to 1990.”

This new project builds on her research related to child-rearing, the politics of motherhood, child welfare, and family. She will examine early postwar concepts of “innocent children” and the persistence of eugenics in popular thinking about “bad” kids. Her project has two goals: to develop a national history that places contested ideas about the nature of childhood at the centre of postwar political realignments and an increasingly punitive state, and to explore the role that images of “bad” or damaged children played in justifying policies directed to poor and racialized youth.

It is a four-year research project that will investigate the cultural ideas and social policies for disadvantaged children and youth during a period of major economic, social, and political change. Professor Ladd-Taylor will be the Principal Investigator and will develop a set of interlinked case studies, which provide a panoramic perspective on so-called “damaged children” by juxtaposing different types of children usually studied separately: those labeled delinquent, culturally deprived, mentally disabled, and emotionally disturbed.

Ladd-Taylor says that there is a vast scholarship on “bad” kids that analyzes juvenile justice and education reform primarily through the lens of race. The proposed project will add a new dimension to this literature by adding disability as a key category of analysis. It will begin in 1950, when eugenic and biological explanations for children's problems gave way to a new emphasis on psychology, environment, and cultural deprivation. The project’s scope will end in 1990, when get-tough school and juvenile delinquency policies were well established. The framework of disability shows how poor Black and brown kids were labeled damaged, disturbed, or learning disabled and enriches our understanding of U.S. history.

The main output of the research will be a scholarly book-length study that explores different types of damaged children in US political culture during the aforementioned 40-year timespan - thus, providing a new framework for understanding recent US history and a historical intervention into urgent public-policy debates about child poverty, juvenile justice, mental health, and special education.