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Widows Pensions: An Introduction

Adhering closely to the Progressive credo of scientific investigation into municipal problems, the Bureau of Municipal Research in New York City conducted numerous studies of social, economic, and political issues in the early twentieth century. It was largely a male preserve, which sought to apply scientific and business practices to urban government. Following the passage of Widows’ Pension legislation in New York, the Bureau of Municipal Research assigned a staff member to work with the New York City Board of Child Welfare in order to establish efficient systems of administration and to investigate how other states managed their widows’ pension systems. The Bureau pressed for significant expenditure on administrative systems in order that the sums devoted to aiding widowed mothers and their half-orphaned children would be spent wisely.

The Bureau published the results of its investigation in 1917. In this report, they recounted the history of the widows’ pension movement from the 1909 White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children, which had envisaged private charitable aid to widows, to the passage of the first pension legislation, which had moved this aid firmly into the public sector. This report detailed city and state variations in law, the role of private charities in shaping pension legislation, and the groups covered. It pointed out anomalies in distribution depending upon marital and wealth status (few states granted aid to never-married mothers or those with savings or equity in property.) The report concluded that the conservation of childhood justified widows’ pensions. The Bureau’s urban orientation meant that it overlooked other key issues, such as the urban bias of most pension systems and the dearth of pensions in southern states in the early years of the movement.

The Washington Conference on Dependent Children

Eight years ago last January, President Roosevelt, speaking before a group of child care workers whom he had invited to attend a special conference in the city of Washington, addressed his visitors as follows:

“There are half a dozen different types of children for whom we need care. … We have to meet the case … where the father has died, where the breadwinner has gone, where the mother would like to keep the child but simply lacks the earning capacity. Surely in such a case the goal toward which we should strive is to help that mother so that she can keep her own home and keep the child in it; that is the best thing possible to be done for that child. How the relief shall come, public, private, or by a mixture of both, in what way, you are competent to say and I am not.”

Today no less than twenty-eight states have spread upon their statute books new laws for aiding just such mothers from public funds. A wave of enthusiasm for what has since become popularly known as widows’ pensions has rolled over the country, and while the crest of the wave seems to have gone by it cannot be doubted that there is still general interest in the subject. At the present time a more or less well-defined public sentiment is forming in several other states for the purpose of writing similar laws on the books, and in several of those states that have already enacted widows’ pension measures interest centers in more precise formulation through amendment of one kind or another.

The Beginnings of the Widows’ Pension Movement

The idea of the conference at Washington seems to have had its origin in a small group of workers with children, most of whom were at the time associated with organized charitable agencies in New York and other eastern cities. In December, 1908, this addressed a letter to Mr. Roosevelt in which they urged convening of such a conference for the purpose, as they said, of “formulating a plan for the president’s consideration, pointing out ways whereby he might be helpful in proposing new child legislation to Congress.” The proposal met with the president’s favorable consideration, and, in the following January, about two hundred men and women from all parts of the country met in the city of Washington at the president’s invitation and held what was known as the White House conference on the care of dependent children.

The Conference Adopts a Resolution Favoring Home Care

In the memorandum of propositions suggested for the consideration of the conference, this question was submitted: — “Should children of parents of worthy character but suffering from temporary misfortune, and children of widows of worthy character and reasonable efficiency be kept with their parents, aid being given to enable them to maintain suitable homes for the rearing of their children? Should the breaking of a home be permitted for reasons of poverty or only for reasons of inefficiency or immorality?” To this question the conference formulated an answer favoring the conservation of family home life.

In his special message to Congress, the president expressed himself concerning the conference as follows:

“The keynote of the conference was expressed in these words: Home life is the highest and finest product of civilization. Children should not be deprived of it except for urgent and compelling reasons. Surely poverty alone should not disrupt the home. Parents of good character suffering from temporary misfortune and, above all, deserving mothers fairly well able to work but deprived of the support of the normal breadwinner should be given such aid as may be necessary to enable them to maintain suitable homes for the rearing of their children. The widowed or deserted mother, if a good woman willing to work and to do her best, should ordinarily be helped in such fashion as will enable her to bring up her children herself in their natural home. Children from unfit homes and children who have no homes, who must be cared for by charitable agencies, should so far as practicable, be cared for in families.”
Aid to Widows Originally Contemplated as a Private Relief Function

Presumably, in the minds of most of the men and women who gathered at the Washington conference, the aid thus proposed was thought of as a function of private relief organizations rather than of governmental agencies. Indeed, the resolutions of the conference formulated at its close by a special committee embodied the thought that this aid should be “preferably in the form of private charity rather than of public relief.” The policy of some of the better equipped private societies of providing for widows and other dependents a lump sum by the week or month had recently gained wide favor among workers and thinkers in this field, and this pension, as it was most frequently called, without which the mother and her dependent children would invariably have been separated, was uppermost in the minds of many at the conference.

The Public Pension Supersedes the Idea of the Private Pension

Despite this predilection for aid from private sources in which the members of the conference generally shared, there slowly dawned the idea of a “pension” from public sources. How this came about it is difficult to say. Public opinion was doubtless considerably influenced by the publication in 1909 of the now classic report of the English Royal Commission on Poor Law and Relief of Distress. Reference to outdoor relief to widows is made in both the majority and minority reports of the English Commission. The majority report alludes to the subject as follows: “Outdoor relief of widows is an implied part of the general scheme of relief proposed, but it is strongly urged that every case of outdoor relief to widows should have special and individual attention, and further that outdoor relief should not, except in special cases, be granted to any woman deserted by her husband during the first twelve months after desertion.”

Thus the report contents itself with suggesting a continuation of the outdoor relief policy as affecting widows. The minority report lends more substantial support to the idea. After discussing the subject in its various phases, it concludes that the abolition of outdoor relief to the non-able-bodied, is, “in our judgment, wholly impracticable, and even if it were possible it would be contrary to the public interests. There are, in our opinion, and always will be a large number of persons to whom public assistance must be given and who with most advantage to the community must continue to live at home; for instance, widows with children whose homes deserve to be maintained intact; sick persons for whom domicilatory treatment is professionally recommended; the worthy aged having relatives with whom they can reside,” — and so forth. Doubtless these pronouncements, coming as they did from authorities well recognized, together with a general lack of confidence on the part of the American public in the willingness and in the ability of private agencies to cope adequately with the problem, had much to do in drawing attention away from the pension from private sources and focusing it rather upon the public pension plan.

Unnecessary Commitment of Children Asserted

Once the idea took hold, there was a general agitation throughout the country in behalf of public pensions to widows. This agitation took the form of an assertion that all over America the children of widows were being committed to institutions for no reason except that their mothers were poor and without the means of rearing them in their own homes. The subject became a favorite one with women’s organizations; and several widely-circulated periodicals, notably The Delineator, featured it in a series of issues. Advocates of mothers’ pensions arose everywhere, and everywhere they gave expression to the same thought, namely, that child-caring institutions were being filled with a host of children of widows who, if the funds were forthcoming, might be far more efficiently and economically reared by their own mothers in their own homes.

It may not be out of place here to remark that the argument has never been proved. It may have been true in one or two communities in the south, especially in an institution-ridden city like New Orleans, Louisiana. Even this, however, was not established. It would appear that the argument was considerably overworked.

Source: Document 13A: “Widows’ Pensions,” chap. 1 in Widows’ Pension Legislation (New York: Bureau of Municipal Research and Training School for Public Service, May 1917), pp. 1-31.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hansan, J. (2011). Widows pensions: An introduction. Retrieved [date accessed] from /programs/widows-pensions-an-introduction/.

10 Replies to “Widows Pensions: An Introduction”

  1. Thank you Dr. Alma J. Carten for your comment on the “Widows Pension” entry. Your published article on this subject is very informative and we would welcome and very much appreciate a comparable entry by you to post on the Social Welfare History Web site. Sincerely, Jack Hansan

  2. Sarah remarried someone named Latta and she died 03/05/1852 in Lima, so I doubt anything in 1907 would be relevant. She had at least one child with Mr. Latta, Mary, whose family she was living in the 1850 census.

  3. Looking for information on Sarah Mather who was widowed in “1805” at age 38 with 6 children 12 and under. Can’t find an exact date of husband Timothy’s death, he didn’t own property. One person told me the State would take the children if she did not remarry. At some point she did remarry and had at least one more child. What information is available from that time period? She lived in Lima, N.Y.

    Grace Mather

    • Dear Grace Mather: Thank you for the comment. I will take some time to explore further the question of “Widow’s Pensions.” At this time I do not have any information about Sarah Mather; however, a search of Google with her name and 1907 revealed a lot of sources that might be worth for you to research. Good luck. Jack Hansan

    • Hi Sherry, unfortunately we don’t have that information. You may try contacting a public records office there and see where that gets you. Good luck!

    • Thank you for the comment. Unfortunately, the only information I can provide you is the source I used.
      Is is: 13A: “Widows’ Pensions,” chap. 1 in Widows’ Pension Legislation (New York: Bureau of Municipal Research and Training School for Public Service, May 1917), pp. 1-31. Jack Hansan

    • Sue Lynch: I do not have sufficient information about Washington State to answer your question; however, I have one suggestion and one comment. The suggestion is to seek the help from the Washington State Historical Society. It has a section dedicated to women. When you ask for help, or do the research, keep in mind there are several different terms used to convey assistance for widows. For example: “Widows Pensions” “Mother’s Pensions” “Widows Mite.” Also, in some states the widows of civil war veterans were provided assistance.

      Good luck in your search. Jack Hansan

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