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The First Department of Public Welfare in the U.S.

Origins of the Nation’s First Department of Public Welfare Established April 14, 1910

By John E. Hansan, Ph.D.

(Note: Information about the first public welfare department established in Kansas City, MO in 1910 was provided by Mary L. Mall, granddaughter of Leroy A. Halbert, the first general superintendent of that city’s welfare program. Mrs. Mall also extracted and transcribed for the Social Welfare History Project a readable copy of the original 1936 correspondence between Leroy A. Halbert and Dr. Stuart A. Queen, Professor and Chairman of the Sociology Department of Washington University in St. Louis, MO.  The purpose of the letter was to put on the record the contributions of the State of Missouri in developing and promoting local and state departments of public welfare. The entire original three-page letter can be viewed at the bottom of this entry.)



Prior to the 1900’s local governments shared with private charitable organizations major responsibility for public assistance or as it was often termed, “public relief.” As the nation’s economy became more industrial and the population more concentrated in urban areas, the need for public relief often grew beyond the means, and sometimes the willingness, of local public and private authorities to provide needed assistance.

The most prevalent means of caring for the poor with public funds in early America were poorhouses and outdoor relief. The major advantages for a locality funding a poorhouse (sometimes labeled an almshouse or workhouse) to care for dependent persons were:

  • The necessity of working every day would be a deterrent for able bodied persons who were simply lazy or shiftless
  • The regimen of daily life in a congregate setting would instill habits of economical and virtuous living in persons who were destitute because of moral weakness or self-indulgence.

The facts revealed that only a small proportion of residents were able-bodied, and that was usually during the winter months when jobs were scarce. In most communities, poorhouses became the last refuge for the sick, the severely disabled, frail elderly and homeless children who were unable to work and had no one to care for them. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the conditions and reputations of poorhouses had deteriorated significantly. There was growing evidence of unseemly rates of death and disease, illicit births, lack of discipline, graft, and mismanagement. Perhaps worst of all, the costs of maintaining poorhouses increased beyond the expectations and promises of public officials. It soon became apparent to some public officials that it would be less expensive to provide some public assistance to the community’s dependent persons living with friends or relatives, or while living in their own homes. This type of help was labeled: “outdoor relief.”

The nature and amount of outdoor relief varied widely in early America; but it was seldom generous or widely available. The concept of public assistance conflicted with Calvinist values and was sometimes viewed as impinging on the personal gratifications derived from private works of charity. Despite the societal and religious values prevalent in this period of American history, opponents of outdoor relief found it difficult to argue in support of poor houses as a more suitable solution for helping relieve the economic distress of the aged, severely handicapped, widows and orphaned children. Further contributing to the acceptance of public assistance in the form of outdoor relief was “urbanization,” the emergence of urban areas as centers of labor during the 19th Century. Several economic depressions and other business turn downs resulted in large numbers of the able-bodied living in cities being unemployed with no money with which to buy needed food and clothing for themselves or their families.

Background Leading Up to Establishing the First Board of Public Welfare, April 14, 1910, in Kansas City, Missouri

L.A. Halbert as a Young Man
L.A. Halbert as a Young Man

In September 1909, the Kansas City Board of Pardons and Paroles appointed Leroy Allen Halbert as the Commission’s paid Secretary. Later that same year, during a severe economic depression, it was learned that a parade of unemployed men was planned to march to city hall and demand some sort of help or relief from the Mayor.  Halbert, William Volker, a local business man and President of the Board of Pardons and Paroles,  and Jacob Billikopf, Director of United Jewish Charities in Kansas City,  learned of the proposed parade and they arranged to meet with Mr. E.T. Brigham, Superintendent of the Helping Hand Institute, to discuss a plan to help the unemployed. The Helping Hand Institute, established in 1894, was originally a rescue mission for homeless men and runaway boys. During the winter months, it also served as a refuse for the temporarily unemployed. In the winter of 1909, the Institute was managing a stone quarry in the city’s Penn Valley Park under the auspices of a committee representing a variety of local charitable and civic groups. The Institute used homeless and unemployed men currently living in their sleeping quarters to quarry and break rock. The Park Board bought the rock from the Institute at a dollar a yard and used it for making streets and boulevards. The men who worked in the rock quarry were paid in script, redeemable at the Institute for meals, groceries, lodging and clothing. With a days work a man could earn enough for a few days room and board. A city official at the time characterized this arrangement as the “best investment” of its kind Kansas City ever made.

William Volker was also a member of the board of the Helping Hand Institute and he was helping to finance the rock quarry operation. With Volker’s and Billikopf’s support, E. T. Brigham and Leroy Halbert went together to meet Mayor T.T. Crittenden and suggested to him that the city meet the demands of the unemployed by expanding the rock quarrying operations, thereby allowing some of the unemployed to have paid work.  The Mayor accepted the suggestion and announced the plan to the unemployed who were pressing for help. Volker and a Mr. Pearson were appointed to be a committee overseeing the new operation; shortly thereafter, they met and recommended to the Mayor that he enlarge the committee into a commission charged with considering the duty of the city toward helping the poor and the unemployed and to design measures to prevent, as far as possible, the spread of more poverty and unemployment.

The Mayor then appointed a body of prominent community leaders with experience in dealing with social problems in the city and they set to work on this assignment. Volker stepped up and offered to finance a study tour to be undertaken by Halbert and Charles A. Sumner, the secretary of the City Club. Their charge was to visit large cities all over the country and learn what was being done in those cities to deal with poverty and the unemployed. From the findings of their reports and their own ideas about what to do, the commission then set out to devise a plan to create a new agency: The Kansas City Department of Public Welfare.

The Historical Record

Below are first hand accounts written by Leroy A. Halbert about the nation’s first Board of Public Welfare and how it was launched in Kansas City.

In a letter dated  20 July, 1931, Halbert wrote  Mr. Guy Moffett, Director, the Spelman [Spellman] Fund, New York, NY about his experience in Kansas City and in the letter he described the functions of the new agency:

“…I assisted in drafting the plans for the Kansas City Department of Public Welfare, which was established by the expansion of the functions of the Board of Paroles and Pardons. I then became General Superintendent of the Department of Public Welfare, which was the first organization using that name in the country.

“We established a vigorous program that covered the administration of the City Municipal Farm for Misdemeanants; the endorsement of the Private Charities of the City; the operation of the Municipal Employment Agency; the Bureau for the Care of the Homeless Men; the establishment of a Free Legal Aid Bureau, which was the first one to be providef  [sic. provided] for by public funds; the establishment of a Research Department, which published fifteen reports on many different subjects including, Housing, the Social Evil, Recreation Facilities of the City, and so forth.  The Department also established a Social Service Department, which furnished case workers to the Private Agencies in the City. A Social Service Exchange, under county auspices, was also initiated.

“This Department of Public Welfare attracted a good deal of attention and the idea spread to other cities and was later applied to County and State organizations. I recommended to North Carolina the outline of its system of County Departments of Public Welfare and also drafted the law which established County Departments of Public Welfare in Missouri.…”

In 1936, Halbert expanded on the background of launching the nation’s first department of public welfare.  This account is from a letter written by Leroy Halbert in 1936 to Dr. Stuart A. Queen, Professor and Chairman of the Sociology Department of Washington University in St. Louis, MO.  The purpose was to put on the record the contribution of the State of Missouri in developing and promoting local and state departments of public welfare.

…There can be no doubt of the fact that the Board of Public Welfare idea and the name originated in Kansas City, Missouri when the Kansas City Board was established in April 1910. Miss Breckenridge (Ed. Note: Sophonisba Breckenridge, Public Welfare Administration, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1927) begins her book on Public Welfare Administration by saying that the first “State” Board of Public Welfare was organized in Illinois in 1917 and she absolutely ignores the indebtedness which they had to Kansas City. I will give you a little of the history.
“In December 1909 there was announced a parade of the unemployed to the city hall to demand some sort of help from the mayor. I was then secretary of the Kansas City Board of Pardons and Paroles and Mr. Volkerwas president. When I heard of this proposed parade I went to Mr. E.T. Brigham, Supt. of the Helping Hand Institute, and pointed out to him that his institution was already operating a stone quarry in one of the city parks and quarrying and breaking rock and selling it to the city for road building purposes. Mr. Volker, who was a member of the board of Helping Hand was helping to finance that operation. Mr. Brigham and I went together to Mayor T.T. Crittenden and suggested to him that he meet the demands of the unemployed by expanding this activity, and that he appoint Mr. Gus Pearson, the city comptroller as a committee to work out the plan and administer it. He accepted our suggestion and appointed the men and announced his plan to the unemployed.
“Almost immediately after Mr. Volker and Mr Pearson were appointed they met and recommended to the Mayor that he enlarge the committee into a commission to consider the whole duty of the city to the poor and the unemployed and plan measures to prevent poverty and unemployment. The mayor appointed a splendid body of representative people who were most experienced in dealing with social problems in the city and they set to work on their assignment.
“Mr. Volker sent me and Charles A. Sumner, who was then secretary of the city club on a tour to a large number of cities to study what was being done by other cities and we reported many types of helpful activities. Out of these and their own ideas the commission devised the plan of the Board of Public Welfare. Mr Volker consulted various lawyers about drafting an ordinance to embody the ideas of the commission but he finally drew the ordinance practically as it was passed himself. He increased the number of members on the Board of Pardons and Paroles to five (from three) and changed the name to the Board of Public Welfare. He picked the name himself.
“When the board was established I was made its general Superintendent and served in that capacity for eight years. In the Spring of 1912 I was invited to come to Topeka Kansas and speak on “How to Apply the Board of Public Welfare Idea to Smaller Places.” The organization for which I spoke was not local to Topeka. I said that small towns could not afford to have a full time trained social worker and that the proper unit for handling welfare problems for the small communities was the county and urged that probation work, truancy work, relief work, etc. should all be concentrated in the hands of one good trained social worker.
“Mr Fred R. Johnson was then connected with our staff as director of research. He wrote a summary of my ideas to the Survey and it was published Aug. 7, 1912. This broadcast the county Welfare idea to the country. (to read this article link to: Public Welfare: Functions and Services) Soon after that I got a letter from A. W. McAlester, a member of the state board of Charities of North Carolina, saying that he was working on a plan for the reorganization of the charitable and correctional work of the state and asking me for my suggestions. I outlined for him a correlated state and county public welfare plan which was later enacted into law in that state in almost the form which I submitted. This was the first county public welfare law.
“I drafted a county Public Welfare law and had it introduced into the legislature of Missouri in the winter of 1915-16. It contained a provision for examination and certification of qualifications from the state board of Charities for all county superintendents. For this reason and for the reason that the idea was new and sweeping it got little support. The law with small modifications was re-introduced two years later and had the support of the Childrens Code Commission but it failed again. When it finally passed two years later it was necessary to sacrifice this feature to get it passed. The posters which we used were posted on the walls of the state house in Minnesota in getting their county child welfare bill passed.
“At the National Conference of Social work in Seattle in 1913 I had a paper on “Boards of Public Welfare and Good City Government,” which set forth systematically the fundamental principle underlying boards of public welfare. This may be found in the proceedings for that year.
“In 1918 when the National Conference met in Kansas City I spoke on boards of public welfare on the program and summarized the progress of the idea and I outlined at that time plans for a department of public welfare in the federal government. In the spring of 1921 when Pres. Harding was inaugurated and made his first message to congress he advocated the establishment of a federal department of public welfare. Possibly it was in one of his campaign speeches rather than his message but I think it was in his message. Later I went to Washington and had some conferences with Senator McCormick of Illinois who introduced a bill to establish a federal department of public welfare.
“January 1st 1930 I became state director of Public Welfare in the state of Rhode Island. In June of that year the National Conference of Social Work met in Boston. At that time the public officials in the conference organized The American Association of Public Welfare Officials now the American Public Welfare Association.“…Mr Volker’s contribution to social work has been enormous. He started many progressive things in Kansas City at his own expense and later turned them over to the public …the first Tuberculosis hospital in the city…community center activities in the schools…social service work in the general hospital…the first child health station …
“It is nationally admitted the first widow’s pension law in the United States was drafted and put through the legislature and afterward administered by Judge Porterfield of Kansas City….”
Yours Sincerely

P.S. Excuse my poor typing job.












How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hansan, J.E. (2011). Origins of the nation’s first department of public welfare, established April 14, 1910.  Retrieved [date accessed] from /organizations/public-welfare-the-first-department-of-public-welfare/.



2 Replies to “The First Department of Public Welfare in the U.S.”

  1. I found this article especially useful while conducting research on Herbert D. Brown who was the Director of the Bureau of Efficiency during 1921 hearings before Congress concerning the establishment of a national department of health. Mr. Brown was born and raised in Fort Madison, Iowa and is a central figure in my research project. Many of his personal papers and manuscripts are housed in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.

    Thank you for posting this valuable historically related document.

    Michael Killoren
    Fort Madison, Iowa

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