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NCSW Part 6: A Century of Concern 1873-1973: Provision and Management of Social Services

A Century of Concern
A Century of Concern

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.

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