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Functions and Services of the Kansas City Board of Public Welfare: 1910-1911

The Board of Public Welfare of Kansas City

By: Fred R. Johnson, Superintendent  Research Committee, Kansas City Department of Public Welfare

(Source: This Article Appeared in “The Survey,” December 16, 1911, pp. 1363-1365)

(Note:  This article describes the growth and development of the first public welfare department in the U.S. during its first two years of operation.  At the time of its creation, Kansas City was among the nation’s  twenty largest cities with a population of 248,000 residents. The first director/superintendent was Leroy Allen Halbert who had been superintendent of the city’s Board of Pardons and Paroles.  It is interesting to note the number of distinct functions operated by this city agency using public money, in particular a loan program, legal aid and licensing of dance halls. Also, note the emphasis on using social workers who had training and experience.)

The Kansas City Board of Public Welfare is part of the regular city government and consequently is supported by public funds. Composed of five men appointed by the mayor, it is absolutely non-partisan. The members are not balanced between the two leading parties, as supposedly non-partisan boards frequently are, but are appointed without any reference to party affiliation. The board has supervision of the general charitable and correctional problems of the city, and to this extent corresponds to the customary boards of charities and correction; but its powers are much broader in scope. A committee appointed early in 1910 by the mayor of Kansas City was charged with the duty of “working out and recommending for adoption a plan calculated to cover in a comprehensive manner the city’s obligation towards the unemployed, the poor, the sick, and delinquent.” It was as a result of their recommendation that the Board of Pardons and Paroles, founded in 1909, became the present Board of Public Welfare, with powers to carry out the ambitious policy mapped out.

Certain principles were laid down at the very beginning which have served as a guide. Among these may be mentioned the follnwing:

The board lays emphasis on justice rather than charity and on prevention rather than cure.

  1. The board lays emphasis on justice rather than charity and on prevention rather than cure.
  2. It believes that social action should he based on accurate knowledge and that investigation should both precede and accompany all efforts to improve social conditions.
  3. It strives for harmonious co-operation with all existing agencies, both public and private, and does not duplicate the work of any.
  4. The board gives no public outdoor relief except in cases where the bread-winner of the family is a city prisoner, and then only on the basis of actual destitution.

Trained social workers are relied upon by the board to carry out the details of these policies. They have been largely recruited from those who have had previous experience in private charitable enterprises and who have also had specialized college training in social work.

There are at present ten divisions of work, as follows:

  • 1. District Superintendence.
  • 2. Social Service Department.
  • 3. Department for the Homeless and Unemployed.
  • 4. Welfare Loan Agency.
  • 5. Municipal Farm.
  • 6. Women’s Reformatory.
  • 7. Parole Department.
  • S. Recreation Department.
  • 9. Legal Aid Bureau.
  • 10. Research Bureau.

The Social Service Department is conducted in close co-operation with the Provident Association, the local representative of organized charity, and the Department for the Homeless and Unemployed in co-operation with the Helping Hand Institute, a private organization which has been unusually effective in caring for homeless men and women. A municipal employment bureau and a municipal quarry, both operated by this department, assist in providing work for the unemployed. The Welfare Loan Agency is conducted by the Board of Public Welfare, but its funds are furnished from private sources. During the first five months of its existence this agency made 482 loans, aggregating $24,817.47. The number of loans at present exceeds 100 each month.

Originally, as the Board of Pardons and Paroles, devoted to the treatment of misdemeanants, it is along this line of work that the most progress has been made. Three departments co-operate in the treatment of the delinquent: the Municipal Farm, the Women’s Reformatory, and the Parole Department. All male city prisoners have been removed to the municipal farm located outside of the limits of Kansas City. The average number of prisoners confined here exceeds 200. All the able-bodied are supplied with work. Some are engaged in construction work, others in tilling the fields, while still others build roads and perform necessary duties about the farm. While confined at the workhouse within the city, it was not possible to provide sufficient work for all the men. The new departure has supplied healthy work for all. The men are not shackled, and physical restraint is reduced to a minimum. There is ample evidence that the new environment has not only been of benefit to the men physically, but that it has assisted in their moral reformation.

Kansas City has repudiated the theory that the community should punish the wives and innocent children of men who have committed some offence by withdrawing their only means of support. Where investigation discloses that families are in want because of the imprisonment of the chief breadwinner, the Board of Public Welfare pays a certain amount towards their support. What the misdemeanant earns is thus applied towards the support of his family.

When the last male prisoners were withdrawn from the workhouse in June, 1911, this building was converted into a women’s reformatory. Those detained are not only provided with work and medical attendance, but are also given industrial training and the privilege of attending night school. Every assistance is afforded towards reforming the delinquent women and making them independent and self-supporting upon their release.

The Parole Department works hand in hand with the Municipal Farm and with the Women’s Reformatory. Present laws in Missouri do not admit of the indeterminate sentence. The only system of punishment for city offences in Kansas City is by means of fines, with imprisonment as an alternative if the fines are not paid. Paroling prisoners in part makes up for this deficiency. During the last fiscal year, 1660 paroles, corresponding to about one-half of all commitments, were granted. Only 10 per cent have been returned for violation of their parole. The average weekly earnings of men reporting on parole during 1910-11 were $10.46.

The parole officers keep detailed records of all convictions and all the evidence brought out in the police court. They have a bureau for registration of crime in Kansas City to assist them. All information as to the conduct of the men while on parole is entered on these records and in cases of recidivism it is not difficult to deal justly with the men.

The police courts refer a large number of non-support cases directly to the Parole Department. Some cases of this kind are handled without even the formality of an arrest. Men paroled when charged with non-support must promise to turn over their earnings to the parole department for the benefit of their families. In this way $8,346.21 was collected and applied during the past fiscal year, and the next year will show a very considerable increase.

The Recreation Department of the board maintains supervision over all public dances in the city. Licenses must be secured for all such dances, and an inspector is present to see that dance hall rules are complied with. These rules bar the sale of liquor, provide that dance halls be properly lighted, forbid “shadow” and “moonlight” dancing, stipulate that all dances must close at twelve o’clock unless a special permit is secured, and provide that no girls under seventeen shall attend public dances unless attended by parent or guardian. Failure to comply with these rules results in a revocation of the dance permit. During the first year of inspection. more than 300 young girls were sent from dance halls and their parents notified. That inspection has resulted in raising the standard of the dances is attested by the owners of dance halls themselves. It has also increased instead of diminished the attendance at these dances.

The Legal Aid Bureau is a new departure in the field of social work. Legal assistance is furnished free by the city itself to those without funds. Cases are taken into the courts when it is found necessary. Wage claims constitute the largest class of cases handled. These are all for small amounts. which as a rule would not be collected were it not for this bureau.  During the first eight months of its existence, 1095 wage claims were handled and $6,046.40 was collected. The number of new cases at present averages fifteen every day. Desertion cases form an interesting class. Where fathers desert families with small children, they have been brought back by this bureau at the expense of the Board of Public Welfare from points as far remote as Wheeling, W. Va., and Sheridan, Wyo.

The Research Bureau is engaged in a social survey of the city. Investigations of unemployment, the social evil, and the charitable situation in the city have been made and the results published. Investigations of housing and the wages and working conditions of men and women in factories and mercantile establishments are under way. The results of these have not yet been published but were displayed, in so far as the work had progressed, in the Kansas City Child Welfare Exhibit.  Classified under the work of this bureau for purposes of convenience are found the Registration Bureau and Endorsement of Charities. These two services make possible a unified system of charity work and promote co-operation. Both, without exception under private control in other cities, are public agencies in Kansas City. Registration of cases is not limited to relief agencies but includes social settlements, day nurseries. medical agencies, and all the various forms of social welfare activities. Forty-one institutions were endorsed and thirteen refused endorsement during the past fiscal year. A “white list” was published and mailed to all members of the Commercial Club and to others interested. Supplementing this, a detailed directory or handbook has been prepared to provide the basis for intelligent giving. Several organizations. nationwide in scope, which as a rule have been temporized with by endorsement bodies elsewhere. have been refused endorsement in Kansas City. No attempt has been made to curtail the activities of those not endorsed, beyond giving information concerning them to all inquirers. The effect of non-endorsement has, however, been very marked.

The question naturally arises as to how the above activities, so many of which are nominally conducted by private organizations, can be undertaken publicly without being crippled. A full answer involves familiarity with the local situation. Among contributing causes, however, may be mentioned the ever growing political independence of the West.  Kansas City is thoroughly progressive. Its city departments, including the Board of Public Welfare. were recently placed on an effective civil service basis. The board itself, as already noted, is absolutely divorced from politics. The two men recently chosen to replace the retiring members of the board were nominated by representatives of the private philanthropies of the city and were immediately appointed by Mayor Brown.

There is a firm belief in Kansas City that the public conscience is aroused to such an extent that a public board devoted to the cause of securing justice and fair treatment for those who are in misery or who are pressed down by adverse conditions will never be made the football of partisan politics.

Source: This Article Appeared in “The Survey,” December 16, 1911, pp. 1363-1365

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