Provision and Management of Social Services
by James Leiby, Professor School of Social Welfare
University of California Berkeley
If the founders of the National Conference on Social Welfare used the word “services,” they referred to a duty to an authority–what a priest did for God or a soldier for his country, Their phrase for their own enterprise was “charity and correction,” which meant organized provision for the “dependent, defective, and delinquent classes.” Dependents were destitute; the defective were physically or mentally handicapped; delinquents were lawbreakers. For the most part historians have considered this provision and its development as a response to social problems. This essay looks in a different direction, however. It seeks to interpret services in the changing contest of groups of sponsors and users, to discern the changing ideas and forms of organization that were common to the various types of intervention. An account of these influences and relations will give a perspective on our current quandaries and enthusiasms.
Imagine a network of rural villages and surrounding farms — populations of 2,000 are large. Slow transportation makes them physically isolated and economically and socially self-sufficient. Most citizens are called yeoman farmers: they own and work their land. They are militant Protestants, likely to be of a single denomination and congregated in a single church. They are democrats, proud of their revolution, jealous of their rights, scorning the pretensions of European aristocracy. They are said to be friendly and generous with neighbors and strangers, but acquisitive and zealous for the main chance.
Such communities were most clearly realized in the New England towns that Alexis de Tocqueville described in 1835 and in the settlements of religious groups, such as the Mormons. In many places settlers were too few and scattered to establish close ties, but where they could they did.
In these communities charity and correction were simple matters. The standards of food, clothing, and shelter would be called severe deprivation today , but anomie and alienation were held in check by a struggle for survival. Citizens expected to look out for themselves and their families. In emergencies, which were frequent, they would help their neighbors or be helped in turn. Religious congregations were pledged to helpfulness; clergymen and deacons were prepared to take charge in these matters. If these resources failed there was the poor law, which held local government responsible. Settlement laws discouraged local governments from pushing their own charges onto the next town. As for catching and punishing criminals, the police not only resided in the community, they were the community. Often they ignored the rights of the accused. They never dallied with rehabilitation: they punished. Often there was private justice, the duel or feud.
In this sort of community there were implied norms about what men came to call welfare administration. Ideally , givers, agents, and receivers knew one another and felt a mutual responsibility. There was a clear perception of need–an emergency–a tactful and pragmatic adaptation to circumstances, a considerate attitude and a grateful spirit. No one had to spell out rights or consult a manual of procedure. Contrast this with our current arrangements: welfare administration conducted by huge bureaucracies, so that givers, agents, and recipients are remote, there is little direct or personal perception of need by givers or responsibility among receivers, the demands themselves are vague standards of decency which are formulated among many priorities, the emergency is an impersonal campaign to eliminate poverty or develop human resources. The satisfaction of a timely good deed, of justice done, is changed into the function of an agency staff on which various classes of the community focus their anxiety, snobbery , envy , and self-pity. What sort of progress is that?
Some villages become towns and cities, seaports, river-ports, manufacturing or mining centers. Their growth speeds marvellously as the connecting links, especially railroads, bring them into larger common markets. Scores or hundreds of thousands, even millions of strangers crowd together. Into the migrant stream of rubes and hicks push Micks and Heinies, Wops and Polacks, Kikes and Hunkies. In retrospect we emphasize the social cost of these migrations, the angry divisions of society into rural and urban, labor and capital, native and foreign-born, Protestant, Catholic and Jew, plutocrat and tramp, the alienation and anomie of urban-industrial society, the loss of roots. It is (not) hard to see that to most migrants urban life had a different look: opportunity, stimulation, comfort, privacy, tolerance, such as their village could never offer. Most people were lured to the city, not driven there.
In retrospect it is easy to suppose that the bonds and controls of the village community, mostly informal anyhow, were soon abandoned, that a callous or punitive, even depraved, spirit dominated the impersonal and tentative associations of city people. No historian has critically examined this supposition. There is, of course, much evidence of isolation and suffering. But those who studied the situation at first hand were often impressed by the kind neighborliness of people who scarcely knew one another. There is no doubt that crafty beggars and genteel sponsors of charities found a ready response to their pleas.
This response is writ large in the host of voluntary associations that took form in the cities. Many were for mutual aid–fraternal orders and labor unions, for example. Often members of particular denominations or ethnic groups would join to help their fellows. Society ladies and philanthropic gentlemen were enthusiastic supporters of the balls, bazaars, and benefits that publicized them with good causes. The principal beneficiaries of this philanthropy, perhaps, were hospitals, clinics and children’s institutions, but a big city would support literally hundreds of “relief societies.” Local governments usually continued to furnish some outdoor relief, although some cities, like New York, left this to voluntary agencies. The public almshouse grew large and often divided to form a charity hospital and a lunatic asylum. The local jail grew with the legion of misdemeanants and vagrants, and often divided to form a workhouse and sometimes a parental school for incorrigible children. There was obviously an overlap between private and public agencies and also between local and state institutions.
Significantly, the innovations that led to modern welfare administration and social work did not begin in a criticism of unmet needs or a condemnation of the impersonal callousness of urban life. Instead they began in a well-founded suspicion that the spirit of helpfulness was rampant and greatly abused. Their promoters urged not simply charity, but wiser or more “scientific” charity.
Among these innovators were the founders of the State Board of Charities and Corrections. The boards differed greatly, but in general they were concerned with administrative efficiency. Before 1900 most of them merely advised the state legislature, but some actually took part in managing state institutions. Most confined their responsibilities to state agencies, but some undertook to inspect local public and even private institutions. Their reflections on efficiency may be summarized under three heads.
1. They thought it was wise to segregate and classify various kinds of inmates for appropriate treatment. This idea was a criticism of the mixed population of local almshouses and jails. State institutions took particular classes of inmates, such as juvenile delinquents or the feeble-minded, and put them in a rational program directed by a teacher or physician. Among inmates of state institutions, chronic and acute mental patients were segregated, as were prisoners requiring different programs. Often these questions became complicated: Should the state subsidize private orphanages, build its own orphanage, or encourage foster home placement?
2. As state institutions grew more numerous and large, they accumulated a lore that might be rationalized and shared–the National Conference was intended to do this across state lines–and in any case they became vested interests that competed among themselves for state funds and required some sort of mediation and coordination.
3. Behind these issues of policy and management was the central problem of public welfare in the 19th century: the spoils system. Politicians notoriously fought for the power to decide upon jobs and contracts in the huge local almshouses, hospitals and jails. State institutions usually had unpaid board of managers, philanthropic worthies who were supposed to protect them from the direct attention of spoilsmen. The argument whether State Boards of Charities should “supervise” or actually “control” the state agencies turned on the fear that a board of control would run them like the county commissioners ran the county institutions. Of course the spoils system was not a peculiarity of cities or of charity and correction. Rural institutions felt its influence and agencies responsible for schools, streets, and utilities were prime targets.
In the 1880s, the Charity Organization Societies took hold in many cities and their leaders began to appear in the National Conference. They were the same type of people who were interested in state institutions and State Boards — Josephine Shaw Lowell and Oscar McCulloch, for example – and they had the same interests. In their view the open-handed generosity of casual alms giving and of the numerous relief societies was self-defeating, encouraging pauperism rather than self-sufficiency in the recipients. Scientific charity, they thought, would take into account the distinctive circumstances of each case and the importance of the person’s response. It would repair the demoralization, the hopelessness and powerlessness of the pauper, by the offices of a friendly visitor and a case committee. Charity organizers were painfully aware of the overlap of relief societies and public relief, the opportunity to encourage order and system, and the value of fact-minded inquiry or research.
Today it is easy to criticize the State Boards and charity organizers for their moralistic and punitive attitudes toward people that we have learned to look upon as victims of circumstance. But in historic context they were primarily critics of abusers of charity; they thought they dignified paupers by holding them to the strict standards of personal responsibility that they applied to themselves and their own class. Their conception of helping turned on personal obligations and responsibilities, not needs and satisfactions. They were in agreement with the economic science of their day, which held that to deter pauperism was best not only for the potential pauper, who stood to lose the dignity of self-sufficiency, but also for the economy, which gained a productive worker, and for the most needy cases and the philanthropists who sought to help them.
While they called givers and receivers, officials and volunteers, to their duties, they deliberately left a minimum role to the government. Partly they wanted to limit the spoils system, but history also taught them the evils of public subsidy and the wisdom of strict “depauperization,” tempered by conscientious and far-sighted charity. These opinions were challenged by sentimental abusers and also by theorists who thought that religious revival was the answer, or eugenic selection, or radical revolution, or a single tax, free silver, an eight-hour day, prohibition, settlement houses, or woman suffrage. If the members of the National Conferences were not, in the years before 1900, looking for a welfare state, it is to their credit that neither were they looking for a panacea.
It often seemed in the years 1900-1930 that economic growth would end poverty. New industries suddenly appeared to claim nationwide markets, and the urban way of life spread far from its early centers. The heroes of this progress were the businessman, the engineer, the scientist and the professional; among them, and especially among their wives, who took increasingly prominent part in community affairs, the idea of a scientific and professional social service took hold. The influence of the social gospel in middle class churches and of social science among college-educated people further encouraged scientific ways of thinking about social problems and organizing social agencies. The professional association and the bureaucratic executive replaced the heroic philanthropists and volunteers of the 19th century.
While business and professional people were the main vehicle of the scientific spirit, its progress among them was not overwhelming, and they were much more willing to support hospitals, clinics, and schools than “social agencies.” Medicine in particular enjoyed the great prestige of its scientific advances — the germ theory, for example, which revolutionized surgery and opened new vistas of prevention. Standards for training doctors and nurses improved sharply. Reformers mounted effective campaigns for pure food and industrial hygiene and against TB and hookworm. The idea spread of a mental hygiene that might encourage good behavior; Freud’s theory of the neuroses lent it strong support. Mendelian genetics inspired a new vision of eugenics as a solution to social problems. Sensational medical advances and psychological insights suggested that much deviant behavior of the sort social agencies confronted might be sickness, and the progress of medicine exhibited models of professional persons who could diagnose and treat, prevent and rehabilitate.
Equally important was the progress in rationalizing the public schools to accommodate new classes of students and subjects of instruction. Professional educators worked on a learning theory that indicated the importance of environment in “socialization” (as we say today) and the possibilities of capitalizing on the children’s natural curiosity and motivation. New psychological tests afforded ways to identify normal and exceptional children and stimulated special programs. Advances in education, like health care, brought out the importance of the early years of life and helped sustain a strong interest in child welfare.
Social workers took part in these innovations. Settlement houses were pioneers in home nursing, well-baby clinics, kindergartens, and recreation; child welfare and family service agencies explored the possibilities of mental hygiene and home care and teaching. Social workers also joined the staff of hospitals, mental hospitals, schools and courts, where professional and bureaucratic circumstances tended to exclude volunteers and amateurs.
In short the general bureaucratic and technical tendency of social agencies in these years followed a course marked out by much larger organizations for health and education, which had better scientific associations and more general and enthusiastic public support. Welfare institutions that were in fact mostly custodial tried to be like hospitals and schools that were not custodial. Lunatic asylums became “mental hospitals” with “pathological labs” where microbe hunters did, in time, learn to identify and arrest general paresis. Caseworkers learned to collect evidence and withhold judgment. Agency executives tried to show the rationality and efficiency of their operation.
Often forward-looking executives found it wise to dissociate themselves from a traditional notion of charity. The early charity organizers had hope that their benevolent efforts would bring social classes together in mutual understanding. They contrasted the enthusiasm of the volunteer with the resignation of the paid functionary. A professional, they thought, would work with a host of volunteers, help them exercise and direct their philanthropy; he would be a male executive, not a female caseworker. But it turned out that the volunteers were too few, too tactless, too unreliable; moreover the relation between visitor and client offended democratic sensibilities on both sides and often brought bad publicity upon the agency. It was better to think of the relation as a job in which the agency and the client might defme standards of service, and more democratic to think of the visitor as an expert whose help was paid and responsible, not gratuitous benevolence.
Meanwhile the financial support for community social agencies was changing. At first each agency raised its own funds, and a few patrician families had often carried much of the burden. This arrangement did not suit the ethnic groups, Catholics and Jews, who needed a broader base for the variety of agencies they supported. Hence they devised a joint fund-raising effort, or federated finance. The YMCA developed the technique of a systematic concentrated campaign for funds, which was much elaborated in the Red Cross drives during World War I. The Community Chest, which evolved from these innovations, struck the growing number of local businessmen as a good idea, and they used it to impose stricter standards of budgeting and accountability on the agencies. Here was a strong impetus toward rationalizing administration.
Public agencies felt similar pressures. Advances in “business administration” encouraged a science of “public administration.” Its practitioners looked upon government as a service rather than a battleground for spoilsmen, and they proposed to clarify and rationalize the service and the responsibility for it. Soon agencies in larger municipalities and states, including the old-fashioned State Boards of Charities, were arranged into departments and a central executive and staff and, in time, several echelons of career people. The executive budget, in its preparation and defense, became the occasion for penetrating inquiries into means and ends. Public administrators did not presume to understand the technicalities of institutional programs or child welfare, but they were disposed to seek out and hear experts: for health, a doctor; for education, a teacher; for outdoor relief or probation; a social worker. They tended to favor long-run economy, prevention and rehabilitation, extramural treatment.
New and large-scale philanthropic foundations played an important role in these years. Russell Sage’s Charity Organization Department, under Mary Richmond, encouraged the formation of family service agencies (as they came to be called) and helped systematize method in all kinds of case work. It also aided national standard-setting agencies, such as the Child Welfare League of America, and the Survey magazine, the medium of communication among professional social workers and their allies. The Commonwealth Fund stimulated demonstration projects in mental hygiene. The Julius Rosenwald Fund supported the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, among many benefactions.
So in both private and public agencies, the star of the professional rose between 1900 and 1930. He had the personal and scientific qualities that, in the view of the forward-looking funders and executives, promised a better service. This ascendancy was not peculiar to social work or especially strong there, however. Foundation support was slim, compared with what went to health and education. Of course the general notion of an organization managing a scientific technology according to rational principles of administration was less advanced even in health and education than in business that produced for profit.
Nevertheless by 1930 charity and correction had been transformed into social service. It was looked upon as a professional’s career, with an appropriate knowledge base and skills. Its practitioners felt a responsibility to those who financed them and those whom they sought to help. If leaders in business and politics wanted in the 1920s to improve their welfare agencies and programs, there were growing resources to draw on for ideas, planning and administration. Many leaders did. It is significant that both presidential candidates in 1928 ‘had a long and forward-looking association with welfare institutions. Governor AI Smith of New York had pushed the services of that state and its great city along advanced lines; Herbert Hoover, the “great humanitarian,” was justly celebrated for masterful administration of voluntary agencies.
Despite these promising conditions, the main fact about the social services in the 1920s was that they lacked broad support. Business and professional people did not unite behind the community chests, where they existed, and it was hard to purify the air of snobbery among lay leaders or even professionals. Lay leaders did not have to listen to professionals, who were often sharply divided among themselves. Most people in all social classes were at once more sentimental and more punitive than social workers and suspicious of the pretensions of professionalism. Businessmen distrusted politicians — one reason for their support of voluntary agencies. Politicians easily ignored the advice of experts in social administration. The science of social welfare was eclectic and shallow, its practice mostly empiricism. Beneath the distrust and confusion lay the continuing social divisions of the nation, also dramatized in the presidential election of 1928.
There was another confusion, about social welfare itself. Charity and correction had dealt with deviants. The pauper, for example, failed to support himself as expected. But surveys of poor people, conducted first around 1900 and often repeated, brought out that paupers were generally the victims of the circumstances of poverty, and it appeared that the best way to prevent pauperism was to establish minimum standards of well-being. Scientific charity had held from the start that relief, when given, should be adequate: Suppose the family budget for adequate relief was more than the breadwinner could earn even if employed full-time? Such observations and questions went beyond an interest in a better agency or program to fundamental questions of social justice: surely people ought to have a decent security and a fair chance in life, such as, for example, children in middle-class families in fact enjoyed. But economic science said that the best way to fight poverty was to increase production, and the best way to increase production was to leave enterprise free: the market would deal out a rough sort of justice, and for the rest, a scientific philanthropy would be best. The depression challenged that line of thought.
It is often said that the depression of 1929-1941 was a watershed in the history of social welfare in the United States, inasmuch as it brought large-scale public, especially federal, involvement, specifically in the Social Security Act of 1935. In fact, however, the federal government was generally expanding its role in our national life — in the regulation of business and in scientific research, for example – and in that larger sense the depression was only one of a series of events – the world wars, the cold war, the problems of affluence – that were also very important. Moreover the private sector of social welfare proved to have a vitality that would have surprised people looking forward in 1940 and that, like the public enterprises, responded to deep movements in social and intellectual history.
Farm policies, in research and education as well as marketing, persistently increased productivity and pushed people off the land. Technological advance created great new industries and drew more and more of the work force into what were called “service industries,” distinguished from the traditional forms of production and trade. In the prosperity after 1940 these services, of which those concerned with “welfare” were only a modest part, constituted the fastest growing sector of the economy. Organized labor expanded during the 1930s to represent many unskilled workers and later made significant inroads among white-collar types; it furnished effective leadership both in collective bargaining and in politics. Depression-year fears or hopes about its radicalism were mis taken.
As depression gave way to war and affluence, birthrates rose sharply. New families and old resumed the pattern of earlier decades by moving, when they could, to the suburbs; a large majority of the population gathered in metropolitan areas that surrounded the core cities, loosely held together by the mass media of communication. By the 1950s sociologists were reflecting upon the mass culture of these places, which was founded too on the steady standardization of formal education, experience in the armed forces, and even ecumenicism among the churches. As business and industry moved into the South these urban patterns spread there, and a large migration brought poor Southerners, black and · white, to other sections, where the media could popularize their culture as well as feature their difficulties.
More and more the national economy fostered a national society and culture in which the older divisions — rural-urban, native-foreign, Protestant-Catholic-Jew, capital-labor, North-South-West — were muted and overshadowed by common ways of life and interests. Here were many conditions for more general involvement in the concerns of social welfare, and at the same time many cultural inhibitions about the subject were reduced: Constitutional doubts about public and especially federal action almost disappeared; laisser-faire economics gave way to the insights of newer theories; the “Protestant ethic,” which inclined people to believe that achievement and wealth represented a personal response and merit, was modified by doctrines that emphasized unconscious and social factors of behavior.
These general trends in the economy, polity, and culture underlie the increase in expenditures on social welfare between 1930 and 1960. An authoritative estimate of public spending puts the figures at $3.9 billion in 1929, $8.8 billion in 1940, and $52.3 billion in 1960. Most of the welfare expenditures in these sums went for social insurance benefits or assistance payments rather than services; education and health continued to claim much larger shares than social agencies. Ironically the tax laws that raised these amounts and that were expected to reduce voluntary charity and philanthropy in fact encouraged it. Philanthropic expenditures rose more than six times between 1929 and 1960. Small in proportion to public funds, these private gifts were nevertheless large in their absolute amount and in the opportunity they offered for experiment and innovation in services. These figures on public and private expenditures do not include the elaborate arrangements that employers and unions made during the 1950s to help employees, the “private welfare state” of fringe benefits that testified to a desire for security and often services that neither public nor voluntary agencies were satisfying.
These greatly increased expenditures got many more people involved with programs as users, workers, or funders. Rising interests fed rising expectations, users for much more, funders for much less. Whereas “charity and correction” had denoted programs for deviants, the depression-year emphasis was on those in economic need and the main advance came in types and levels of financial support. The Social Security Act created three huge new bureaucracies, to administer Old Age (and later Survivors) Insurance, Unemployment Insurance, and Public Assistance. Their common features were obscured by differences in sponsorship and rationale. Public Assistance was the closest to traditional social welfare services. It amplified and standardized old-fashioned outdoor relief, and its administrators proposed to dignify it by adapting a professional-style casework to the determination and review of the assistance grant. The professional spirit was even more evident in the administration of the Child Welfare titles of the act.
In effect the administration of the public assistance and child welfare titles extended principles of social casework from the advanced urban agencies where they were developed to every county in the land. On one hand this was a step forward in rational social service. On the other, it incorporated thousands of instant social workers in local bureau cracies that were feeble in resources and sense of purpose and without local support. Insofar as the professional spirit favored a rational, efficient operation, upholding the applicant’s dignity and right to help, it was indispensable. But unfortunately the best professionals were unclear as to means and ends. Social casework was built around theories that directed attention to the emotional problems of clients and toward a sort of psychotherapy. Whatever the merit of this view of the helping relation – no one proposed a better one -it was vulnerable to the criticism that casework was irrelevant to fundamental problems of unemployment, poverty, and social injustice. Even where emotional problems seemed significant, “treatment” was more art than science and typically beyond agency personnel. Nevertheless the process of supervision and the opera tion of the merit system did encourage a professional spirit and ideal in administering public welfare.
Meanwhile the categorical aid to half-orphans and the aged, blind, and disabled gave local agencies an incentive to keep these classes out of the orphanages or almshouses that had once maintained them, and this shift to extra-mural programs was also evident in services for the mentally ill and retarded and the offender. These affairs were the province of state officials. Their first interest was the improvement and diversification of their institutions, but their hope for prevention and rehabilitation and their despair over the high costs and poor results of institutional care, as research showed in the 1950s, led them to push for community care. So probation and parole agencies grew along with the increasing problem of delinquency, and mental health clinics expanded to help those who could stay out of mental hospitals on the new drugs and financial aid to the disabled. Local public schools were charged to teach almost all the mentally retarded, whose partisans also won for them improved consideration in recreation and employment programs.
The federal government influenced services for deviants in many ways. Its correctional institutions were professional and innovative- “guided group interaction” as a treatment for delinquents was first tried in a military prison – and Veterans Administration facilities for mental health had high standards. The National Institute for Mental Health, organized in 1948, stimulated much research, training, experimentation, and assistance in the area of planning; this activity followed more general trends in health administration.
Typically the federal government offered the states a grant-in-aid for a specific purpose, if they would come forward with an appropriate organization, plan, and state and often local support. The result was, as expected, to stimulate a degree of state initiative and autonomy while at the same time exercising controls over the expenditure of federal funds. Often the states established similar programs of state aid to local governments. In general, but by no means always, federal officials were more progressive from a professional and service-minded point of view than were those of the states, and state officials better than local. One of the main revelations of the system was the differences in standards and practices among states and localities – differences notorious in public welfare, for example – and federal policy sought to level up those of poorer and more backward states and communities.
Meanwhile the voluntary sector was changing. Philanthropic foundations allowed public-spirited businessmen to foster worthy programs that could not yet win political support; they were a stronghold for the independent researcher or experimenter. The national health organizations, modeled after the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (1938), rallied families of sufferers and health personnel as the nucleus of a mass canvass by volunteers assisted by nationwide publicity; they were examples of the national culture. They too offered large funds for research and training and services of many kinds to the afflicted and their families. The Association for Retarded Children was in this pattern. Community chests and councils expanded their campaigns and controls to cover the metropolitan areas they actually served. They enjoyed the support of business corporations, whose executives advertised their public spirit in this work, and in the 1940s union leaders came to play a much larger role in them. New fund-raising techniques were the in-plant canvass and the payroll deductions, which were first widely applied in the United Service Organization (USO) drives during World War II.
In relative terms the organizations for federated finance barely held their own, but their resources were nonetheless large and supported local agencies that were important in two ways: they were highly professional in their spirit and leadership, the more because public programs had mostly relieved them of the function of financial aid, and they were at the place where programs actually took effect. Out of their efforts and reflections came, in the 1950s, a number of constructive ideas: attention to the multi-problem family, which needed a special organization of services; to the general problems of client groups, not only children, but youth, the elderly, and non-white minorities; to the problem of community involvement and support in community-based programs, notably in delinquency prevention, health, and mental health.
Precedents for these developments often went back to scientific charity, and their supporters in the 1950s were often impressed by their slow progress, their perception of unmet need, the disorganization and apathy of the community. The rising tide of interest and hope rested on no popular support, let alone enthusiasm, for social welfare, but on better standards of living, a service-oriented economy, and greatly increased numbers of people who were directly involved or concerned and able to make their voices heard in civic or professional organizations, or who sat high in the bureaucracies that administered welfare programs – also those in health, education, and labor- and who sometimes tried to see the whole picture. In this context students could speak, by 1960, of an “institutional” as well as a “residual” concept of social welfare, and of the professionalization of reform.
Journalists and study commissions have heralded great crises in the 1960s but in historical perspective the decade showed marked continuities. Annual public expenditures for social welfare increased by 150 percent; voluntary expenditures doubled. Correct those figures for population growth and inflation: they are still substantial. The federal government has furnished an increasing share. Most funds went to expand existing programs, in education, health, mental health, correction, and as well as welfare agencies. Bureaucracies expanded at all levels. There were also significant innovations, in the “War on Poverty,” for example.
In part, these trends manifested a dynamic within institutions as they developed their programs. Ideally, American society was a meritocracy: from each according to his ability, to each according to his performance. Bureaucracy fit that pattern well. To be just, however, meritocracy presupposed equality of opportunity and open competition. Otherwise native abilities would be frustrated and achievement would reflect social ad vantages. There were three obvious sources of discrimination that comprised equal opportunity and open competition: poverty, racism, and sexism.
Of these, poverty was the most pervasive and received the most attention. It appeared that most social institutions, while tolerably fair to the middle class, were unjust to the poor. Curricula and teaching in the schools were much better adapted to middle-class life styles than to those of the poor, whose children often dropped out. Health care was observably better, as was mental health care. The police and courts were more respectful and fair to the affluent than to the poor; some lawyers perceived a separate family law for the poor. Labor departments and unions were more solicitous of the skilled or union worker than of the more disadvantaged.
Welfare institutions were part of this injustice, it was said. The standard of assistance was low compared with the general plane of living. Administration was often unsympathetic. Services were scanty and poor. Recipients were indecently insecure and greatly disadvantaged.
Welfare officials had typically tried to improve these conditions by encouraging more professional administration: clearer definition of the recipients’ rights, better standards of help. Reviews of administration considered the agency’s general service organization and the right to appeal decisions. There were new categories of aid, to the disabled, to the “medically indigent,” to families where the parents were unemployed. Vendor payments replaced medical charity and “special needs” supplemented standard grants. The federal government was asked to define a proper standard of need and to guarantee that it was met. The “services amendments” of 1962 were intended to improve the capability of welfare departments, to help keep people out of expensive institutions – the aged and disabled, for example – and help parents on AFDC to get work.
Meanwhile other kinds of experts were concerned about poverty. Economists looked upon it as a drag on the economy and devised programs to assist depressed areas and hard-core unemployed. These became part of the “War on Poverty.” Sociologists and social workers supported the “community action” tactic in that war, which aimed to involve poor people and cultivate local initiative, to give local residents a voice and a channel to the institutions that were ignoring them. Of the projects fostered in the War on Poverty perhaps the most important was legal aid, which brought the attention of young lawyers to many illegal abuses of the poor. Welfare recipients in some cities were able to form a National Welfare Rights Organization to help claim their due under the law and to advance their interests.
Another important innovation came from educators who saw in the bureaucracies an opportunity to create new careers as aides or technicians in education or health or welfare. This appealed not only to those who were eligible for such jobs, but also to the community colleges, a significant political interest who were eager to consolidate positions for the Associates of Art they were graduating. Union leaders supported a wide range of welfare legislation, notably medicare.
But the most important new influence on welfare administration were the non-white minority groups, who suffered from racial prejudice as well as poverty. They typically came from places that had a traditional rural culture which was rather repressive and they were passive, apathetic, unprepared for the demands of city life. They had come for opportunity, however, and found it: better jobs, better services, a larger and more autonomous middle class among themselves, more allies among white people. These advantages encouraged much more positive ethnic identifications and higher aspirations. As these were frustrated, more militant viewpoints took hold and found appropriate targets in local services, which were deemed inadequate, unresponsive, racist. (The leaders and members of the National Welfare Rights Organization were mostly black.) So “welfare colonialism” became an issue not in Mississippi but in New York. The growing inclination to give local communities and consumers of services a larger say in their administration, especially the community action programs, gave ghetto militants a forum and often substantial support. Whatever the hostility that racial minorities showed to the welfare establishment, they were in fact allies in promoting changes that many welfare professionals thought desirable.
The notion that recipients of services were “consumers” had important implications for the private sector. Consumers would be better served it, was argued, if they had a choice among providers. This belief supported vendor payments for medical care and the argument for educational vouchers; it clearly applied to day care, vocational rehabilitation, and other services. In fact public agencies often purchased services from private suppliers, and the historic opposition to subsidies on religious grounds seemed ready to give way to new values.
Meanwhile a growing number of private practitioners satisfied the demand of those who could afford to pay for counselling and there was an astonishing increase in en counter groups of various kinds. Some of these were self-help groups modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous, others were organized for a fee for those who were lonely, confused, or adventuresome. These new private efforts were usually generated apart from traditional casework and group work agencies, but they testified to the continuing American enthusiasm for psychologizing and self-improvement, interests that had supported many of our ideas about welfare institutions.
Neither these new types of services in the voluntary sector nor the community action programs and similar efforts to get participation should divert attention from the main historic trend in welfare administration, which is toward large, complicated bureaucracies involving several levels of government and sometime non-governmental agencies. Many current interests relate to this trend. Policy making and planning are the concern of executives and their assistants who must make and justify large budgets and who must be increasingly specific about ends and means, benefits and costs. Funders, public or foundation, will hear no other language. Research, always important in forecasting caseloads and expenditures, is now the approved way to evaluate effectiveness, or at least to exhibit a progressive interest in that subject, and to clarify the question of priorities. Executives must rationalize their labor force, define tasks and competencies, partly to conserve expensive skills and partly now to open new careers. Service delivery requires efforts to win consumer support as well as to coordinate programs offered by a multitude of bureaucracies. Advocacy usually refers to assuring clients of the rights and benefits that bureaucrats are supposed to provide. To “change the system” means to improve a bureau crazy rather than to overthrow the bourgeoisie.
In this historic trend to bureaucratic organization welfare administration has followed patterns set in business, government, education, and health. It has been the feeblest of these bureaucracies, unclear in its mission (charity or justice?), with more popular suspicion than support, without a strong professional tradition or an effective technology. The fundamental fact is that it is much more difficult to organize a social service than to arrange the production and distribution of goods for profit or even to set up a service where cost-benefit analysis can clearly indicate results.
Whatever its faults, American society can now produce a generous sufficiency of goods for its citizens, and it is not hard to imagine programs that will much improve our distribution of wealth. The concerns of the future seem to be to provide support for the better development of individual and community life, to restrict production along ecological lines, to rearrange work and leisure, and to provide subtle and effective social controls in our increasing interdependence. In these respects, as well as the improvement of our current programs, and assistance to developing nations, social administration is the problem of the future.
James Leiby teaches the history and philosophies of social welfare at the School of Social Welfare, University of California, Berkeley. He is a graduate of Muhlenberg College, 1948, and earned his doctorate in the History of American Civilization program at Harvard, 1954. His first research was in labor history, leading to Carroll Wright and Labor Reform: The Origin of Labor Statistics (Harvard University Press, 1960). He then turned to the history of social welfare, and published Charity and Correction in New Jersey: A History of State Welfare Institutions (Rutgers University Press, 1967), which won a commendation from the Association for State and Local History. His current project is a historical survey of social welfare and social work in the United States, based on the courses he has been teaching at Berkeley.