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NCSW Part 2: A Century of Concern 1873-1973: Economic Independence

A Century of Concern
A Century of Concern

Economic  Independence

by  Walter  Trattner, Professor School of Social  Welfare  and Department of  History University of  Wisconsin Milwaukee, Wisconsin

“Social Work and Economic  Dependency,  1872-1972”

The impending centennial  of the National Conference comes at an opportune  time. Attacked  from  within  and  from  without,  first  by  Blacks who walked out  of the 1968 meeting  in  San  Francisco,  and  then  by  other  disaffected  groups  – Chicanos, Puerto Ricans,  Asian  Americans,  women,  and young  people  – its very existence,  for a while, appeared  to  be  at  stake.  Disruptions,  dwindling  attendance, financial  difficulties  and other problems led to talk, or rumors, of dissolving the group. In the long run, however, it may emerge from  this troubled  period stronger, and more useful, than ever before, for as a result  of  the  disturbances  the Conference  is now studying “alternate means including merger, coalition  or other  relationships  with one or more organizations  to find the most responsible way for  … (its) membership to be involved in social, political, and legislative action.” A look at the last hundred years or so, then, may serve some useful purpose, for, if anything,  it will demonstrate  that  while serious problems are present, the future,  when placed in historical perspective, does not look so gloomy.

Far-reaching  changes have occurred  in social work during the last century.  When the National Conference  was created  in the early 1870’s  the common  idea was that,  for the most  part,  poverty  (and  dependency)  was the  result  of  personal  failure,  a flaw in the moral character  of the individual; the individual,  therefore,  not society,  was responsible for economic independence. Indeed,  it was widely believed that the economic and social order could not  operate  successfully if the state,  through its poor laws, undermined  the work incentive by providing citizens a degree of security through public assistance.

That  had  not  always  been  the  case.  Earlier,  in  the  17th  and  18th  Centuries,  for example,  Americans  were relatively calm about  poverty and dependency,  readily accept­ing responsibility  for the indigent. Need was in the order of things, natural and inevitable; it  was  pointless,  therefore,   to  blame  or suspect  the  poor,  or  punish  or  isolate  them, especially since resources were abundant  and labor scarce. Indeed, the individual’s right to public  assistance was clearly and firmly established,  and evidence indicates  that,  for the most part, aid was provided humanely  and generously, usually at home or with relatives or neighbors.

For a variety of reasons, however, such a response to poverty and dependency  under­ went drastic change in the 19th  Century. First of  all, as David and Sheila Rothman  have pointed  out, both the Enlightenment  ideology, which with its belief in boundless progress wore away the grim determinism  of Calvinism and the notion  that misery and want were inevitable, and republican enthusiasm,  which fostered the belief that in a land where men were  equal  and  resources  abundant   poverty  need  not  exist,  encouraged  a harsh  and suspicious  view of  the  poor.  Then  industrialization, urbanization, widespread immigra­tion,  more  poverty,  higher  taxes,  and  a laissez-faire philosophy  all  tended  to  make dependency  a  vice and  its  relief  an  unscientific  and  irrational  interference   with  the “natural harmony” of the social and economic  order. These ideas were strengthened  by the pseudo-scientific  teaching of Herbert Spencer, the English civil engineer turned philo­sopher, and others  who applied the Darwinian theory of evolution to society. If, as social Darwinists claimed, competition  and survival of the fittest  was the law of life, there was no remedy for poverty other than self-help. Those who remained poor were the unfit who had  to  pay  the  price exacted  by “the  decrees of a large far-seeing benevolence.”  “The unfit  must be eliminated  as nature  intended,” said Spencer, “for  the principle of natural selection must not  be violated  by  the  artificial  preservation  of  those  least  able  to  care for themselves.”

The American tradition  of individualism, with its emphasis on personal initiative and self-reliance, the Horatio Alger myth,  with its glorification of hard work and success, and the  so-called Gospel  of Wealth, which emphasized  the  moral  duty  of the individual to acquire property  and accumulate wealth, even further  reinforced these beliefs. Opponents of public assistance also had a potent  weapon in the political graft and corruption  of the era. This was the so-called Gilded Age, a period when political scandals and raids on the public treasury,   including   departments  of   public   charities,  were  common.   It was impossible,   therefore,   or  so  it  seemed,  for  public  aid,  especially  home  relief,  to  be administered honestly, efficiently, or economically.

Yet  helping  those  in  need,  through  private  as  well  as  public  aid, was too  deeply engrained in the American culture  to be eliminated entirely. What resulted, therefore, was an informal  division of labor. The public’s role was severely circumscribed. Confined to a caretaker  and punitive function, it was limited  to routine  maintenance  in asylums, alms houses, and other  institutions for dependents  whom the private or voluntary  sector was unable  or  unwilling  to  handle  and whom,  it  was felt,  should  remain  behind  brick walls–the old, the sick, the disabled, the insane, and others clearly unable to support themselves. The  primary  source  of  assistance,  especially  home  relief,  was the  private agency  which,  staffed  by  middle  and  upper  class volunteers,  would  dispense  benefits without  fostering  pauperism,  especially those religious and moral influences  that  would produce  the  desired  changes in  the  attitudes and behavior of the poor. Private aid had such  other  desirable characteristics  as precariousness  and  uncertainty, it  could  not  be interpreted as a right (for the poor had no statutory claim to it), it bound the poor to the well-to-do, and it was less susceptible to political pressure for liberalization  of benefits.

Such was the temper  of the times when the famed charity  organization movement, or “scientific  charity,” was spawned. Aimed at cooperation  and greater efficiency among the private relief dispensing agencies in the community  and, at the same time, dealing with or treating  poverty  by having “friendly   visitors”  diagnose individual  causes of destitution and  dependency,  the  organized  charities  quickly  undermined  their  deeply  cherished beliefs–that poverty and dependency  resulted from personal defects and evil acts, namely sinfulness,  intemperance,   indolence,  excessive  relief  giving, and  the  like. Their  agents learned  that  poverty  and dependency  were not, for the most part, expressions of individ­ual moral  perversity, but rather the result of faulty  social and economic conditions over which the needy had little  or no control.  All the character regeneration in the world, for example could not help the hundreds of thousands of laborers (and their families) thrown out of work during the depression of the 1890’s.

Also, since the organized charities had insisted upon gathering the facts and keeping detailed records, they unwittingly  compiled  comprehensive data on the social and econo­mic problems  of  the poor,  the real poverty-producing  factors  that  had little  to do with the sufferers’ character–involuntary unemployment, industrial accidents, low wages, poor health,  premature  death  of the family breadwinner, etc. Preconceived notions  about  the poor had to be discarded, or at least seriously reconsidered, especially when a number of studies by Stanford  University Professor Amos Warner and others, based on charity organization  records,  verified  that  poverty  and dependency  resulted mainly from social and  economic  causes not  personal  inadequacy.  Moreover,  as Robert  Hunter,  the noted reformer, demonstrated in his classic work, Poverty (1904),  the charity organization approach did not work; it neither prevented nor alleviated poverty, for at least ten million Americans, or one out of every eight, were still poor some twenty-five years after the movement began.


By  the  turn  of  the  century,   the  organized  charities  had  begun  to  broaden  their efforts.  Among other  things,  they had established the nation’s  first training schools for charity  workers,  an  inevitable  tendency  of  their  individualistic orientation.  Scientific charity,  with  its investigation  and treatment  of each individual, made use of volunteers harder  and harder, for it was increasingly difficult  to reconcile untrained,  part-time  ser­vice with sustained treatment   based  in scientific knowledge. It became increasingly clear that  the gathering and interpreting  of factual material, the technical character of many of the  services that  had  to  be  performed,  and  the consistency  of effort  required  in case treatment, could be achieved only by full-time workers with education,  experience, and professional  discipline.  This,  then,  led  to  the  creation  of training schools for  charity workers, the demise of volunteer service, and ultimately,  the rise of a social work profes­sion.

In  addition,  charity  organization  societies not  only  provided financial  relief  to  the needy  but  also engaged in a variety  of other  activities-housing reform,  public  health work, juvenile courts,  probation  and legal aid, publication  of reform oriented  journals, etc.–which, if not  aimed at  altering  the  social and economic  order,  at least sought to mitigate some of its worst effects. Other developments meanwhile, especially the appear­ance of settlement  houses in the nation’s larger cities, were leading in the same direction.

From  the  start,  settlement   house  residents  regarded themselves as social reformers rather  than  charity  workers.  They  were  not   interested   in  doling  out  relief,  either economic  or moral.  Rather,  their  goal was to eliminate  the  sources of  distress and to improve urban living and working conditions-for all classes, those above as well as below the poverty line. More interested in action than theory, pragmatic in program as well as in approach, and convinced that  the settlement  ideal was the answer to the nation’s urban­ industrial problems, they went about  their task of making America’s cities a better place in which to live.

Their  research and their personal relationships with their neighbors, with whom they lived  and  toiled  and  with  whose  problems  and  needs  they  therefore  became  well­ acquainted,  enabled  them  to comprehend  the  true  causes of  poverty. They also had a realistic  understanding   of  the  social  and  political structure  of  the city  and, far from avoiding commitment, assumed it  was inescapable and  thus became deeply involved in ward, city, state,  and even national affairs. Battling, then, in legislative halls as well as in urban slums, they became successful initiators and organizers of reform.

By the early 20th Century,  then, as the settlements  and the organized charities were beginning to  cooperate,  a major shift  in attitudes  and policies toward dependency  was occurring. If the  indigent  were not  victims of  moral defects but rather of flaws in the economic and social order, then personal reformation and isolation in institutions  was not only  inadequate   but  unjust.  The  enactment   of  preventive  and  protective  legislation, including a system  of social insurance-the replacement  of charity with social justice – was the answer to urban poverty.

As for  the  first,  the  passage of  preventive legislation  that  aimed at  eliminating  the forces that  bred poverty and degradation, the residents were highly successful. Specifical­ly, they secured legislation to establish and maintain fair standards  of wages, hours, and housing,  to  prohibit  child  labor  and  regulate  the  dangerous  trades,  to  establish more vigorous and effective  public health  programs, to institute  a more  practical  system  of public education,  etc. With regard to the second, however, the enactment  of a compre­hensive system of social insurance against the hazards of illness, old age, unemployment, physical disability,  and loss of  the family bread-winner, they were less successful. With the exception of widows’ pensions (which provided “worthy” widows with young children — the group least suspect among the needy — with public aid) and the enactment  of some inadequate  workmen’s  compensation  and  old age pension statutes,  little  in the way of social insurance was secured before the 1930s.

In  the  meantime,  however,  the  settlements   began  to  wane.  World War I and  the opposition  of many residents to America’s entrance into the conflict hurt the movement. The postwar recession, the conservative reaction that accompanied the return to prosperi­ty, broadened  night and summer school programs, and the growth of boys’ clubs, neigh­ borhood  youth  centers, “Y’s” and other  programs and institutions  that  seemed to make settlement  houses less necessary, also contributed to their decline. So did population changes; as the central city increasingly became the home of various minority groups few Americans really cared about  – Latin Americans, Puerto Ricans, Indians, and especially Blacks – it  was  more  and  more  difficult  to  raise money  for,  or  sustain interest  in, settlement house work.

Perhaps most important, however, was the fact that, for the most part, the postwar generation of social workers were not reformers but rather practitioners,  Many were graduates  of  training  schools,  experts  in casework who were more  interested  in  their client’s emotional  and psychological problems and their own therapeutic  techniques than in their neighbors’ social and economic needs and preventive legislation.

For some time, social workers had been seeking professional status. Success, however, required  that  they , like other professional groups, have their own body of specific knowl­edge,  technical  competence  obtained   through  education   and  training,  and subculture whose members shared common values. They had to demonstrate,  in other  words, that social work consisted of more than  benevolence and well-wishing, that it had a scientific as well as an ethical component,  that it utilized unique skills, and that it had professional schools and organizations.

By  the  time  of  World War I,  charity  workers  had  made  substantial  headway  in becoming professional social workers. Schools of social work had been created, the volun­teer friendly visitor had yielded to the paid, full-time, trained agent, and professional organizations were in the bud.

Suddenly,  however,  the  roof fell in when, in 1915, Dr. Abraham Flexner, America’s foremost  authority   on  graduate professional  education,  appeared  before  the  National Conference  to  discuss the  topic  “Is  Social Work a Profession?”  To  the  dismay of his audience,  Dr. Flexner  concluded  that  social work, lacking its own “technique  which is communicable by an educational process,” was no profession.

The paper had a profound  effect upon social workers and their world. While not all of them  accepted  Flexner’s  conclusions,  most  did,  and  they  desperately  began trying  to define and to perfect techniques they could call their own.

Then came publication  of Mary Richmond‘s  Social Diagnosis (1917),  the first defini­tive treatise in book form of social casework theory and method. The method of dealing with  the  dependent   on  a  one-to-one  basis in  an  effort  to  have them  adjust  to  their environment  as  opposed  to  engaging in  social  reform,  obviously  was not  novel. The organized charities and their friendly visitors, for example , had a personalized approach to social welfare. But because they knew little about the human personality and had a moralistic approach  to those in need, friendly visitors provided little or no real treatment. In their hands, casework was largely a device for snooping, refusing appeals for help, or controlling the needy. With Miss Richmond’s  book, however, all that  presumably would change. Grounded  in a logically conceived theoretical base, and meeting the most exacting requirements  of  professional  and  scholarly  standards,   the  very  criteria  specified  by Flexner,  the  effect  of  the  work  was  dramatic.  Almost  overnight,  social diagnosis, or casework,  became  the  method  of  social  work  and,  presumably,  the  badge of  profes­sionalism as the National Conference of Charities and Correction changed its name to the National Conference of Social Work.

This return  to casework-dealing with needy people on a personal basis in an attempt to  reconstruct  their  lives rather  than  the  social and economic  conditions  under which they lived and worked-was reinforced by other  developments, both  within and without the field. America’s entrance into World War I and, with it, the rejection of a large number of draftees because of mental or emotional  problems, the creation  of the American Red Cross Home Service Division (to  provide casework services to uprooted  soldiers and their families),  and  the  establishment,  in  1918,  of  the Smith  College School  of Psychiatric Social Work, all furthered  this development. Then came psychoanalytic  theory, or Freudi­anism, a body  of knowledge that provided caseworkers with a scientific understanding of and a way of dealing with  psychological factors in human  behavior that  they  had long observed  but  could  not  really  explain  or  treat,  facets  of human  behavior previously ignored as irrelevant or dismissed as irrational.

Most important, casework, especially psychiatric casework, promised to eliminate any lingering doubts  about  social work’s  professional  status.  Preoccupation  with individual and emotional  rather  than  with  social and economic  factors  allowed social workers to portray  themselves in a new light; shorn of old time moralism and armed with a vocabu­lary  strewn  with  psychological  and  medical  terms  and  a  technique  grounded  upon scientific  principles,  they  were not  humanitarians  but  primarily  social physicians con­cerned with problems of emotional maladjustment- problems that occurred as frequent­ly among the upper classes as among the lower – and thus were worthy  of professional status. However, as David and Sheila Rothman  have perceptively pointed  out, “the  new result of this new . . . [approach]  was to couch in modern  terminology some very tradi­tional ideas. The poor remained essentially responsible for their difficulties. Reformation and rehabilitation  returned  to the center  of the stage … [only]  rationalized in updated language.”

Nevertheless, the  trend  continued.  In fact, still other  forces contributed  to the shift from  a  social-economic  to  an  individual-psychological  approach  to  dependency.  The growing size of agency operations, the need for sound administrators (rather  than zealous crusaders),  the  demand  for  specialization,  and  the development  of united giving or the community chest, all furthered  the shift from social change to individual service.

So, too, did the failure of the so-called Progressive movement and the disillusionment that  followed; the 1920s was not noted  for its social experimentation. Then again, many people felt that social reform was unnecessary, for this was the “prosperity  decade,” or so it  was believed. There  appeared  to  be little  need  to improve  the  social environment, eliminate poverty, or  raise  the  standard  of  living; had  not  those  tasks  already been accomplished?  So emphasis upon  the  personality  and  emotional  problems  rather  than poverty and social problems reflected not only the social worker’s concern with the three “p’s” – professionalism, psychology,  and  psychoanalysis — but  the conservative social and economic climate of the postwar years.

By the  time  of  the  Great  Depression, then, social work had undergone change once again, it had gone from “cause” to “function,” to use Porter Lee’s terms, from advocating reform to efficiently  rendering technical services. Most social workers, graduates of training schools, were technicians responsible to their cases, not reformers  bent upon curing the maladies of society.  As a result, when the Depression came, the nation’s  welfare institutions and agencies were unprepared  to meet its grave problems.

The  stock  market  crash  of  1929,  and  the  deep  depression  that  followed,  brought destitution  and suffering to an extent  unknown in American history. The task of relieving the jobless and their families was undertaken, at first, by private and local agencies who found  themselves unprepared  and unable  to meet  the crisis. For many , then, the Depres­sion provided  an answer, once and for all, to  the vexing question  of whether  private or public agencies should be responsible for relief-giving. Voluntary  charity simply could not cope with the situation;  only  public agencies had the resources to deal with the collapse of the economy and mass unemployment.

Still, significant public action  to meet the emergency was laggard. Other than creation of a few advisory committees,  some federal efforts  to encourage reemployment, and the initiation  of some municipal and state public works projects, no public action of any importance  was taken  until September,  1931 – almost  two years after  the crash when, under  the prodding of Governor Franklin  D. Roosevelt,  the New York State Legislature acted to provide unemployment  relief to jobless citizens of that state.

In  the  meantime,  however, many social workers, aware of the inadequacy  of private and even local  public  resources  and  the  desperate  straits  to  which  many citizens were being driven through no fault of their own, returned  to social action. To their credit, they were among the first to call for public action, even federal aid to the unemployed,  not as an act  of charity  but as a matter  of right. And,  along with a  handful  of social-minded Senators, they  were responsible  for  organizing the  historic  (LaFollette-Costigan) U. S. Senate committee  hearings on federal unemployment relief.

Still,  there  was a great  deal of  opposition  to such  action,  especially from President Herbert Hoover who, it quickly  became evident, was unable to keep up with the times. Convinced that  the economy  was basically sound and that prosperity  was just around the corner,  and  wedded  to a belief  in  the American  folklore of  self-help, he  rejected  all proposals for federal aid.

Franklin  Roosevelt,  however,  had  no  such  qualms.  Soon  after  entering  the  White House he signed into  law a number  of measures to aid the  jobless and dependent.  The most  important   of  these,  welcomed  enthusiastically  by social workers, was the Federal Emergency  Relief Act,  a tradition-shattering for  social  welfare.  Considering  unemployment   a  national   problem,   the  statute   made available at the outset  $500  million of federal funds  to be distributed  as grants-in-aid to the states  for  relief of the needy, thus transferring, for  the first  time, responsibility  for the  relief  of  a  large  number  of  citizens  from  the  local  or  state  level to  the  federal government.

Yet as social workers and others realized, relief alone, especially on a temporary  basis, was not  enough  to  assuage the  economic  insecurity  that  grew out  of  the  depression. Something  of a more lasting or permanent  nature  was needed,  something  that  not only would  include  a rescue operation  to relieve distress during emergencies but  would com­ prise a long-range plan for preventing dependency,  especially for  the growing number of senior citizens, many of whom were hard hit by the depression. Aside from humanitarian considerations  or  the  question  of  justice,  a system of security  that  would help prevent destitution  was essential for social and economic  stability.  Thus on August 14, 1935 the Social Security Act became law.

As finally  adopted,  the  Social Security  Act  was an omnibus measure which, through two lines of defense, contributory social insurance and public assistance, sought to prevent  destitution. The statute  set up old age and unemployment  insurance  programs and provided  federal funds (grants-in-aid) for dependent  women with children , the crippled, blind, and aged, and for state and local public health work.

With the exception  of the unemployment  insurance, which by 1934 had been enacted only  in  the state  of Wisconsin, the provisions of the S.S.A. were not  novel. They  were influenced   by  or  were based upon  previous or existing  state  and  federal  statutes;  the measure  merely  strengthened   and expanded,  or  in some cases revived, earlier practices. Still, it became the target of considerable criticism-from all sides.

Social  workers  stood  in  the  middle. Some,  like Frank  J. Bruno the noted  educator, considered  the Social Security  Act quite inadequate, “a series of miscellaneous provisions which altogether  do not furnish  a logical plan for social security.” As they  pointed out, the  measure  not  only  tied  benefits  to  stable,  long-term  labor  force  participation, but financed  in large part through individual contributions, it was deflationary  and regressive, siphoning  off  billions  of  dollars  in  taxes  from  the  purchasing  power  of  those  it  was supposed  to protect.  In no way did it redistribute  wealth. It paid benefits on the basis of past earnings not current  needs. The payments were minimal and, in the case of un­ employment  insurance,  limited  to a relatively  short  period.  It did not  cover numerous classes of people, including many of those who needed  protection  most, especially farm laborers, seasonal and migrant workers, domestic servants, and workers’ dependents. And most important, it omitted  entirely the most pressing need in the area of social security­ health insurance.

Nevertheless, most social workers accepted the Act for what it was-a compromise measure  that,  despite  its  many  shortcomings,  comprised  something  of  a landmark  in American history. The statute  established a new alignment of responsibility in the field of public welfare; it marked the beginning of a policy of federal aid to the states upon a permanent  basis for regular recurring social work, thus closing the door on three centuries of  poor  law  and  its  principle  of  local  responsibility.  For  the  first  time in American history,  relief (and  its  administration) became a major  permanent  item in the national budget, one that has continued  to grow each year.

The  Depression  and  the  so-called New Deal also had  a profound  effect  upon social workers and their profession. First of all, many more jobs for social workers were created, especially  in  the  public  social services.  Despite  widespread  unemployment   during  the 1930’s, qualified  social workers were  in  constant  demand;  indeed, their  number  ap­proximately  doubled during the decade.

The Depression also prompted  a resurgence of interest  among many social workers in social reform  and  even old-fashioned  relief. What good was psychiatric assistance when millions of workers were unemployed  and entire  families starving? As Paul Kellogg, the well-known  editor  of  Survey put  it:  “You  cannot  deal effectively  with  an inferiority complex  on an empty  stomach.” Moreover, the adverse experience was proof, at least for the  time  being, that  social and  economic forces were at the root  of the problems with which social workers dealt and that  they could  best make their contributions by allying themselves  with  those  groups  in  society  working  for  social,  political,  and  economic change.

For  some,  however,  the  experiences  of  the  decade  had  no  such  effect.  Indeed,  by getting public agencies to take over the job of providing financial aid to the needy, even bringing federal funds to bear on the field of social welfare, the New Deal seemed to free these  social  workers  from  feeling  an  obligation  to  provide such  services; they  would continue,  or return  to,  their work with problems of emotional adjustment  and individual development. Some social workers, in fact, aware of the profound emotional and psycho­ logical problems caused by the depression (with its insecurity,  prolonged poverty, altered family relationships, etc.), argued that  there was more need than ever before for casework and psychotherapy. So, the psychiatric deluge and concern for the super-ego did not give away entirely to the economic deluge and concern for the trade cycle in the 1930s.

Still, the profession assumed a new prestige and importance  in American life as a result of  the  Depression  and  the  New Deal. Social  workers,  such  as Harry Hopkins,  Frances Perkins and others  as well, were listened  to, in Washington and elsewhere; they were on the inside, in high positions, making and implementing  policy. Moreover, by the end of the  decade  social work was not only an acknowledged obligation  of the federal govern­ment and every state,  city, and village in the nation,  but its scope had greatly expanded. It no longer meant simply providing financial assistance to the dependent, or even case­ work  to  the  emotionally  disturbed,  but  both  of these and much more. Social work no longer was viewed as an emergency profession,  but as an accepted part of the machinery of the state, an important every-day function  in a modern industrial society.

Still, all was not clear sailing, especially since many social workers quickly reverted to individual service. Indeed,  by the 1940s and ’50s most, once again, were more concerned with casework and technique than with the further  expansion of public social services and the improvement  of living conditions.

Why? Some  social workers  felt  that  as a result  of  the  many  reforms  of the 1930s, especially  enactment  of  the  Social  Security  Act, most  citizens  were  protected   from poverty  and want. They,  and others,  also had their attention diverted from broad social issues, when, during World War II  and  increasingly thereafter,  many self-supporting in­dividuals  and  families  turned  to  social  workers  for  help, creating  a lucrative  private practice. Then there was the Cold War and the other anxieties of the postwar era in which survival of the human  race became of real concern; advances in the field of social welfare seemed insignificant by contrast.

Related,  was the problem of McCarthyism. A nation shaken by fears and suspicions, by  vague ·charges of disloyalty  and  Communist  conspiracy,  hardly  offered  a climate hospitable  to  social criticism  and  change. Of importance, too,  was the fact  that  many poor were, as social critic Michael Harrington  would say, “Invisible;”  they were isolated in rural and urban ghettos where the non-poor rarely ventured as they commuted to and from their suburban homes and downtown offices by car or train.

In any event, concern with poverty seemed remote, almost antiquarian,  during the war and  postwar  years, for  once  again it appeared as though  mass prosperity  prevailed. The general image was that  of an affluent  society  with the highest standard  of living in the world which gave everyone his (or her) fair share. Why engage in reform? For all practical purposes  the  task  already had been accomplished. Almost everyone had a television set and a car, didn’t  they? Such smug self-satisfaction naturally led to an era of complacency: contain  the  Communists,  balance  the  budget, cut  taxes, and don’t  rock the boat, these were the goals. As Walter Lippmann,  the syndicated columnist, scornfully observed: “We talk  about   ourselves  as if we  were  a  completed   society,  one  which has achieved its purposes and has no further  business to transact.”

The flight from  social reform in the 1940s and ’50s Gust as in the 1920s) did not go without  uneasy words of warning from some people within (as well as without)  the social work profession. Ernest Hollis and Alice Taylor,  for example, urged the readers for their widely discussed book,  Social Work Education in the United States (1951).  to  take a stand  on the major social issues of the day. Whitney Young, Benjamin Youngdahl, Agnes E. Meyer, and other  social workers also pleaded with their colleagues to return  to social action,  pleas that  apparently  were  not  entirely  in vain, for by the 1960s a change was evident.  Whereas earlier  most  people  assumed  that  poverty  was rapidly vanishing from America, during the 1960s few subjects were as fashionable – at least to discuss.

This sudden  turnabout resulted from a variety of factors. The running debate during the 1950s on the question  of foreign aid may have awakened at least some Americans to the existence of poverty at home as well as abroad. Then there was the coming into office of President John  F. Kennedy, who conveyed a sense of urgency in his approach to social problems neglected by his predecessor. Setting  the tone  in his inaugural address in 1961, which aroused  many  citizens,  Kennedy asked the nation  to “bear  the burden of a long twilight struggle against the common enemies of man:  tyranny,  poverty, disease and war…””The hand of hope,” he said, “must  be extended  to the poor and the  depressed.” Even more  important, however,  was the  civil fights  movement  of the 1960s which, perhaps more than anything  else, made the nation  aware of its poor and was responsible for what little  progress occurred during the decade. Americans who had regarded poverty as a problem  that  had  virtually  disappeared  were suddenly  confronted   with a militant reform movement  that arose precisely because that was not the case; to be made aware of the injustice of racial discrimination  was inevitably  to be made aware of want, for what­ ever criteria  were used – income, employment, education,  skills, health,  dependency  – blacks constituted a disproportionate number at the bottom  of society, and this could no longer be ignored.

Those who had overlooked  the invisible poor- the unskilled, the migrant laborer, the tenant  farmer,  the victim of regional depression or automation, the aged tucked away in the  nation’s  rural  and  urban  ghettos,  black and white alike — were forced  to come to grips  with a blight that they had  tried to forget, or  pretend did not exist.  This  was especially so after  a score  of scholars and publicists, using the 1960 census figures and other data, factually discovered — or rediscovered — poverty.

Gabriel Kolko, James Morgan and his team of University of Michigan social scientists, Dwight Macdonald and, above all, Michael Harrington demonstrated  clearly that the New Deal had  not  eliminated  poverty,  that  beneath  the layers  of American affluence there were strata  of  deprivation,  and that  the deprived were not merely  those who inhabited well-known  urban  and  rural  slums.  Rather,   the  poor  were ubiquitous;  they  could  be found in.. all sections of the country’ in all parts of the population,  in all age groups.

Then, as if to bear out what these writers were saying, America’s cities exploded. Riots occurred  not  only in New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Newark, but  in hundreds  of other communities  around the nation.  And while the outbreaks  varied in origin and development,  they  all resulted  from  long suffering  wounds- unemployment, poverty, poor housing, crowded living conditions, economic exploitation, frustration, and despera­tion. President  Lyndon  Johnson  created  a National Advisory Commission on Civil Dis­orders future occurrence.   Placing most of  the blame  for  the  riots  on “white  racism,”  the Commission made a series of modest  proposals for social change, few of which, however, were ·implemented.  Instead  of  serious  attempts to  alleviate  the  causes of  distress,  the principal response to the riots was greater expenditures for police and weaponry.

Earlier,  the  much-heralded  War on Poverty  had  been  initiated,  a make-do  program that, as many social workers were quick  to point  out,  was bound  to fail from  the start. Designed for the most part not to change society but its victims, it emphasized education and  job  training rather  than inadequate  income and job creation.  Moreover, even on its own terms, the program did not live up to its billing. Less a war on poverty than a minor skirmish, it  was scantily financed.  Moreover, much of what little  was appropriated, was squandered  or caught in bureaucratic  red tape, delaying tactics, and political hassles while those  who  were supposed  to be helped  by the measure continued  their miserable exist­ ence in their wretched ghettos and slums. There were not too many tears shed when, late in 1966,  dismemberment  of  the program began, a process continued  by the Nixon Administration.

With the exception  of some amendments  to the Social Security  Act, including Medi­care, approved  by President Johnson  in July,  1965, the only major new welfare proposal during the 1960s to be introduced  in Congress was President Richard Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan, announced  in August, 1969. The President’s recommendations, which in effect  would have instituted  a minimum guaranteed annual income, provoked immediate controversy.  While some  people  hailed  the  plan  as a giant  step  forward  in helping the poor,  most  social workers and other  experts  denounced  the proposal as inadequate  and even retrogressive.

While the program would increase welfare payments in some areas of the country, especially in  parts  of  the  rural South,  it  would  add little  or  nothing  to those in most northern  cities. Indeed,  there were fears that it would lead the more progressive counties and  states  to cut  back their welfare payments  in order  to conform  to the lower federal standard  – $1600 (later  $ 2400)  per year for a family of four.  In addition,  its provision requiring women with young children (over age three) to leave the home and go to work at any type of job and often at substandard  wages — was anathema to most (especially after  the President vetoed  a bill that would have provided federal funds for a massive day care program).

The proposal’s  greatest shortcoming,  however, was its emphasis upon job training and employment  when most of the poor and dependent  are either too young, too old, or too sick to work, are already employed at below subsistence wages, or are women with young children. Moreover, absorption  of all Americans into  the labor market- even those with normally  marketable  skills – is impossible; despite affluence  and prosperity,  unemploy­ment  is at  about  6 per cent of the labor force. Jobs, in other  words, simply are not and may never be available for all Americans, especially for semi- and unskilled workers.

In any event,  three years after it was proposed,  the Nixon plan was still bogged down in committee  and the prospect  for its passage seemed remote. In the meantime, however, Congress enacted another “workfare” measure, one that included the worst feature of the Nixon  proposal  — the  provision  requiring  recipients  of Aid to Dependent Children  to work.

So, little  has been accomplished.  Two distinct economics  continue   to exist. One, the economy  of  affluence, includes most Americans – well  trained, holding steady jobs, in relatively good health,  living in reasonably  comfortable  homes or apartments. The other, the economy  of poverty,  is inhabited  by the poorly  trained,  unable to find or hold jobs, suffering  from  low  or  no incomes,  bad  health,  and  poor  housing. Born  to  the  wrong parents,  in the wrong part  of town, or the wrong racial group, they are trapped in a cycle of poverty  and degradation.  Poverty appears  to have congealed and hardened into a kind of subculture  producing its outcasts from society.

Yet, all is not bleak; there are rays of hope – and perhaps even signs of progress. There may yet  be an end  to  the  war in Indochina,  and if so, hopefully  more  funds  will be available for badly needed  domestic social services. Also, more Americans are beginning to  accept  the  idea  that  automation and  technology  has broken  the traditional  link between  jobs and  income,  that  some citizens simply cannot  work, or find jobs, or earn a living wage in today’s labor market; that there is a need, therefore, to set up a truly sound system  of social security, including comprehensive health  care and some sort of federal income maintenance  program. Only in that way, by meeting immediate need with the instruments  best designed to overcome those needs – adequate  health  care and money, not  extended  education,  makeshift  jobs, or  casework – will the  rejects  of society  be brought into the mainstream of American life.

Perhaps even more  important, the  expectations  of the   poor  have been aroused and they no longer will return to their urban and rural slums and sit by in quiet pose, and, for the  first  time  since 1912,  the  National Conference  took  an advocacy role,  drafting  a liberal statement  on a wide range of social issues that was presented to the platform committees of both major political parties at Miami last summer.

These and other  signs indicate  that  a growing number  of today’s  social workers have learned the lessons of social welfare history.  Not only do they have an increasing aware­ ness that  achievement  of  the  profession’s  goals entails their participation  in social pro­graming, but  they  are again beginning to accept  that  challenge; they  have shed the old realities,  to  correct  discrepencies and inequities  in our  social and economic  order  and create a truly just society. To allow, let alone compel, the National Conference to close its doors  at  this vital juncture  in American  history  would  be a disaster for  the course of social advance.


Walter Trattner holds his Bachelors degree from Williams College, a Master of Arts in Teaching from Harvard  University,  and  a Master of Science  and a Ph.D. in History from  the University of Wisconsin, Madison. An officer  of the Social Welfare History Group for several years, he is currently  Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where he also teaches in the School of Social Work. He is the  author  of many  scholarly  articles  and of  two major books-Homer Folks: Pioneer in Social Welfare (Columbia  University  Press, 1968),  and Crusade for the Children: A History of the National Child Labor Committee  and Child Labor Reform in  America (Quadrangle, 1970).   His manuscript, From Poor Law to Welfare State: A History of Social Welfare in America, is scheduled  to be published by Free Press during 1973.

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