Sophie Irene Loeb (July 4, 1876–1929): Child Welfare Advocate, Social Welfare Reformer, Journalist and Author.
During the Progressive Era, Sophie Loeb was one of many women to enter the political arena through reform work, calling for government involvement to mitigate the problems of poverty. Loeb brought her life experience and her personalized approach to work for the rights of widows and children.
Born in Russia, Sophie Irene Simon immigrated with her family to the United States when she was six years old. Soon after settling in Pennsylvania, Loeb’s father died, leaving the family with no means of support. As the eldest of six children, sixteen-year-old Sophie was forced to work in a store to help her mother support their large family. These financial struggles prompted Loeb’s later concern for social reform and welfare. After graduating from high school, Sophie began teaching young children. In 1896, she married Anselm Loeb, a storeowner and her former employer. Marriage freed Sophie from teaching and allowed her to pursue other interests such as art, poetry, and writing. Her writing came to the attention of several publishers, including those at the New York Evening World.
In 1910, Loeb moved to New York City after divorcing her husband. Keeping the surname Loeb, she began working at the Evening World as a reporter and feature writer. Loeb interviewed widowed women who, unlike her own mother, had been forced to place their children in orphanages. These interviews inspired her to work for the allocation of public funds for “widows’ pensions.” Loeb focused her journalistic and social attentions on welfare for widowed mothers. New York City had struggled for years over the idea of civic versus state economic relief for “destitute mothers.” The City maintained homes for children of widowed mothers, but many women refused to send their children to these homes, leaving them to the mercy of private charities. Believing that private aid was insufficient, Loeb sought state relief as well. She wrote several articles that argued for the establishment of such a system, and worked closely with Hannah Bachman Einstein, who founded the Widowed Mothers’ Fund Association in 1909.
Loeb was appointed to New York City’s Child Welfare Board in 1915, and for eight years served as the board’s president. Under her direction, the board increased the city’s appropriation from $100,000 to $4.5 million. She traveled to Europe (just five months before war broke out), where she conducted an investigation into methods other countries had used to solve the problem of fatherless and destitute families. She pointed to the German and English examples that clearly demonstrated that neither private charitable organizations nor social insurance would adequately provide for poor, fatherless families. She argued that in Germany, which had had social insurance since 1883, widows and their children were not protected. Moreover, in England, the insurance act did not take care of family members who were not part of the workforce. Despite the efficacy of this argument, the impact of the war in Europe lessened considerably any weight the German example had for Americans.
Based largely on its observation that private charities had failed in their endeavor to support dependent motherhood, the Commission recommended that the state legislature mandate the establishment of local boards of child welfare that would be permitted to grant an allowance to widowed mothers with dependent children under sixteen years of age. This assistance would be given, however, “only when the mothers are suitable persons to bring up their children properly and require aid to do so.” The Commission regarded women’s domestic duties to be of utmost importance to the social order. The value of a mother’s attention to her home and children far outweighed any value she would have in the labor market. The family would be given $20 per month for the first child and $15 per month for every additional child, with a maximum of $60 per month for any family. This law, the commission stated would be “democratic, fundamental, conserving, and constructive . . . and an essential part of the social code necessary to advance the welfare of the citizenry of New York.”
Loeb extended her campaign for child welfare nationally and internationally. Her book Everyman’s Child (1920) addressed the themes of her campaign, stating that if any child fails to receive proper food and clothing, “the Government must stand in place of his parents.” She spoke before state legislatures throughout the country and in 1924 helped to found the Child Welfare Committee of America. She also served as its first president. In 1925, the First International Congress on Child Welfare in Geneva accepted her resolution endorsing family home life as opposed to orphanages. Her report on blind children in the United States was accepted by the League of Nations in 1926. Her travels, speeches, and articles contributed to the passage of widows’ aid legislation in forty-two states. Elected President of the New York City Welfare Board in 1923, Loeb helped to found the Child Welfare Committee of America in 1924. She also fought for immigrant use of New York City schools as civic centers; and the cleaning and fireproofing of movie theaters; installation of public baths; funding of school lunches, and support for housing reform.
On January 18, 1929, at the age fifty-two, Loeb died of cancer at New York City’s Memorial Hospital. Governor Alfred E. Smith praised her as “one of America’s most distinguished public servants, an indefatigable worker.” In 1936, a memorial fountain was created in her honor and placed in the James Michael Levin Playground in Central Park in New York City.
This work may also be read through the Internet Archive.
Feld, M. N. (2009). Sophie Irene Simon Loeb. Jewish Women’s Archive. Retrieved from https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/loeb-sophie-irene-simon
NYC Parks. (n.d.). Sophie Irene Loeb. New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Retrieved from https://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/sophie-irene-loeb/history
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Social Welfare History Project (2011). Sophie Irene Loeb (July 4, 1876–1929): Child welfare advocate, social welfare reformer, journalist and author. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/people/loeb-sophie-irene/