Skip to main content

A Discussion of Public Relief: 1940

Suggestions For Discussion Of Public Relief, November 1940


by Anna Kempshall, Director of Family Service of the Community Service Society


Editor’s Note: (1): This report was prepared by Anna Kempshall, Director of Family Service, and most likely to have been presented to the Board of Directors of the Community Service Society November 4, 1940.  The subject of relief was very timely because a number of the New Deal programs enacted in 1935 created the nation’s first universal social safety net that included federal and state funding for financial grants to poor individuals and families.  The new public welfare programs included: Aid for Dependent Children (ADC), Aid for the Blind (AB) and Old Age Assistance (OAA). Heretofore, many private charitable agencies had provided “financial relief” to needy persons.

Editor’s Note: (2)  Anna Kempshall was a nationally renowned social worker who received her social work diploma from the New York School of Philanthropy in 1913.  The original document was one of many in a scrapbook believed to have been maintained by her older sister Helen Pinneo. The scrapbook was recently gifted to the Social Welfare History Project by Mrs. Elizabeth C. Adamson, a great niece, representing the Adamson, Ogden and Pinneo families. Some of the documents date back to 1917; and, not surprisingly, their condition is fragile and difficult to transcribe. Nevertheless, a number of the documents have been transcribed and will be posted on the SWH Web site because of their importance.  The writings of Anna Kempshall are valuable historical records of the experiences and challenges of family casework through two important periods of American history: the Great Depression and World War II.

This discussion is focused to relief, which is only one of the services of Family Service.


1. Question: Why a private casework agency when there is a tax-supported public agency?


Perhaps this question can best be answered philosophically. One either does or does not believe in public and private enterprise in business, in industry, in medicine, education etc, and in social work.

Those who believe in relinquishing all responsibility to the State, retreating into large-scale programs, and who question the value of personal ideals or effort and the value of the individual himself, will see little use for private social work.

Those who still have faith in the democratic process, in the individual, in the family, in mutual aid, in cooperative social enterprises towards a higher standard of living and greater, not less, human dignity, will have a renewal, rather than a denial of faith in private endeavor.

 A combination of public and voluntary activities in all fields seems to us desirable.

  1. Question: What is the responsibility of a public relief agency?


Provision of the basic “maintenance” needs for those eligible under the law.

This means food, shelter, clothing, fuel for cooking and heating, light, household replacement and cleaning supplies, refrigeration, personal incidentals, expenses incident to work and health – as carfare and special diets.

  1. Question: How is this responsibility being met in New York City?


The Department of Welfare, through its various Divisions, or categories – Home Relief Department (unemployed), Aid to Dependent Children (widows, etc), Old Age Assistance, Aid to the Blind –- has assumed relief responsibility for applicants who meet the eligibility requirements.

  1. Question: What is meant by eligibility?


Eligibility in the above categories differs somewhat as to requirements (length of residence, widowhood, age 65 in Old Age Assistance, etc.) but in all cases individuals or families must be “in need” – that is, without subsistence income or support from responsible relatives. If wages or income are less than minimum subsistence, the Department of Welfare may supplement.

  1. Question: What is the size of the problem?


October 1940
Category No. of Families Relief
Home Relief:
     — Regular Cases 136,251 $5,380,207
     –Non-Settled Cases 5,018 186,601
      –Veteran Cases 10,623 408,423
Aid to Department Children 25,070 1,124,789
Old Age Assistance 53,637 1,500,197
Aid to the Blind 1,566 43,514
School Luncheons & milk   125,000
Total public municipal agencies 222,636 $8,768,731
Natl Youth Administration 12,616 254,355
Works Projects Administration 98,732 7,554,650
Other Federal agencies 693 52,426
Total Federal Work Programs 112,041 $7,861,162
Grand Total 334,677 $16,630,162

(Average monthly relief per family……$39.34


  1. Question: Is the Department of Welfare meeting the basic maintenance needs of families under its care?


While the relief allowances for families in NYC is probably more adequate than in any other part of the country, the basic maintenance needs are not wholly provided. (See typical budget below).

The largest bulk of cases is in the Home Relief Department and here there is no regular provision for clothing or incidental expenses for health, recreation, etc. These lacks become severe if the case is continued for a long period.


(unemployed man, his wife and 3 children – boy 13, girl 10, boy 7)


  Home Relief (Public) Minimum adequate standard based on CSS scale
Rent (cold water apartment with private toilet) $4.75 $5.55
Fuel for heating, gas and electricity 1.90 2.05
Cleaning supplies .25 .25
Household supplies In kind (but inadequate) .40
Food 8.40 8.50
Clothing In cash and in kind (but inadequate) 3.55
Personal Incidentals .80
Carfare As needed to look for work, to clinic, etc.
Insurance .45 (for burial expenses)
Medicine chest supplies .25
Education, recreation, etc. .50? (according to need)
  $15.30 $22.30


In addition to the regular food allowance, Home Relief makes available to families surplus foods at a weekly retail value of form $.50 to $1.20. Medical care, medication, and special diets are supplied as needed; cod liver oil on a doctor’s prescription.

Surplus foods are also available to families under the care of private agencies. They give cod liver oil in kind of sufficient cash to purchase it. Medication and special diets are supplied as needed.

A comparison of budget items of the public agency with the private agency shows that the allowances for food, fuel, gas and electricity, and cleaning supplies are practically the same as those of the private agency. The chief difference is that the private agencies can adjust their budget scale in a flexible manner according to the special needs of families, whereas in the public agencies such adjustments are not possible. When a family under the care of a public agency has to meet needs which the allowance does not cover (such as additional rent, household supplies, clothing needs, medicine chest supplies, etc.)., the family is forced to take money from the food budget in order to meet these needs and consequently does not have enough food. However, special provision (for medical and health reasons) may be made to allow rent in excess of schedule.

Scope of Home Relief as defined in Public Welfare Law

The Public Welfare Law defines the home relief for which State aid is payable as grants for “shelter, fuel, food, clothing, light, necessary household supplies, medical, dental and nursing care, including drugs and medical materials and supplies, ——————————————–and other necessities of life.”

Public welfare districts are also responsible for providing children with suitable clothing, shoes, books, food, carfare and transportation and other necessities to enable them to attend school, as required by law, if their parents or guardians are unable to do so.

The definition of home relief is sufficiently broad to permit the public welfare officials to provide any form of relief for persons in their own home for which funds are available, though State aid is payable only for the items specified in the definition given above.

The limitations of present Home Relief grants are due to appropriation and practice – not law.

  1. Question: What is the role of the Family Service of the CSS?


The general objective of family casework is the conservation of family life and the development of family strengths.


  1. Question:  What do we mean by casework?


Casework is a method of approaching the individual, of learning to understand him and help him make a constructive and intelligent use of his own assets and of community resources.

Specifically, casework makes available the social program of the community on an individualized basis.

 Casework is never dissociated, as is sometimes supposed, from practical social services –- relief, child placing, home management, employment, etc. –- but caseworkers are trained to give these resources with psychological insight. All truly helpful activities involve understanding both objective circumstances and also the individual’s behavior, attitudes, and capacities to use help. To keep a balance between the economic factors and the psychological in helping people is one of the advances in casework training today.

  1. Question:  Do we need relief with the present extensive public relief program?


Yes, relief is a necessary form of service in the private family agency.

The Family Service uses relief for a great range of problems because of the wide range of problems which come to it. While the total amount spent for family relief in NYC is large, the amount per family is little above the barest subsistence, so that the private family agency still has an important service to give those families who can use “special relief” or special opportunities of various kinds to increase their capacities for self support.

The objective of relief service is similar to that of other services – namely, to enable the client to make the maximum use of the strengths in himself and his situation.

Perhaps the most important concept is that the item for which the agency gives relief is less important than the end for which it is given. It is always geared to the potential self-maintenance or self-development of the family or individual.

Without money to relieve acute strains one often cannot help a person get at other basic problems or release assets in the personality and situation; or, to put it the other way around, effective casework treatment often requires the relieving of acute economic strains.

        10: Question: Do we give relief in every case?


No. Many families and individuals seek help and guidance for problems other than those requiring financial assistance.

 In October, 2,097, or 61.2% of the cases under care did not receive relief from Family Service.

 These were classified as follows:

No, cases Percent
Sole income from earnings 739 35.0%
Receiving public relief 842 40.2%
Other income 516 24.8%


1332 cases, or 38.8% of the cases under care in October received relief from the Family Service, totaling $26,251.

These were classified as follows:

  No. cases Percent Relief from FS Average per case
Sole income from Family Service 88 6.6 $5,170 $58.75
Receiving public relief 635 47.7 $9,014 $14.20
Income also from earnings 396 29.7 $8,351 $21.09
Other income 213 16.0 $3,716 $17.45

11. Question: For what purpose does Family Service give relief?


The maintenance allowances are presumed to be a public responsibility and the relief of a private agency supplementary to and for such services as are not provided in a public program, but geared to health and decency and the self-development of the individual.

12. Question:  Does Family Service ever provide “maintenance” relief?


Yes, on a highly selective basis – if a family or individual is ineligible for public relief; or when complications to working out eligibility are unusually severe and require special action on our part for solution; or, for example, when a family above the economic level of eligibility is experiencing hardship in reducing standards, or when a short time must elapse before some plan for self-maintenance can be evolved.

13. Question:  What is meant by “supplementary” or “special” relief?


Supplementary or special relief is used for expenses during short periods of unemployment; for furniture for a family “burned out” in a tenement fire; for additional nourishing food or clothing to a family on a marginal income from wages; to promote plans worked out with families which could not otherwise meet – relief for “self liquidating” projects, as a kit of tools, a scholarship for training, a respectable outfit for a youth seeking a job; for investments in personalities as preventive measures – for camp or recreation for children on the borderline of delinquency, or for nursery school scholarships for little children whose mothers need sustained and concentrated help with child training and home making; and other preventive efforts.

14. Question:  Does the private agency supplement all inadequate relief of a public agency?


No – for practical as well as functional reasons. It would be realistically impossible for Family Service to supplement the basic budget deficit of all families on public relief. If it were possible, it would be unwise since such an assumption of responsibility would be undermining rather than strengthening the necessary public program.

15. Question: What are some of the considerations by Family Service in the selection of its cases?


Within the limits of its relief budget and administrative budget for personnel, cases are selected on the basis of which ones will profit most from the service we have to render.

The caseworker must know how to study the individual situation, must know available community resources, must understand the person’s response to relief, what his capacities are for using it constructively, etc.

The decision whether or not, and on what grounds, to give relief, relief for persons ineligible for public relief, or special relief, it must be individualized as is any other service, if it is to meet the true test of casework – namely, to enable the individual to make the maximum use of the strengths within himself and his environment.

16: Question: Does Family Service cooperate with the Department of Welfare?


Yes, Family Service carries many cooperative cases with the public relief agencies -– many involving supplementary or special relief, and many services other than relief -– as for instance, a problem child or adolescent, or marital difficulties.

Our cooperation with public agencies extends beyond the relief agencies and includes public schools, public hospitals and clinics, children’s and family courts and other judicial bodies, etc.

In October, 1,477, or 43.1% of the cases under care were carried cooperatively with public relief agencies

These were classified as follows:

Public Agency Number of Cases
Home Relief Department 837
Works Projects Administration 362
Aid to Dependent Children 171
Other (CCC. NYA, etc) 222

635, or 43%, of these cases received relief also from Family Service, totaling $9,014. The average per case was $14.20.

842, or 57%, of these cases did not receive relief from Family Service.

17. Question  Has Family Service a function of its own, apart from its cooperation with public agencies?


Yes. In addition to helping an individual or family work through problems, with or without relief, to a more satisfactory , wholesome life, the Family Service may be conceived of as a “laboratory” – for without the continuous study by its practitioners of its findings and its methods, casework cannot progress.

The continuous process of integration of social work disciplines, of developing and testing new concepts derived from the social sciences and related fields, is absolutely vital to the growth and maintenance of effective individualized human services.

The private agency with its smaller caseloads, and unhampered by rules and regulations, can explore new grounds, enter upon research projects and make available its findings for the improvement of its own service to families and for public practice and community programs.