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Mothers Aid

Mother’s Aid

By Abe Bortz, Social Security Administration Historian (1963-1985)



Note: This entry is a portion of Special Study #1, a lecture Dr. Bortz, the first SSA Historian,developed as part of SSA’s internal training program. Up until the early 1970s new employees were trained at SSA headquarters in Baltimore before being sent to assume their new duties in offices around the country. As part of this training, Dr. Bortz presented a curriculum on the history of Social Security. This lecture, developed in the early 1970s, was the core of that curriculum. It features an extensive overview of social policy developments dating from pre-history up to the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935.


Abe Bortz
Abe Bortz
Photo: Courtesy of the SSA History Archives

Mothers & Children: After 1900 several States also passed laws to safeguard women in industry. As late as 1896, only 13 States had attempted to limit by statute the hours worked by women, and only 3 States had enacted laws that were capable of enforcement. For some years, adverse court decisions retarded the adoption of further legislation, but after 1908, when the Supreme Court ruled favorably on an Oregon statute, progress was rapid and marked. From 1909 to 1917, 19 States for the first time adopted legislation dealing with women in industry, and 20 States strengthened existing laws. Although these laws differed from State to State, the most progressive States generally limited a woman’s work day to 8 hours, forbade night work for women, and sought to protect all women in industry regardless of occupation.

Turning to children, beginning in the 1860’s and 1870’s, States launched vigorous efforts to remove children from mixed almshouses. Foster care came in by 1900, that is the practice of putting children into foster homes – thereby replacing asylums. The movement against institutions was aided by the programs carried out by Children’s Aid Societies. These supported the idea of foster care and of differential child care. Two other developments indicated, too, the different attitude and philosophy toward child care. The beginning of juvenile courts, starting in Chicago in 1899, combined probation, separate hearings and special judges in dealing with youthful offenders. Also, getting its start in Chicago, in 1909, was child guidance, – the establishment of the Juvenile Psychopathic Institute. Linked with a Juvenile Court, the Institute, thus tied in expert diagnosis of the mental and physical condition of delinquents. On a broader scale this became the mother’s pension movement, which combined two closely related principles of progressive child care – individualization and the superiority of the home to the institution.

This Mothers’ Pension Movement — cash payments to widows with young children to enable them to care for their children in their own homes, and sometimes called widow’s pensions, mother’s aid and mother’s allowances and in our own day aid to dependent children – was part of the Progressive era in its awareness of the environmental origin of poverty and the necessity for State intervention to insure social and economic justice. It also had roots in the organized social insurance movement, which embodied the principle of public income guarantees. The Mothers’ Pension Movement emerged simultaneously with the Bureau of Public Welfare (B.P.W.) idea, which as noted earlier, attempted to discredit the philosophic division of labor proposed by voluntary agencies and redefined the governmental welfare function in an industrial urban society.

However, mother’s pensions coupled the old pauper laws with the principle of State control, which had been adopted for the care of the insane and of other special groups. Application for a pension was presumptive evidence of an inadequacy which differentiated the family from the community mainstream and justified intervention in the clients’ personal life. Mother’s pensions eliminated neither the means test nor the wide administrative discretion characteristic of ordinary poor relief. The willingness and ability of local jurisdictions to pay, rather than need, determined the substance of the program.

Interest in the welfare of the many children left orphaned, abandoned, or taken from parents who could not support them, was crystallized and given direction by the first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children, called by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909. The conference gave momentum to a nationwide campaign on the part of social welfare groups and women’s organizations for mother’s pensions. Relatively little organized opposition was offered this campaign, for the still widely accepted association of poverty and dependency and moral delinquency was less easily applied to children. Besides, there was widespread interest in a more constructive (and less costly) solution than institutional or foster home care. The first Statewide mother’s pension law was enacted in Illinois in 1911, 18 States had enacted such laws by 1913, and 39 States by 1919. With few exceptions, assistance was limited to children up to 14 or 16 years of age. By 1934, a year after the New Deal began, there were Mother’s aid laws in 46 States, the District of Columbia, Alaska and Hawaii. Thus, dependent motherhood had come to be distinctly recognized as a problem of mass poverty which could not be relegated to voluntary charity. Limited at first to orphaned children, most of the laws were extended to provide aid also to children where fathers had deserted or who were without support for other reasons. The majority of the laws, however, were permissive rather than mandatory on the local units; in all but a few States the costs were borne entirely by the counties or towns, and in many areas grants were never made or were entirely inadequate.

Another aspect of society’s concern with children was directed toward control of working conditions. In the first decade and a half of the 20th century, the majority of the States adopted laws that raised the minimum age of children in industry, excluded children from occupations that were hazardous to either their physical or moral well being and limited their working hours. In 1900, whereas 24 States and the District of Columbia had no minimum-age law for factory employees, 9 years later all but 6 States had adopted such legislation.

For further reading: For a more detailed account, read Dr. June Hopkins essay Widows and Waifs: New York City and the American Way to Welfare, 1913-1916 in Orphanage Parts I and II

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Bortz, A. (n.d.). Mother’s aid. Social Welfare History Project.  Retrieved from


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