Some Limitations of Case-Work

By Homer W.  Borst

Assistant Director Civilian, Gulf Division, American Red Cross

An article from the Survey, September 13, 1919 (page 847 and continuing)

The extension of the Home Service to civilian families as distinguished from the families of soldiers and sailors has a meaning much deeper than that of an increase in volume of work or amount of responsibility.  It is the undertaking of another sort of work and a different kind of responsibility.  The step marks the entry of Home Service into the field of social reform.

It must be explained that hitherto Home Service has not in a clear sense occupied that field.  The work done for the families of fighting men was conservative, was directed primarily toward preventing the state of the family from deteriorating during the absence of the men and only secondarily toward improving matters.  It was a war measure.  True, it used an adaptation of a peace-time pursuit by way of method, namely, case-work; it trained many people in the use of that method; an organization, geographically complete, was rapidly built up; but that this geographically complete organ with its thousands of workers with varying degrees of training, and its thousands of workers with varying degrees of training, and its thousands of workers with varying degrees of training, and its eighteen-month old tradition of case-work, should on the basis of any significant part of its resources embark upon a career, not primarily of preserving the state of the family, but of elevating it, is quite another matter.  And the program is to be relatively permanent as well as inclusive.

The adoption of the case-work method in the care of the families of soldiers and sailors has been widely considered a significant tribute to the inevitable.  But what of the fact that this new extension of Home Service is, for the time being at least, entirely on the same basis?  Aside from the practical circumstances that case-work is, if anything, just what Home Service workers have been taught to do, in situation suggests a discussion of the merits of case-work.  In relation to a movement so new and experimental nothing should be assumed to be inevitable.

A new appraisal of case-work method is clearly justified.  What can case-work do best?  What can it do fairly well?  What can something else do better?

Case-work is at its best when it satisfies three conditions:  when it is most purely educational; when it aims at making a mental or moral adjustment indicated because of the abnormality of the individual or family; and when no less intensive educational method would be reasonably effective.  Naturally not all of these conditions are likely to be fulfilled at all times; they are liable to be departed from slightly or radically as the case may be.  When they are fulfilled, case-work is performing a unique function.  The further they are departed from, the more suspicion is justified that case-work is substituted for something with more to commend it.  The use of coercion, as opposed to persuasion and conviction; the fitting of a normal family into abnormal social conditions, as opposed to fitting an abnormal family into normal conditions; the use of the slow and expensive method of case-work when a more general educational movement is needed and promises to be effective; these, admitting their possibility, are complicating.  It is to be hoped that Home Service will escape them in a considerable degree, if to do so entirely is impossible.

How has Home Service fared in respect to these standards during the war?  In the first place, it was called upon to do a great deal of genuine teaching, superficial when it simply gave out information, but quite of another sort when it instructed families how to adjust themselves to the changed war-time conditions.  In the second place, although the families themselves and the conditions into which they were to be fitted were abnormal, the very abnormality of the family, in respect at least to the loss of its head or a breadwinner, implied a certain heroic superiority that justified special consideration.  On the other hand, the abnormality of the times was recognized universally, and unhesitatingly burdened with its responsibilities.  Allowances from the government, although to a degree conditioned upon need, might well have been interpreted as the wages of the men in service, paid according to a new principle of distribution, so honorable were they considered.  Even grants from the Home Service funds assumed a certain legitimacy not usually accorded to money voluntarily contributed and paid out on the basis of need.  The training of women to maintain their families of slender incomes did not, as it has in relation to the families of underpaid workmen, suggest revolution; as revolution already in progress was accepted as back of all this.  Although, from these innumerable other standpoints, the normal values to which case-work was obliged to adjust itself during the war were unusually simple.  This is true in spite of the presence of those more sordid facts that came to light and which may be said to have been in part, at least, caused by the war.

One of the results was that the reason which ordinarily is a good one for reducing case-work to a sensible minimum- namely, that it is often embarrassing to those it sets out to help, was considerably less important.  In addition, certain general educational movements addressed to all the people sprang up which, they were not actually the best that could have been devised to lessen the need for case-work instruction, at least served that purpose fairly well.  The Food Administration, for example, taught the people domestic economy; the Liberty loans taught the people thrift; War Camp Community Service taught the people how to be hospitable and to remark the fact that they did really inhabit a community.

Although Home Service case-work has, in board outline, well realized itself.  It has been largely an educational movement; it has addressed itself to mental and moral, as well as physical facts; it has helped make very delicate adjustments.  It has not been a palliative measure, in intention at least; neglecting the actual halting of the war as out of its province, Home Service case-work has aimed fairly well as the heart of its problem.  Nor can it be said to have overdone things or usurped too large a field.

All of these considerations are in addition to certain interesting facts of psychology, such as the remarkable neatness with which the orderly method of inquiry got itself introduced along with the intricacies of military address and the complications of allotments and allowances.  They also neglect any significant discussion of that war spirit which caught up the entire movement and carried it on as essential to the defense of the nation.  These matters are, of course, important.  On the basis of them it may be contended that it is not enough to say what, theoretically, is the service which case-work is best fitted to perform, because the question of just how we are to interest people int its performance is equally important.  Naturally Home Service is going to lose some of its volunteers, and unless the utility of the new work can be more quickly and more generally proved than the history of social work affords grounds for expectation, finances are going to be more difficult then they have been.  Perhaps it will be well to digress for a moment and think of the appeal which the new work is likely to make to those who will be called upon to perform it.

Undeniably there is an anticipation that the task of the case-worker is going to be more than ordinarily pleasant under the auspices of Home Service.  It this is because Home Service has been thought of as different from charity it is important to consider whether this young tradition cannot be culitivated further.  The distinction arose partly from the fact that the war was held strictly to account in the public mind for the family troubles which grew out of it, and partly from the fact that the families of men in service were considered as, in a sense, superior to reproach for minor failings.  Perhaps the latter thought was romantic and unique in relation to the war, but the first is capable of being supplied with a counterpart in times of peace.  This lies in realization of social responsibilities as distinguished from individual ones.  The character of Home Service can be kept through emphasis upon the principle that to a degree the failure of any one of us is the responsibility of all of us.  This will be a continuation of the Home Service spirit.  It will also permit the utilization and development of a conviction which has been growing up in the minds of the army of Home Service workers concerning the real nature of social solidarity.

In fact, supplementing the loyalty to Home Service cultivated in the hearts of several thousand workers during the past two years, the growing conviction that this movement could be used for peace-time improvement is most important.  There is a healthy desire to keep Home Service alive, both for itself and for what it can do.  It is at once something to be identified with and to use.  It has the appeal to the imagination and the effective force of mass movement.

Deeper still lies the consideration that whatever is done from now on will be recognized as having a more genuine relationship to social progress than what was accomplished during the war.  Few can help feeling that a certain artificiality characterized war-time social service.  Not only were the motives to which it appealed peculiarly strained, but in the face of war’s destruction, its result were vitiated with futility.  Admit that the prevention of war is the greatest social task immediately before us, and social work comes into its own, not as a means of reducing the wreckage of the war, not as a means of permitting a nation to wage war more effectively, but as an element in the orderly achievement of a worthy civilization, capable, among other things, of avoiding war.  Of course, the social workers is assured by many that in the face of the injustices of peace his process is also futile.  This he cannot believe.  His reason, as his experience, has taught him that not only are his aims worthy, bu this method useful.

Case-work can justify that confidence in respect to the future program of Home Service if it can be made educational, properly related to political and economic reform, and supplemental by more general educational movements at about the point where these movements are relatively more effective in proportion of the energy and time expended.  Therefore it is going to be necessary to teach Home Service workers over again in some respects.  There are so many things that war Home Service has to teach the families of fighting men and so many obvious, concrete services that it might perform that attention was distracted from relief.  The result was that while it is doubtful whether Home Service workers have, or the whole, learned to make the best use of relief, they have been deterred in pretty definite ways from altogether abusing it.  It is now going to be important to teach Home Service workers to see the educational opportunities in peace-time Home Service and to master and subordinate to a large purpose the act of relief giving.  What has called the attention of Home Service workers most sharply to the desirability of serving civilian families is that relief to them has been thus far practically prohibited.  It is not to be doubted that such training is possible.  The foundation has been laid in the experience of the war, and if it is more difficult, there is more time to accomplish it.  The importance of the time element lies not only in the training of individuals, but in the training of committees, and of whole communities, largely on the basis of a progressive experience.  The important thing seems to be to get the experience started under wise and intimate leadership.

If we accept the obligation upon Home Service to coordinate its work with the whole field of social reform, there may be some comfort in remembering hat its future activity promise to be largely rural.  Urban case-work has been compelled to meet the conditions of modern industry, with a success concerning which opinions differ.  It may be that the facts underlying the poverty of the farm and the village will prove scarcely less complicating.  Case-workers cannot be content with that activity; upon them is laid the responsibility of knowledge.  More than any other group in the community they are likely both to know the specific facts of the social problem and to be committed to a constructive attitude toward them.  They are in duty bound to assist in the broadest solution.  In spite of some impatience that has been felt with case-work, it cannot be charged with complete sterility in this respect.  There are reasons to hope that it will be even more productive now.  The plan is for an organization which will influence the social life of entire states and sections of the nation.  It is hard to believe that this influence will not widely and intimately be translated into political action.

Finally we must fact the question whether we know how to supplement case-work in its new field with broader educational community movements.  Case-work is especially valuable in relation to people incapable of appropriating to themselves to benefits of community wisdom.  For most people it is fair to assume that the cultivation of community wisdom may be on another bias.  Just what the detailed specifications of that basis ought to be in rural districts is one of the immediate questions.  An even more proximate question is just how case-work is to be adapted to rural needs.

Case-workers admit that some adaptation of urban case-work methods will be necessary if the rural field is to be served, but they are confident that this adaptation can be made.  The physical environment, distance, relation to the soil, absence of remoteness of facilities will make a difference.  On the other hand, human nature and the broad outlines of human failure and human success, whether of body, mind or character, cannot be fundamentally different.  The fundamental of methods have been pretty well worked out.  The refinements can be confidently anticipated.

With respect to the broader movements, the questions is somewhat different.  It has been sair more or less seriously that in cities the people just above the poverty line, or even the middle classes, are more neglected in respect to social education than are the poor.  Socialized recreation, socialized health activities, socialized education, consciously inspired with the purpose of producing enlightenment and happiness for the mass of the people, are quite generally a less prominent element in social work that in case-work or a limited used of these broader methods, in relation to the distinctly unfortunate classes.  If this is true in the cities, where social work has been developing for years, what is the situation in the country where social work is just beginning?

Fortunately the rural sociologists have already been speculating.  The need for more human contact for recreation, for better schooling, and better industrial methods and organization along with improved sanitation and health precautions, has been discovered and discussed.  How these needs shall be met is still largely unanswered.  Two things need to be said about case-work in relation to this problem.  First, it may assist in completing the identification of broad community needs.  Inevitably addressing itself first of all the failures, it will very early seek for their cause.  Second, case-work may be more frequently combined with more general community movements than we have been accustomed to think.  It maybe that in rather surprising ways country folk will prove to be not so easily influenced, and that average people will have to be taught many simple things about health, food and finance quite individually.

In spite of all this there is no reason to think that case-work will not need to be supplemented.  Social enlightenment comes largely through movements which are far more contagious than case-work.  Granting the hope that the good sense of case-work may one day become common sense and the possession of many people, it is hard to see how even that could mean more than laying the foundation of what we hope to achieve.

Finally there is every need that social reform be speeded up; it must become really preventative of the undesirable; it must become really productive of the desirable.  Now we are constantly arriving too late and proving poorly equipped on arrival.  Upon the new inventions for which Home Service may be held to account, inventions which will be positive and broad-sweeping, we are basing a considerable part of our hopes that social work will eventually arrive on time.

Source: Survey files, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota. More information is available at:


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