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Organization of Municipal Charities and Corrections (1916)

The Organization of Municipal Charities and Corrections

A Paper Presented by L. A. Halbert, General Superintendent, Board of Public Welfare of Kansas City, Missouri

at the National Conference Of Charities And Correction Held In Indianapolis, Indiana May 10-17, 1916


Leroy A. Halbert, General Superintendent, Board of Public Welfare, Kansas City, MO
Leroy A. Halbert, General Superintendent, Board of Public Welfare, Kansas City, MO

I have undertaken to ascertain the main features of charitable and correctional work undertaken by the 123 cities of the United States which have more than 50,000 population. The replies received are quite incomplete and the sources of information were often unofficial but such partial information as I have seems sufficiently interesting to warrant presenting it to you and it is given in the hope that it may arouse sufficient interest so that a more complete compilation of information in this line may be had in the future.

If we were able to ascertain the activities of all incorporated towns and cities, it would show a tremendous volume of activity and an expenditure of many millions of dollars. New York city alone spends over ten million dollars annually. In fact, in variety and extent this would probably far outrun the state charitable and correctional work, although that branch of public service has been emphasized as a department of this Conference for many years.

The Bounds of Municipal Activity

 In the first place, let me say that the volume of charitable and correctional work, or social work of any kind, undertaken by the municipal government is not an index to the state of social progress or the amount of public spirit in any city. There are many cities in which the unfortunate people receive very intelligent care and social conditions are being aggressively improved, where the agency for doing this work is not the municipal government, but it may be a multitude of private agencies or some other units of government besides the city. In various states the local charitable and social work of a public nature is done almost wholly through county institutions; in fact, there are at least twenty-six cities in the group investigated that have not even a city prison in which prisoners serve sentences, but the correctional institutions are part of the machinery of the county government. Among such cities are Philadelphia, Buffalo, Indianapolis and Milwaukee. They have county institutions to care for petty offenders.

The city government as a unit seems to be more responsive to social needs than the other units of government. The city councils meet frequently and many city commissions meet daily, while the state legislature meets annually or once every two years. It is easier to impress a compact community. Misery is more apparent in the cities than in the rural districts. In fact, the cities are suffering an unjust burden because the unfortunate people of all states come from the country and the small towns to get the advantage of the highly developed institutions of the cities. If the cities are going to supply the facilities for caring for these people, and it seems most practical for them to do so, we should have more strict and practical settlement laws so that the cost of this work could be charged up to the scattered communities where it belongs. A city has to become very large before it is a practical unit for certain kinds of institutions, as, for example, insane asylums. Of course, the usual custom is to have state insane asylums and that is most practical, but St. Louis and Baltimore, and perhaps other cities, have their own insane asylums. When a city is a large enough unit so that it contains enough cases of a given type to warrant a specialized institution for them, then it may be a practical unit for handling that kind of cases, and if it does handle them, it should be protected against having to care for the cases of smaller communities by strict settlement laws, as I have just said.

Medical Charity

Recently, a survey of the public health activities of all cities having more than 25,000 population was made by Mr. Franz Schneider and published by the Russell Sage Foundation. This showed an approximate outlay of ten million dollars for the 227 cities having more than 25,000 population. Free clinics of a general character and clinics for infant welfare and for tuberculous patients, as well as hospital care and medical outdoor relief, might all be classed as forms of charity. Only thirty-one per cent of the cities showed any dispensaries or medical outdoor relief. Fourteen per cent showed special work for cure and prevention of tuberculosis. Seventy-nine per cent showed medical inspection of school children. Forty-four per cent had what is called the “complete program” of infant hygiene work. The survey made by Mr. Schneider did not cover the matter of city hospitals or free hospital treatment. In some cases, this is administered by the health department and in others by the department of charities and I have no adequate statistics in regard to it. The published reports of New York and many smaller cities show extensive activities along this line.

Hospitals, Infirmaries and Other Homes

As a general rule over the United States, almshouses are county institutions; and yet almshouses are a very important activity in many of the larger cities. The inmates in various institutions under the charge of the Department of Charities in New York city have an average daily population of over 10,000. Some of these institutions are hospitals, but this figure does not include the inmates of Bellevue and Allied Hospitals, which amount to many thousands more.

The poor of Chicago, which is the second largest city, are cared for by the county. In Philadelphia, which is the third city, the almshouses for men and women contain an average daily population of 1,600 and the hospitals have approximately 4,500. In St. Louis, the county and city governments are consolidated. The daily average attendance during the year 1915 was about 850. The tuberculosis hospital had an average attendance of about 125 and the sanitarium for the insane averaged about 2,000.

The Boston infirmary officials have two institutions under their charge and the average attendance is about 1,100. Besides these institutions there are two city hospitals that, judging from their expenditures, must have an average attendance of 2,500. The daily average population of the city hospital of Cleveland is 450. The almshouse, which is known as the Cooley Farm, had a daily average attendance of over 700 in 1914. The Baltimore city institutions have an average attendance of 1,700 and a large part of it is almshouse population. They also pay for a good many special charity cases in private institutions.

It is my impression from the examination of a large number of reports that comparatively few of the smaller cities have almshouses, but very many cities offer hospital care, either in their own city institutions or in private institutions at the expense of the city. What happens when towns of small size support almshouses is well illustrated by the following extract from the 1915 report of the State Board of Charities and Corrections of Maine:

The records of the office show the following interesting data concerning the almshouses of the state. It appears that the total number of almshouses in the state is 133; that of these 29 are closed, or now not in operation, leaving only 104 open at the present time. Of these 104 which are open, however, seven, when inspected, had no inmates, leaving 97 actually in operation with inmates. As to these 97 almshouses, it appears that 15 had but one inmate, 12 had only two inmates; 52, or more than 50%O, had four inmates or less; and 81 had less than ten, leaving only 17 which had over ten inmates.

Special Provisions for the Unemployed

There are known to be 26 municipal free employment bureaus. In several cities during the winter of 1914-15, special public projects were undertaken to provide work for the unemployed. A full account of the activities of this kind may be found in the unemployment survey of 1914-15 published by the American Association for Labor Legislation.

Twenty-seven cities are known to have municipal lodging houses. A number of these have sprung into being on account of the very unusual amount of unemployment which has existed for the past few years and reached its highest point last year.

Public Outdoor Relief

The custom in regard to giving public outdoor relief by municipalities varies greatly but it is known that fifty of the cities having more than 50,000 population do give outdoor relief. These cities are scattered in twenty different states. In those parts of the country where the town or township is the principal unit of local government it is almost universal to have municipal outdoor relief, but even in those parts of the country where the county is the predominant unit for local government the municipalities have undertaken some public outdoor relief. It is a notable fact that there is no municipal outdoor relief in New York, except to the blind, nor in Philadelphia or Baltimore; but Boston has a considerable system of public outdoor relief and so have Cleveland, Detroit and St. Louis. Although New York City does not have public outdoor relief, Albany, Buffalo, Rochester, Schenectady, Syracuse, Utica and Yonkers, in the same state, all have. In ten cities, namely: Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton and Toledo, Ohio, Portland, Ore., Memphis, Dallas, New Orleans, and Topeka and Wichita, Kan., the municipal government contributes relief through the associated charities.

Municipal Aid to Private Charities

Thirty-five cities are reported to be giving subsidies to private charities. Thirty-nine are reported to be giving no subsidies, and I have no report on 49.

New Orleans is said to contribute quite extensively to private charities. Among the other cities are New York, Buffalo, Minneapolis, Toledo, Washington and Indianapolis. It is my impression that the trend of the present time is against this form of co-operation. The movement started by the Chamber of Commerce of Cleveland endorsing good charities and eliminating bad ones has been taken up officially and become a function of the city government in twelve of the cities included in this survey._

The municipal government of Los Angeles passed a law requiring that all the private charities operating in the city must have a license from the municipal charities commission, and that body did a vigorous and, in many respects, useful work in improving the standards of private charity; but it is my understanding that the attempt of the city to exercise this degree of control over the charities has now been abandoned. Berkeley, Cal., has employed that system successfully for several years.

The plan of endorsing charities and using education and publicity as a means of control is probably slower, but it is less difficult to administer and is quite effective. Personal soliciting, or begging, is against the law in most cities, but the machinery for suppressing beggars is seldom efficient and I do not think it is likely to be so except where special mendicancy officers are charged with the duty of enforcing this law.

Special Charitable and Social Activities

Kansas City established a free legal aid bureau as a part of her city government in 1910 and since that time, similar bureaus have been established in St. Louis, Omaha and Dayton. St. Louis has a Board of Children’s Guardians, which places out and supervises dependent children in private homes. The same board also is able to support children placed with their own mothers and, in this way, they give what is equivalent to mothers’ pensions. Cleveland has a very interesting and aggressive Immigrant Aid Bureau as a part of the city government.

Possibly the pension schemes for policemen or firemen, which exist in various cities, should be referred to as a part of the charitable machinery of municipalities, because the funds for these are supplied mainly by the city.

In the time of emergency in the winter of 1914-15, the Chicago city government even undertook to conduct stores where people could buy groceries and other supplies at cost. Some years ago Detroit established an extensive system of vacant lot gardening, under Mayor Pingree, which gave the mayor the nickname of “Potato Patch Pingree.” Home gardening and vacant lot gardening are carried on extensively in Kansas City under the direction of the supervisor of agriculture employed by the Board of Education.

No doubt, this audience would be capable of adding still more to this list of special activities, if they had an opportunity.

Correctional Activities

It was enough to be included in this inquiry that had no city prison whatever. Philadelphia and Buffalo are the largest cities which use only county or state institutions for correctional purposes.

Among the cities having prison farms should be mentioned Cleveland, Washington, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Providence and Milwaukee. Duluth, Minn., has a farm operated jointly by the city and county for petty offenders.

There is not sufficient time to expand upon the advantages of outdoor work for prisoners in this paper but the cities using this system are highly gratified with the results. The Detroit city workhouse was the first institution in the country to apply the principle of the indeterminate sentence. This was brought about while Z. R. Brockway, the famous pioneer advocate of this measure, was superintendent there.

About two years ago, the legislature of New York established a parole board of New York city penal institutions and, at the same time, established a system of special prolonged sentence for habitual offenders.

Forty-one cities and probably more now have systems of probation or parole in connection with their city prisons or municipal courts. This is a comparatively recent development. Kansas City, Minneapolis, Detroit and Washington, D. C., make allowances to prisoners’ families left destitute because of the incarceration of the breadwinners. These cities and Cleveland and probably others have a system of making weekly collections from paroled men who have been convicted of non-support or neglect of their families.

At least 22 cities have special correctional institutions for children. One of the best known is the Warrensville Farm at Cleveland.

In a few cities, the Juvenile Court is a part of the municipal government but this is generally a state court.

Forms of Organization

An outstanding feature in regard to the organization of municipal charities and corrections is the utter lack of uniformity in the distribution of functions between city, county and state governments in the various parts of the United States. The variety of different kinds of activities to be found in different cities exceeds but little the variety of forms under which these things are administered. Sometimes institutional heads are appointed directly by the mayor. Sometimes the separate institutions each have boards over them and they select the superintendent and employees. Sometimes various charitable institutions are grouped together in a department and a commissioner supervises them all or administers them. Sometimes the various institutions are grouped together under a board which has its executive officers and administers them. Sometimes they are established by city ordinance and sometimes they are established by state law. Sometimes the employees are chosen by civil service, and sometimes they are not. Where the cities have a large measure of self-government, or home rule, there is probably a larger tendency toward concentration than there is in those cities where various institutions have to be established by acts of legislature of the state.

Missouri cities have home rule and have unified administration of municipal social work in the three largest cities, namely, St. Louis, Kansas City and St. Joseph, all of which have comprehensive departments of public welfare. Ohio cities also have a large measure of home rule and Cleveland, Dayton and Columbus have unified and comprehensive departments of public welfare which combine the charitable and correctional activities and other forms of social service, such as public health and recreation. Boston has a great variety of boards and officials established in various ways, mostly by acts of legislature.

Testing Municipal Activities by Charity Organization Society Principles

Testing municipal activities by charity organization society principles shows some interesting results. Investigation is said to be the first principle of organized charity. Among the different services which have been instituted in accordance with this principle might be mentioned the work of probation and parole officers and psycopathic clinics for delinquents, medical inspection for school children, and an increasing amount of investigation of individual applicants for outdoor relief, as well as the institution of hospital social service. These all betoken an increased recognition of the principle that investigation is the necessary basis of sound treatment.

Besides these applications of the principle to case work, one might see a wider application of the same principle in the increased number of inspectors of the living and working conditions of the people, such as sanitary inspectors, tenement house inspectors, plumbing inspectors, factory inspectors, food inspectors, building inspectors, dance inspectors, etc., and there should also be mentioned the beginning which has been made in the establishment of social research work by various municipalities, notably the Research Bureau of the Board of Public Welfare of Kansas City, and the various other cities which have adopted the board of public welfare idea. The cities are more determined than ever to base their actions on information.

The second principle of organized charity is said to be reconstruction. The liberal provision of hospital treatment, clinics and tuberculosis sanitaria, bear witness to the cities’ determination to cure the sick. The introduction of reformatory influences and measures into the correctional system has been rapidly increasing. This is the meaning of parole officers, prison farms, prison schools, and prison hospitals.

I am unable to say just how much progress has been made in placing the outdoor relief of the municipalities on a scientific basis, but I find the reports of Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Denver, Bridgeport and other cities setting forth their ideas about reconstructing the families that are helped.

The third principle is that of co-operation. The lack of co-operation is a great weakness which is very prevalent in the charitable and correctional work of our American municipalities. We have many boards and officers and institutions and lack a unified system of a consistent social program. The theory behind the Board of Public Welfare of Kansas City, when its system was being constructed, was that all the municipal social work should be systematized and unified under one management. This idea has since been adopted by ten other cities as follows: Duluth, Denver, St. Joseph, Chicago, Cleveland, Dayton, Columbus, St. Louis, Omaha and Dallas. The welfare boards of Denver, St. Joseph and St. Louis all consolidate both city and county welfare work under one board. Attempts have been made two different times to establish a welfare board in Seattle but without success. Similar measures have also failed of adoption in Sacramento, Lincoln, and perhaps other places. The name of the Department of Public Welfare has been adopted in Detroit, but a comprehensive system has not actually been established. A charter containing provisions for such a department was defeated in Cincinnati. A charter containing such a system is now being considered in Grand Rapids. A state law providing for such a system for Hartford, Conn., was defeated in the legislature a few years ago. The idea is making headway as you can see from these developments.

The fourth principle of organized charity is said to be prevention. This means the prevention of poverty, crime and misery by removing their causes. The activities for the prevention of infant mortality, of tuberculosis, of contagious diseases in general, through inspection, quarantine, vaccination, etc., bear abundant testimony to the recognition of prevention by our municipalities. The inspection of commercial amusements, the aggressive suppression of the social evil and the voting out of the saloons, all of which measures have received increasing support and adoption from the municipalities of the United States, bear witness of the intention of the city to prevent crime. The free legal aid bureau, the free employment bureau, vacant lot gardening, the prosecution of husbands for non-support, and many such like activities, are aimed at the prevention of poverty. The municipalities present many shining examples to prove that they recognize the principle of prevention.


The organization of municipal charities and corrections should be carried out in line with the principles of efficiency. The cities’ activities for social welfare should all of them be administered by a permanent staff of well qualified experts. This means a fair and practical merit system for the civil service. There is an increasing tendency to recognize the professional character of social work and to admit that training and experience are necessary, and this will receive increasing recognition on the part of all people who appoint workers to social service positions, whether they are civil service boards or not. One difficulty at the present time is that there is not an adequate number of qualified people seeking these positions or of people qualified to hold them if they got them. There must be increased training for public service. The difficulties connected with establishing the civil service of cities on a higher plane are not insurmountable and nobody is justified in dismissing this problem as a hopeless one. In fact, it is the special duty of social workers to see that the public service is improved and elevated in every possible way.

Source: Proceedings Of The National Conference Of Charities And Correction at the Forty-Third Annual Session Held in Indianapolis, Indiana May 10-17, 1916. pp. 387-396.

Note: The proceedings of annual meetings of the NCSW, 1874-1983, are available on the web thanks to a digitization project undertaken by the University of Michigan Library, with assistance from the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota.  The web site for this resource is:

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