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Widows’ Pensions

Widows’ Pensions

by Dr. June Hopkins, Armstrong Atlantic State University


Note: This article is an excerpt from Dr. Hopkins’ book, Harry Hopkins: Sudden Hero, Brash Reformer.

“There is always the danger that in our dread of making people dependent we shall cease to do good for fear of doing harm.” Harry Hopkins, 1914

The Origins of Windows Pensions

Harry Hopkins defined a good part of his social philosophy during his practical education in social work during the second decade of the twentieth century. Indeed, the design of much of the American welfare system that he helped to formulate after 1933 was cast in New York City from 1913 to 1917. During these years the movement to legislate public pensions for poor, single mothers captured Hopkins’ attention. In New York City widows’ pensions became one of the most important issues for the child-savers and progressive social workers because the movement both reinforced the value placed on home life and reiterated the need for public funding.

Hopkins was in the thick of the debates over widows’ pension, and the experience had a direct impact on his social work career. He actively participated in this contest for control of outdoor relief (that is, assistance given without requiring institutionalization) to a much larger degree than he did in the concurrent charities controversy. Many of the issues were the same: public vs. private relief and the importance of home life for the child as well as the state. Because the widows’ pension program served as the model for Title IV of the Social Security Act, Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), Hopkins’ involvement with this movement takes on added significance. A clear understanding of the issues involved, the cultural climate of the era, the choices made among alternatives offered, and the administration of the resultant program in New York City does much to explain the origins of the American welfare system and Hopkins’ role in it.

During his tenure at the AICP, from 1912 to 1915, Hopkins began to develop his belief that the government had not only the right but the responsibility to intervene in the lives of citizens by providing relief for the deserving needy. Although he worked for a large charity organization supported by private donations, Hopkins learned through his experience there that only public action could adequately meet the real needs of poor families. Close investigation of prospective relief recipients and moral uplift through careful supervision–the basic tenets of scientific charity–continued to be an important part of his social work training at the AICP.

However, this did not mean that Hopkins blamed the poor for their situation. He accepted the very simple fact that people were poor because, for one reason or another, they did not earn enough money. Historian Walter Trattner pointed out that the comprehensive data gathered by social workers in the early twentieth century revealed that, for a good number of those who applied for relief, poverty was caused not by moral degeneracy but by social and economic conditions that they could not control. Statistical analyses of casework records amassed by friendly visitors indicated that families became destitute for a variety of reasons: illness, death, desertion, industrial accident, unemployment, or insufficient wages. In instances such as these, lack of income rather than lack of moral fiber led to poverty. Replacing the family’s income could remedy the situation. While charity workers still frowned on indiscriminate giving, Hopkins realized that the rigorous investigation and strict oversight of the local charities often was driven by financial constraints rather than by the impulse to discipline the poor.

Hopkins saw very clearly that private charitable agencies could not attract sufficient donations to meet the growing needs of the poor in New York City. Public funds would have to be used to help these families. New York City, however, had been legally prohibited from providing outdoor relief since 1874. While it could and did subsidize private orphan asylums and foster care for destitute children, the city was legally barred from giving the same amount to a child’s own mother, even though this was a cheaper and more humane system. Many reformers found this situation intolerable.

The widows’ pension movement, like the charities controversy, took place against the background of an austerity budget for New York City. The need for economy impelled John Kingsbury, as the Commissioner of Public Charities, to make sure that every dollar the city spent, was spent wisely. Thus, the move to remove children kept in private institutions at city expense (totaling about five million dollars each year) served the economic as well as the political ends of Mitchel’s Fusion administration. The financial benefits that would accrue to the city encouraged this movement as much as did humanitarian reasons. Yet, undoubtedly, new attention to the importance of home life gave added impetus to deinstitutionalizing children by means of public outdoor assistance.

The State’s Responsibility for Child Caring Work

In 1909 representatives from all states unanimously adopted a series of declarations that constituted a comprehensive program for child-caring work. Social workers came together at the 1909 White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children and wholeheartedly endorsed President Theodore Roosevelt’s pronouncement: “Home life is the highest and finest product of civilization. . . . Children should not be deprived of it except for urgent and compelling reasons.” The conference declared that dependent children “represent either a potential addition to the productive capacity and the enlightened citizenship of the nation or . . . a potential addition to the destructive forces of the community” and that “deserving mothers” should be enabled to raise their children in their own home.

This important conference, supported by those who ended up on both sides of the debate over public pensions for widows (Homer Folks of the SCAA, Thomas Mulry of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Edward Devine, and Theodore Dreiser of the Delineator), emphasized the needs of the child rather than those of the mother. They depicted children as the “anchor which holds the woman to a good life,” as old-age insurance for their mothers, and as a natural resource that needed to be conserved. For the mother, economic dependency seemed to have stripped her of the ability to care for her children without guardians to make sure that she did her job properly. The general assumption was that any mother who asked for financial assistance to care for her children, although seen as especially deserving, would also need close supervision.

Agreeing that children should never be removed from their homes merely because the family was poor, progressive reformers began to look for new ways to conserve home life for destitute families. This fit in neatly with Mayor Mitchel’s fiscal policies and with Commissioner Kingsbury’s efforts to deinstitutionalize dependent children. Yet this movement to keep children in their own homes further complicated the relationship between private relief organizations and public officials. Although President Theodore Roosevelt made clear his preference that private charities rather than public agencies should provide assistance to fatherless families, many states began to enact legislation enabling governmental authorities to issue funds to needy mothers (called variously mothers’ aid, mothers’ pensions, or widows’ pensions). In 1911 Illinois became the first state to pass a mothers’ pension law, with other states rapidly following suit.

Charity workers had long characterized public outdoor relief as pauperizing, dangerously open to political corruption, placing an unfair burden on the taxpayer, lacking in proper supervisory methods, and discouraging help from relatives, friends and private contributors. They agreed that relief should be given to families that might be destitute temporarily (that is, those not candidates for the poorhouse) but they vigorously opposed any legislation that would allow government authorities to give such aid. They believed that public relief always encouraged “the pernicious notion that the State is bound to support all who demand assistance; a notion which leads to the recipient of relief administered in this way to accept it without gratitude and to use it without discretion. . . Relief acknowledged first as a gift, and gratefully received, is at length demanded defiantly as a right.” Not only would public outdoor relief lead to loss of independence and self-respect, and ultimately to deceit and crime, it also tended “directly to political favoritism, by putting into the hands of the distributing officers a most powerful engine of corruption.”

The widespread perception that public officials were not able or qualified to spend taxpayers’ money in an efficient and wise manner also worked against public outdoor relief. Josephine Shaw Lowell of the New York Charity Organization Society (COS) expressed another objection to public relief: It was paid out of taxpayers’ money. “It is not right to take money by law from one man and give it to another,” she declared, “unless for the benefit of both.” She repeated the most common objection to relief in general. “Human nature is so constituted that no man can receive as a gift what he should earn by his own labor without a moral deterioration.”

Poor mothers had a somewhat legitimate claim on outdoor relief, and the case of a destitute, fatherless family usually roused sympathy. However, this was only if the mother exhibited good moral character. There was always the danger that she would misspend her money without the guidance of social workers acting in lieu of her husband. The methodology used by most charitable associations thus infantilized poor women by insisting on close scrutiny of their domestic activities. They assumed that these women had or could develop no marketable skills. Nevertheless, case studies compiled by social workers demonstrated that mothers who stayed at home and supervised their children rendered an important benefit to society in general.

Children from these families were less liable to turn to a life of crime and more likely to become productive citizens. Private agencies such as the AICP, recognizing all of the beneficial effects of mothers’ aid, established their own programs for these families. They stressed especially the importance of home life for the child as a way to prevent juvenile delinquency. Therefore, when the movement for public pensions for needy widows began to spread across the nation, New York City’s private relief agencies, led by the COS, regarded this movement not only as an outright criticism of their service methods but also as a threat to their power and funding. Consequently, they used the traditional arguments against public outdoor relief to oppose vehemently the movement.

Frederic Almy, an Ally

In 1912 Frederic Almy of the Buffalo COS, an avowed advocate of private aid for widowed mothers, clearly expressed one very important facet of the debate: the pauperizing effect of public relief. Using the rationale that “widowhood is the most innocent cause of poverty” and “neglected childhood is, in all the world, the very most innocent, appealing and frequent cause of poverty and crime,” Almy called on organized charity to give generously to these destitute families. He declared that it would be both unfair to widows and dangerous to society to withhold help. “When organized charity learns to be generous, without blushing, it will come into its own, and the widowhood of poverty will get as liberal indemnity as the widowhood of industrial disaster.” Balancing the deleterious effects of neglected childhood against the evils of public outdoor relief–that is, pauperizing by alms vs. pauperizing by neglect–he stated his opposition to public outdoor relief, even for innocent widows. In his opinion, using untrained public officials to administer relief was tantamount to administering “medicine without doctors.”

Furthermore, he warned that “untrained relief is poisonous to the poor” because it encouraged the public to believe that “the public treasury is inexhaustible and their right, and that they drop upon it without thrift, as they dare not do on private charity.” These two main objections–that relief for these widows must not be seen as a right and that public officials did not have the expertise to administer aid efficiently–became the basis for every other argument against widows’ pensions. Almy also argued that widows’ pension legislation could lead to political corruption. “Such subsidies lead to sectarian appeals, to lobbying and to a scrambling at the public trough for patronage.” The inadequacies of public administration, the pauperizing effects of public relief, the political corruption that would result all weighed against public outdoor relief. These biases, articulated so clearly in 1915, remain central to America’s attitude toward welfare.

Edward Devine, an Opponent

Support for widows’ pensions, whether public or private, dovetailed into the controversy over public subsidies to sectarian child-caring institutions. If half orphans could either be removed from these (Catholic) institutions or prevented from entering them by enabling their mothers to care for them at home, the institutions would lose funding and therefore power and influence. COS leader Edward Devine, probably one of the most outspoken foes of outdoor relief in general, admitted that assisting the families of poor widows might improve conditions for the family but also proposed that these needy women might be “the least efficient, the least capable, the degenerate, the unfit” and beyond the help of any relief agency, public or private. His argument against widows’ pensions echoed the conservative view of poverty as being inevitable and usually the fault of the individual. He declared that in many cases “the physical, mental, and moral constitution of the individuals in the families in question is inferior” and that the answers in this instance would be “to promote conservative eugenic policies” or commit the children to institutions. He especially opposed public assistance for poor mothers. Devine claimed that such women would be capable of supporting themselves and their children if obstacles to women’s work were removed–low wages, insufficient training, and irregularity of employment. In addition he advocated a “liberal, inexpensive, and safe system of social insurance” as a partial remedy against destitute, fatherless families.

Defining social insurance as “the distribution of risks among all those who are naturally subjected to them,” Devine declared that employers, industry, and consumers should bear the burden “of its deaths, diseases, and injuries.” He challenged pensions to needy mothers as “not in harmony with the principles of social insurance” and having no claim to the name “pension.” He called widows’ pensions irrational, an “insidious attack upon the family, inimical to the welfare of children and injurious to the character of parents.” Based on need and sympathy rather than on any right or fair exchange, widows’ pensions were nothing more than public charity with all its attendant evils. Organized charity and all of its scientific principles–investigation, casework, the encouragement of self-help–combined with social insurance, institutional relief, and especially personal responsibility for one’s own welfare, claimed Devine, could solve the problem of family destitution caused by the death of the breadwinner. “The ordinary expectation should be that one will provide for himself in sickness and in old age, and upon his death for his widow and orphan children.”

Devine warned that social programs such as widows’ pensions would allow “the anti-social type of employer, who now throws his maimed and mangled workers, his exhausted, worn out workers, and the widows and orphans of those whom he has slain, indiscriminately upon the scrap heap of public relief” to further exploit workers. On the other hand, “an income for widows, from a state administered fund, raised by the joint contributions of the insured and their employers, the burden lightly felt because widely distributed and borne in part by all of us . . . that is the honorable income which I covet for every mother who is widowed by the death of an industrial worker.” In exceptional cases, the widow would have “recourse to public relief, to organized charity and to voluntary individual neighborly help.” Calling advocates of experimental state subsidies to poor mothers “sudden heroes” and “brash reformers” Devine accused them of “building on the sand” and “following a will-o’-the-wisp.”

Mary Richmond and the Russell Sage Foundation, Allies

Mary Richmond of the Russell Sage Foundation’s COS argued to set aside “all this claptrap” about public pensions for widows. She recommended that everyone interested in helping destitute families should soberly investigate the evidence before “stampeding our state legislatures.” Richmond, like Devine, insisted that widows’ pensions would disadvantage women and warned that in helping the widow or wife of a disabled husband, “we must be careful to put no further barriers in the way of the social workers who are striving to give all women a more dignified, better organized, and better safeguarded industrial status.” Because they often prohibited women from working outside of home and at same time failed to provide adequate support, public pensions, according to Richmond, would lead to women’s exploitation in the labor market. In addition, such pensions worked against women who preferred jobs outside of the home over state-subsidized payments for domestic duties. Richmond also made a very timely and effective argument against widows’ pensions by equating them with the costly and proliferating Civil War pensions, which she branded as excessive, indiscriminate, encouraging fraud, and an “unprecedented raid on the people’s treasury.”

According to historian Theda Skocpol, Richmond’s opposition to widows’ pensions, although ostensibly based on the fear of political corruption attendant upon social spending by a public agency and on the resultant retardation of social insurance and social reform measures, may have had more to do with the pauperizing effect believed to be at the heart of all public outdoor relief. Richmond stated that Civil War veterans “able and anxious to seek their own way had no thought of seeking a government pension until it came to them fourteen years after the war in the overwhelmingly tempting guise of a large check for arrears.” Because no inquiry was made into a veteran’s need, these pensions fostered degeneracy and fraud. Drawing a parallel between this program and the pending legislation for widows’ pensions, Richmond supported alternative solutions including social insurance and improved health care.

The Spread of Legislation for Mothers’ Aid

Despite strong opposition from private charities, legislation for mothers’ aid spread like “wildfire.” A unique coalition of middle-class activists, labor leaders, journalists, juvenile-courts judges, settlement workers, women’s associations, and progressive reformers generated the necessary momentum for mothers’ pensions. This powerful coalition marked what Skocpol called a significant “exception to the usual reluctance of middle class public opinion during the Progressive Era to countenance public social spending.” Those who spoke out strongly for legislation that would allow the state to assist destitute, fatherless families in their homes used an appeal based on women’s helplessness and their unique status as mothers to legitimate public outdoor relief. The focus subtly shifted from child-saving to protecting women as mothers.

In 1915 most social workers agreed that children should not be removed from their homes and institutionalized merely because of poverty, and most agreed that women’s primary role was as a wife and mother. Poor widows trying desperately and unsuccessfully to support their children by working outside of the home presented a particularly appealing needy population. No one could accuse them of being responsible for their poverty unless, of course, they were blatantly immoral. Their poverty did not arise from unemployment but from the nature of their “employment.” These women did not lack a job; what they lacked was an income from that job. Their alternatives were limited. They could let someone else care for their children and work; they could find a job at a high enough wage to pay for child care in the home; or they could accept a pension from the state. If, absent a male breadwinner, they accepted money from the paternalistic state to perform a publicly beneficial service, they were not recognized as employees of the state, a position that might have had some stature. Instead, social workers categorized them as recipients of public assistance: weak, unable to make decisions for themselves, prone to deception, and in need of direction.

In 1915 the normative family consisted of a male breadwinner earning a family wage and a female caregiver concerned with domestic duties. The image of the mother as a powerful nurturing and disciplinary element within the family held sway on both sides of the debate. Supporters of widows’ pensions used the image of idealized motherhood to advance their agenda for publicly controlled and funded pensions. Opponents claimed they were attempting to preserve the dignity and independence of women. As historian Roy Lubove pointed out, the issue of whether a public or private agency would administer the pensions became a much more divisive aspect of the discussion than gender politics. The cultural implications of mothers’ pensions thus legitimized public outdoor relief. Its association with deserving motherhood allowed this form of relief to transcend any negative image as a mechanical dole encouraging indolence and vice.

Organized Resistance to Widows Pensions

COS opponents to mothers’ pensions did not deny the need to support dependent motherhood. However, they pointed out the widely accepted negative image of public outdoor relief and argued that only private charity organizations with their troops of trained investigators using methods of scientific charity could effectively screen out the undeserving and discourage “crafty pauperism.” Their objections to widows’ pensions reflected the persistent belief that any form of assistance to the poor without the close moral supervision of friendly visitors would encourage recipients to regard relief as their right, a dangerous principle when the withholding of private charity was so useful as a lever for inducing proper behavior.

Opponents to public pensions for widows formed a committee of twenty-two representatives of private relief agencies in New York City and published their findings in a document, entitled “A Report of an Investigation of Matters Relating to the Care, Treatment and Relief of Dependent Widows with Dependent Children in the City of New York,” most of which was written by Edward Devine. The report stated clearly that children should not be removed from the care of mothers for reasons of poverty alone and that adequate relief should be given to needy widows to enable them to care for children in the home. However, it emphasized the need for preventive measures. Dependent widowhood and the consequent institutionalization of poor children could be prevented through safer working conditions, social insurance, and vocational training of working-age children. Although the committee recognized the need for an adequate home-relief policy until such recommendations could be instituted, they insisted that the problem had been overstated; they found that in 1912, only 190 children from 100 different families were placed in institutions for reasons of poverty alone.

Therefore, they insisted that the need could be addressed through increased cooperation between relief societies and the bureaus of dependent children. The report further claimed that “the relief of widows and their children in this city is more nearly adequately performed by the societies now engaged in this task than is any one of the important duties assumed by the municipality or the State in the care of the dependent classes. . . .” The report was signed by Frank Tucker, vice-president of the Provident Loan Society; Cornelius N. Bliss, Jr., president the AICP; Edward T. Devine, director of the New York School of Philanthropy; Lee K. Frankel, sixth vice-president of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and former manager of United Hebrew Charities; Homer Folks, secretary of the State Charities Aid Association; Arthur M. Howe, on the editorial staff of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle; Michael J. Scanlan, treasurer of the Superior Council of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul; Henry R. Seager, professor of political economy at Columbia University and president of AALL; Gaylord S. White, headworker at the Union Settlement; and John Kingsbury.

Cornelius Bliss sent a letter to AICP Director, Bailey Burritt, just after this report had been produced reiterating his support of its conclusions. If private charities could not meet the need to keep these destitute families together, the solution was not to relinquish the task to public officials but rather for the private agencies to raise more money. “The Report shows very clearly, I think, that some radical step should be taken by the Relief Societies to enable them to handle more efficiently cases of this kind, and it seems to me an opportune time to place before the Associations interested in this matter the advisability of making a concentrated effort to secure much larger contributions than they have been able to secure in the past.” He suggested that one way to do this would be to consolidate the AICP and the COS, with possibly the SCAA and the CAS joining in because only through close cooperation between the large charitable societies could the requisite money be raised. The fact that he suggested this radical merger indicated how strongly private charities opposed public administration of these pensions.

Supporters of widows’ pensions, discouraged by the repeated failure of various bills to pass the legislature, also produced a report. The New York State Legislature established a fifteen-member fact-finding commission in order to inquire “into the practicability and appropriate method of providing by statute for pensions or other relief for widowed mothers.” Nine months later the commission submitted a report that began with the surprising statement, “The normal development of childhood is one of the main functions of government.” The State of New York, according to this report, had the responsibility to conserve the home “whenever factors, other than the improper guardianship of the parents, threaten its destruction.”

The commission found that private charities in New York City had been unable to do an adequate job of assisting destitute families “on account of both insufficient funds and an absence of a sympathetic attitude.” The insufficiency of funds could be quantitatively proven. They estimated that more than 2,000 children had been taken away from their mothers and institutionalized for no reason other than poverty. An unsympathetic attitude was more difficult to establish although the accusation was based on the assumption that private charity workers tended to over-investigate.

Turning the Tide

Recognizing that a comprehensive system of social insurance was not likely to be adopted in the near future, the commission therefore recommended “a system of direct governmental aid to the widowed mother with children.” Mothers’ aid, it declared, should not be considered as an alternative to but as a necessary and integral part of social insurance. This assistance, given to a unique and wholly deserving class of dependents, was not to be charity but “an indemnity for the earning capacity of the husband, so that the mother may be enabled to bring up her children as they would have been brought up had their father lived and worked for them.” Thus the commission considered the pension to be payment for future service to be rendered by the mother so that children will “become intelligent, industrious, and responsible citizens, that add to the industrial prosperity of the community.”

The commission stated that private philanthropy had been a great stimulus in the area of assistance to widowed mothers, bringing important research and data to the public’s attention and demonstrating methods to treat and eradicate “the fundamental defects in our society which contribute so largely to this dependency.” But, it added, “it has never been the function of private charity to supplant that of the government; rather, its field is to develop, through private effort, newer and better standards and methods for the government to undertake.” This interpretation of the natural transfer of responsibility from the private to the public sphere reflected the progressive nature of the commission, which did not ascribe to the traditional division of philanthropic labor: public indoor and private outdoor relief.

Charity leaders had long cited the Elberfeld system of outdoor relief as a European model worthy of emulation. In operation since 1853, this system provided cash assistance to the poor in their own homes. The funds were raised by taxation and distributed by municipal boards. The system had reduced not only the number of paupers but also the cost of relief. Its characteristic features included the continuous and intense oversight by “unpaid visitors selected from representatives of the best class,” a very small caseload, careful investigation, adequate aid but not enough to make charity attractive, and strict punishment for refusing to work, for wasting relief money, or “for misspending time in amusement, idleness, or drink, in such a way as to render public aid necessary.” The essence of the system was constant supervision of relief applicants.

At the 1904 National Conference of Charities and Corrections Frederick Almy, opponent of public outdoor relief, cited Elberfeld as an example of a successful program where public relief followed private initiative: “If public charity in America ever makes general use of unpaid boards and volunteer visitors, it will be another illustration of an experiment tested and found successful by private charity and later incorporated into the public service on a larger scale than was otherwise thought possible.” His main opposition to legislation for widows’ pensions had to do with its proposed use of public officials as administrators. If this could be avoided, if workers trained by private agencies would administer these programs, Almy ventured, they might work.

Sophie Irene Loeb, a reporter for the Evening World, was one of the leading advocates of public pensions for widows and a member of the New York State Commission. 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 (Elberfeld) 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 would have 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 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.”

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. Historians recently have noted the strategies idealizing motherhood that lay at the heart of the movement both for and against widows’ pensions and have pointed out that maternalist reformers used this emphasis on women’s value in the domestic arena to reinforce gender inequality. According to Linda Gordon, women reformers during the Progressive Era regarded domestic duties as primary for women and, at the same time, saw themselves as having “a motherly role toward the poor.” The use of maternalist rhetoric, Gordon claims, allowed reforming women to “build a strategy for using the space inside a male-dominated society for an activism that partially subverted male power.” There is no doubt that support for widows’ pensions in 1915 reinforced the family wage system (for males) and separate, gendered spheres. Yet although both sides did emphasize the inadequacy of women, proponents of widows’ pensions hoped to build a paternal state to take the place of the missing male breadwinner; they were not attempting to create a maternal welfare state.

Most of the commission’s members were men who did not assume a “motherly” role toward the women they intended to help. Moreover, it is questionable whether the two women sitting on the commission, Sophie Loeb or Hannah Einstein, felt maternalistic toward poor widows and their children. They were more concerned with this issue of public vs. private relief. Einstein emphasized the “spirit of distrust and suspicion that permeates all that organized charity attempts to do for the poor. It is this spirit which leads many to hide and bear their physical misery rather than apply to our so-called charitable agencies.” She deplored the attitude that widowed mother were “in a hopelessly chaotic state” and needed “a charity third degree” carried out by “grillers” before relief is realized. Her argument against forcing the widowed mother to seek work outside the home was based on the fact that institutionalism and foster care were “ineffective and costly, and in most instances serve but to add to the misery and degeneracy of those from whom death took their natural protector.”

The emphasis was not on their helplessness as women but on the effectiveness of the remedy and the right of these women to claim assistance from the state. Charitable societies, with their disciplinary, scientific, and rather arbitrary methods, had no place here. “This assistance for poor mothers can only be done by taxation; society is responsible and it must not shirk.” Loeb also stressed the relationship between the dependent child and the state rather than the inability of the mother to support a family. Reporting that in Europe as in America private charities did not provide adequate aid, she recommended that instead of relying on social insurance, relief legislation should be encouraged.

At this point, one of the most prestigious private agencies, the AICP, broke ranks and issued its own report on the problem. This disavowal of COS standards by one of its own members revealed the complexity of the issues surrounding the debate over widows’ pensions. By 1914 the AICP had expressed a belief in “a complete welding in the power and prestige of the public agencies with the initiative and elasticity of private agencies.” The result of this “welding process” would be the “increased efficiency of both.” Most likely the agency saw hope for its survival in this position.

The New York AICP had long recognized the unique problems facing poor single mothers and had been providing them with assistance so that they would not have to institutionalize their children. One of Harry Hopkins’ first assignments for the association had been administering aid to poor widows and their families. Bailey Burritt, director of the AICP, and William Matthews, head of the family welfare division, were both convinced that assistance for widows and their children lay legitimately within the purview of private charitable agencies. They at first opposed public aid for widowed mothers. However, a close, hard look at the actualities of the relief situation in New York City soon changed their minds.

Because of the economic downturn, private agencies were finding it more and more difficult to provide for poor, single-parent families that had lost their breadwinners. Kingsbury wrote to Burritt that “private relief organizations must raise more funds in order to deal adequately with the widows’ cases. The only alternative to this would be the adoption of a program for the relief of widows by the state. . . .” He did not think that this would be best. William Matthews strongly supported his agency’s widows’ pension program as a means to prevent dependency. Just keeping families from starving was not enough; agencies like the AICP had to rehabilitate families. Adequate pensions to deserving widows with young children seemed to be one essential way of preventing families from falling into the spiral of destitution, dependency, and crime.

During 1913 and 1914 Hopkins worked with William Matthews on a project commissioned by the AICP in order to investigate how best to provide for deserving families that had lost their breadwinner. The study had been prompted by “a report made by a group, sympathetic with the work now being done by private agencies to care for widows with dependent children, which pointed out that ‘in a large number of cases, in spite of whatever aid is given, the health of the mother or of the children is impaired and progress toward genuine family rehabilitation does not take place.'” The resultant report seemed to straddle the fence between the two sides of the issue.

Firm in the belief that a woman’s “first duty lay in the proper rearing of her children,” the AICP had, since 1912, made regular payments to poor mothers. It undertook “to ascertain whether the Association has dealt with these families with sufficient wisdom and liberality” so as to ensure that the children would become responsible and productive citizens. For this project, it took forty-three of these families and either supplemented or provided the full income necessary to maintain for the family a fair standard of living. Of course, this experiment was based firmly on the association’s belief that the domestic duties of the mother required her full time and energies.

The 1914 AICP Report is important not only because Hopkins, one of the architects of the American welfare state, helped William Matthews write it, but because it marked an important change in attitude of one of the nation’s foremost private charitable institutions towards public outdoor relief. Contemporary expert on the causes of poverty Lillian Brandt, in her study of the AICP, stated that this experiment and report “affected the attitude of the AICP towards pending legislation for ‘widows’ pensions’ from public funds.” It is significant that the AICP did not express clear opposition to widows’ pension legislation, as did other private relief agencies. The report insisted that those who received outdoor relief, especially poor women with children, needed direction and supervision. It also recognized the traditional imperative to “morally uplift” relief recipients. Of course, private charities, dedicated to modern methods of scientific philanthropy, were uniquely able to do exactly this.

The AICP, however, had learned that moral uplift without financial support was ineffective. Its report emphatically stated that unless these families were given adequate financial assistance, the “indispensable minimum, they would lead dwarfed, stunted, inefficient lives.” Widows with children should never be “required to work under conditions that mean the breaking of health and strength or the neglect of her children.” These women should be given regular financial assistance “to remove from their lives that constant crushing anxiety that surely deadens hope and aspiration, not only in the mother’s life but that also gradually lays its withering, paralyzing hand on the lives of the children, creating a downward pressure on life. . . .” This assistance necessarily had to precede any uplifting work the agency might undertake.

The 1914 AICP report recommended uniformity and adequacy as necessary elements of any pension program. “The very first essential in the administration of any fund created or contributed for the aid of widows and their children should be that of universality of treatment. Without such a controlling principle there is bound to come unfair discrimination and feelings of bitter resentment. . . .” Further, the report stated that “a fairly high standard of character and home care should be expected from the mother; that the continuous and adequate relief should be used as a lever, if necessary, to lift and keep families to a reasonable standard in such matters as care of health, regular attendance upon school, and general conduct. But it is utterly unfair to demand these things until we have supplied the means that make them possible.” Thus the regularity and uniformity of public pensions combined very effectively with the close supervision that always distinguished the methodology of private charities.

The AICP report, however, warned against degrading the recipient. Matthews and Hopkins stressed that widows and children, a population especially deserving of help, should not have to undergo the humiliation of excessive investigation. Widows applying for relief should not be subject to
the same sort of investigation and inquiry as other people. . . . they are special. The most precious asset to be preserved during a period of stress and strain is the independence, the self-respect, the finer fibre. . . . Necessary as vigorous and searching investigation is in general relief work – by reason of the presence in a community of a few people who prefer begging to working – to compel women and children who have been left to battle with poverty by reason of the death of the father to submit to that same sort of inquiry is neither necessary nor just. . . . Self fault, improvidence and imposition on their part should not be assumed.

They recommended that “women of high grade and of rare tact and sympathy” be hired as investigators to look into “the delicate needs of these families,” families that always should be given the benefit of the doubt during the assessment process. These policies reflected those advocated by Sophie Loeb and the coalition supporting public pensions for widows and seem to be an effort on the part of the AICP to indicate that it was exceptionally able to carry out this program. On the other hand, the “vigorous and searching investigation” seems to be trying to engage the opponents of widows’ pensions by emphasizing their commitment to scientific charity. This evidence indicates that the AICP was campaigning energetically for administrative control of the program.

The AICP’s attitude toward widows’ pensions did indeed reflect a commitment to preserving the dignity of women as mothers and an understanding of their unique role in shaping the lives of future citizens. Widow’s access to state funds rested on the social duty they performed–the creation and nurturance of law-abiding, industrious workers–and thus could be claimed as a right. But also there remained the element of need. Widows’ pensions only went to poor mothers, and, as always, this admission of dependency brought with it an assumption of inequality as a result of both class and gender.

Hopkins and Matthews knew that pension was the wrong word to use. Mothers’ aid was not money earned through past service but merely replacement of a male breadwinner’s wage through public charity. Hopkins wrote that he “doubted whether widow’s pensions could be dissociated from the idea of relief” and thus from the stigma attached to it. He believed, however, that if these pensions could be given in the proper spirit, in the same spirit in which social insurance is given, the recipients would avoid this censure to a great degree. “It will always be a fair question as to whether it is relief itself or the methods by which it is administered that encourages dependency and creates pauperism. There is always the danger that in our dread of making people dependent we shall cease to do good for fear of doing harm.” Matthews later underscored this in 1917 when he declared that “in public relief, carefully administered, there is less danger of breaking the spirit and morale of those who must temporarily receive such assistance than when given from private sources. And this is all important.” Hopkins felt that proper administrative procedures could overcome any stigma attached to public assistance.

The AICP report, however, did attempt to legitimize widows’ pensions as a right by equating them to a benefit many middle class citizens received and giving both the same justification. Hopkins pointedly observed:

“There are in this city, as is others, thousands of men and women who have and who are now receiving years of education in preparatory schools, colleges and post graduate schools by aid of scholarships and money grants. They are given these funds in the hope and belief that they will some day make return to the community in the way of useful, helpful lives. The assumption is that they will. In precisely the same spirit should we supply in adequate measure an income to the families under discussion. . . believing that such investment will be returned in the way of healthy, vigorous, red-blooded workers, an insurance against under-vitalized, stunted, inefficient bodies, against breakage and wastage of future citizenship, against an increase in that part of our juvenile population that keeps busy the machinery of juvenile courts, truancy schools, reformatories and like institutions. Administered in this spirit it will make little difference if we call them “pensions,” “mothers’ allowances,” “compensations to mothers, or some other more pleasing name.”

Twenty years later, in 1934, Hopkins echoed these same sentiments at the November 14 meeting of the Committee for Economic Security discussing Aid to Dependent Children when he told his audience that if any of them had ever received an academic scholarship, they had received a form of public relief.

Hopkins and Matthews had “visions and prophecies of a day when, by large preventive social measures, the causes of want and destitution shall be cut away” through workmen’s compensation and social insurance measures, but they recognized that there were families in need that required immediate assistance. These families were in trouble “by reason of the fact that we have failed in the past to check and to prevent the growth of adverse social and industrial conditions which are in large part responsible for the stress, the strain, and the want that now cruelly grip their lives.” They added that the public “had to give up the wretched delusion that a mother can earn the bread for and at the same time properly nurture and rear her children.”

While this attitude surely underlined gender inequality, it was then (and still is) a hard fact. The social work community agreed that it was virtually impossible for a widowed or deserted mother to work in order to support her children and at the same time to provide a healthful environment for them. If she did attempt this, her health would break down. She would neglect her children and they eventually would become delinquent, a burden on the state instead of upstanding citizens. This attitude formed the basis for most of the arguments in favor of widows’ pensions. As such, it reinforced the assumption that a mother’s proper duty was to stay at home and raise productive citizens. According to Grace Abbott, mothers’ pensions “constituted public recognition by the states that the contribution of the unskilled or semiskilled mothers in their own homes exceeded their earnings outside of the home and that it was in the public interest to conserve their child-caring function.”

The AICP report concluded that because preventive efforts such as workmen’s compensation and proposed social insurance could go only so far in reducing the number of destitute, fatherless families, many widows with dependent children needed the immediate benefit of public pension. Stronger advocates of widows’ pensions, such as Sophie Loeb and William Hard, believed that these pensions would have to remain part of the entire system of social insurance, while the AICP felt that any comprehensive plan for social insurance eventually would obviate the need for them. But no matter what position was taken on the issue of private insurance, there was an immediate need that private charities could not meet. The AICP estimated that it would have to raise an additional $120,000 annually to provide material relief for all needy fatherless families under its care, money it did not expect to get. “Theories and opinions” as to public relief or private charity should not “prevent the adoption of a program whose purpose it is to put a stop to the incalculable social loss. . . .”

Therefore, the AICP passed a resolution to support the pending legislation for public funds for widows’ pensions. Although most other private relief agencies opposed such legislation on the grounds that this was outdoor relief and therefore properly fell within the purview of private agencies, the AICP adopted a resolution that “it was not opposed to such relief being given by the City of New York, provided the relief be adequate and that it be administered effectively and impartially.” This conclusion is especially interesting in light of the fact that Cornelius Bliss, president of the AICP, recently had endorsed the report issued by the group of private agencies opposing widows’ pensions, a report also signed by John Kingsbury, late of the AICP. In addition, the AICP, along with the COS, had opposed the Ahern bill calling for public pensions for widows in 1897. Why, then, would this agency come out in favor of public pension legislation in 1914? One reason might be that it fully expected to have administrative control over the public program.

AICP support for the legislation does not seem to have been entirely opportunistic, however. In 1914 Bailey Burritt had written a letter to Robert Hebberd, state commissioner of public charities: “Like Commissioner Kingsbury, I am myself uncertain whether governmental aid ought to be attempted in this state until private agencies shall have been more fully proved incapable or unwilling to cover the ground satisfactorily.” He added that the AICP would neither oppose nor advocate any such policy. Less than a year later, Burritt wrote the editor of the New York Times that he favored public pensions for widows “because I believe that the whole community rather than a small part of it should accept financial responsibility for the relief of widows. . . .” But he added that, contrary to what Sophie Loeb claimed, private agencies were not wholly inadequate to the task. The AICP, he declared, was spending more money for destitute families of widows than Cook County, Illinois, which was known as the home of public aid to widows.

Furthermore, public aid would cost more money than institutional subsidies. Yet he declared himself in favor of public relief for these families. “We believe that adequate relief for widows and good standards of giving this relief are more important than the question of whether it should be given by public or voluntary agencies,” he wrote, and added that the AICP would continue to provide this relief until the city was enabled to do so. Admitting that the AICP did not have sufficient funds to provide for all deserving and needy families, Burritt said the city should assume the financial burden “but in assuming it, it should equip itself to do the work adequately, impartially, and it should be clearly conscious of the size of the burden which it is about to assume.”

By early 1915 the leaders of the AICP stated openly their support of widows’ pension legislation. William Matthews testified in Albany on behalf of the bill, and the AICP report he and Hopkins had written was used by the legislative investigating committee at its public hearings. The report reflected an important difference of opinion between the two groups supporting public pensions for widows–the AICP and the coalition of social reformers–as to the place of private charities in the administration of the pensions. As head of the AICP, Burritt believed that the private charity model was appropriate for the administration of public pensions. He and his agency supported the legislation for the very practical reason that the AICP did not have sufficient funds to aid all the needy and deserving families.

Their support had nothing to do with methodology. The coalition behind widows’ pensions agreed that private charities did not have sufficient funds, but they were very concerned about the methods that would be used to administer the pensions, deploring the cold, mechanical, and demeaning procedures private charities employed using the COS model. A rather complex debate evolved out of this three-tiered controversy: (1) private charities (represented by the COS) almost unanimously opposed the legislation on the premise that public relief would encourage pauperism; only private charities had the expertise to flush out the undeserving; (2) the reform coalition argued that only public funds could meet the need and that these families had a right to assistance without intrusive and demeaning investigation; and (3) the AICP asserted that it could not meet the financial needs on its own but could administer a widows’ pension program in such a way that, while care would be taken to recognize fraudulent applications, any needy widow who applied for help would be allowed to retain her dignity and would not have to undergo undue or intrusive investigation.

The legislative battle for widows’ pensions was long and hard fought. Almost every year since 1897 widows’ pension bills had been introduced to the New York State Legislature. Six bills had failed since 1913. Hannah Einstein, along with journalist Sophie Loeb (both on the New York State Commission), led the fight for this legislation. Einstein referred to it as “a six year’s war–which knew not a day of rest until the struggle closed with victory in our hands.” Many social workers from the private sector took an active role and vigorously opposed the program because it would take away a good deal of their own power and control. Despite the strength of the opposition, the bill finally passed the State Assembly by an astounding vote of 129 to 8, and the State Senate concurred unanimously.

On April 7, 1915, Governor Whitman signed the Child Welfare Act; it became effective in July. He stated that “experience has shown that where because of misfortune the widowed mother is compelled to give up her home and her children are provided for by persons who have no natural interest in them, such children are injuriously affected thereby and they do not become as capable as would have been the case if they had remained under the care and control of their real mother.” And the governor, with unanimous support of the assembly, made special mention of the women who worked so hard for the passage of the bill: Mrs. William R. Hearst, Mrs. William Grant Brown, Mrs. William (Hannah) Einstein, Mrs. Samuel Koenig, and Sophie Irene Loeb. Supporters of the bill proclaimed that the “overwhelming vote, in view of political opposition, showed conclusively that public sentiment was strongly behind the policy of widows’ pensions, and that the Legislators refused to bring party politics into its considerations.”

The law, although it was permissive rather than mandatory, did require each city or country to establish a Board of Child Welfare. It included requirements that the sum paid for the child should not exceed the allowance that would have been paid to an institution to support that child; that the widow be “a proper person mentally, morally, and physically”; that the husband had been a citizen at the time of his death; and that the family had been in residency for two years. In New York City Mayor Mitchel appointed Hopkins’ boss and AICP colleague, William Matthews, as chairman of the newly established Board of Child Welfare (BCW), which consisted of the Reverend William A. Courtney (a Catholic), Mrs. Rogers H. Bacon, Hannah Einstein, Michael Furst, Mrs. J. Borden Harriman, John A. Kingsbury, Sophie Irene Loeb, and Edward P. Maynard. When Matthews was subsequently elected president of the BCW, he accepted the position on the condition that his assistant, Harry Hopkins, be appointed as executive secretary. Hopkins was certainly up to the task–he had much to do with administering widows’ pensions for the AICP from 1913 to 1915 and had collaborated with Matthews in writing the association’s report .

How to Cite This Article (APA Format): Hopkins, J. (2009). Harry Hopkins: Sudden hero, brash reformer. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan.