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History of Social Welfare in the United States


Lecture Topic: History of Social Welfare in the United States


Dr. Serge Lee, Research Professor

California State University, Sacramento

6000 J Street

Sacramento, CA 95819-6090

Email:  leesc@csus.edu


Time:  20th of June           Lecture:  Dr. Serge Lee    

Site:  Meeting room of College of Ethnology and Sociology




       The social work profession in the United States was formed in the cycle of changes that occurred in the hallmark of the 19th century. At the beginning of the century, Americans possessed a world view that saw God and religion as both the purpose and cause of most life events. Gradually this view changed, and by the end of the century most Americans had a more secular and humanistic view of the world. Religion was still important but the belief that society could be shaped and even improved through the new discoveries of science and technology was widely accepted. The emergence of social work is a piece of this larger story.


        At the beginning of the century "visitors" practiced a basic form of social work that endeavored to lessen the burdens of the poor through direct relief and prayer. The urban missionary movement and other similar philanthropies relied heavily on the use of the visitor in their work. This early form of visiting was very sectarian, bearing more a resemblance to missionary work than social work. Conversion was a common goal and prayer a typical treatment approach.


        A more advanced form of social work was practiced by volunteers working with the Sanitation Commission. The Sanitation Commission was a Civil War volunteer organization that developed services associated today with Public Health and the Red Cross.




        The general philosophy behind charity organization societies (COS) was a continuation of the state boards movement to promote scientific charity. The organizational framework was again borrowed from the English charities. However, much of the stimulus for their rapid development was the economic depression of the 1870s. Lasting most of the decade, the 70s depression threw millions of men out of work and sparked riots and strikes. In the summer of 1873, strikes spread throughout the urban East and shut down most of the nation's railroad traffic. Commerce ground to a halt and the strikes precipitated armed intervention in many states. City officials, shocked and frightened by the poverty, destitution and general unrest, expanded local relief efforts hoping to moderate the depression's severity and to re-establish social order.


        Many charity workers were appalled by what they perceived as a serious step backwards in the progressive evolution of their new field. They felt that many of the new relief efforts were inefficient and poorly organized. Furthermore, they were convinced that the profligacy of the new programs would lead to the moral demise of the poor by spreading dependency and pauperism. This general concept that relief was, in and of itself a sinister activity, was a holdover from earlier days.


        The first charity organization societies were created to reorganize the public and private charities that had proliferated during the depression of the 1970s. Many charity leaders were disturbed by what they saw as an inefficient and chaotic array of urban philanthropy.




        The first American charity organization society was established in Buffalo, New York in 1877. Over the next two decades the movement spread rapidly. At the turn of the century, virtually every major urban area in America hosted some form of charity organization society.


        First, the charity organization movement broke from earlier traditions by avoiding the dispensation of direct relief. Many leaders were, in fact, critical of agencies that did offer direct relief. Second, most of the movement's members sought to inject order into the chaotic and often redundant mix of services so prevalent among local charities, through the creation of exchanges.


        A third important cornerstone of the charity organization movement and an important innovation was the introduction of a treatment component. Charity leaders did not simply wish to make charity more efficient and scientific. They believed poverty could be eradicated through the introduction of additional scientific techniques. The new techniques included planned intervention or treatment.




         Even during the days of its greatest expansion, the charity organization movement had many critics. Labor leaders deplored the miserly attitudes of the organization and the punitive values of its visitors.


         Leaders of the notoriously corrupt political machines actually capitalized on the conservative attitudes of the charity organizations. One such political leader admitted that while the charities studied and investigated he would find the poor unfortunate a job and a place to sleep and win both his gratitude and his vote.


          Initially, leaders of the movement reacted to criticism defensively and continued to treat the poor like wayward children who needed guidance and advice from a socially superior person.




        On the other hand, the charity organization movement was gifted with an impressive array of flexible and talented leaders. The severe depression of the 1890s caused some charity pioneers to change the more punitive policies. Starting in 1893 and lasting through most of the decade, the 90s depression was even more severe than the one that had occurred in the 1870s. Banks foundered and unemployment soared. Three million men were idle. Strikes became more numerous and violent.

        Racism, so often a symptom of class tensions, rose to disturbing levels. Some African-American leaders such as Booker T. Washington counseled patience.  Other leaders, such as W.E.B. Du Bois  and Ida Wells, advocated a more militant approach in opposing racism. Race riots broke out in several southern cities. Between 1892 and 1898 more than a thousand African Americans were lynched. The cities suffered the worst. In New York City three-fourths of all its inhabitants lived in tenements.

        The culture of the cities was also changing dramatically and that complicated relief efforts. The majority of inhabitants in America's largest cities were now immigrants


SETTLEMENTS: (1880-1900)


        A NEW IDEA

         In the late 1880s, a new type of philanthropic organization appeared. The settlement movement, as it came to be called, was a new approach to the problems of the city and its poor, and it focused mostly on new immigrants.

        America's largest cities were largely composed of a combination of new Americans representing virtually every country in the world. Immigrants were drawn to the cities to the thousands of flourishing new industries that needed workers.


        Settlements focused more on the causes of poverty than the flaws of the poor. Consequently, they sought to reform aspects of American society that they identified as problematic. Instead of focusing their efforts on changing the individual behaviors and values of the poor, settlement workers tried to change the neighborhoods and expand opportunities for working class people who were poor, but not indigent. The entry of the settlements and their residents in low-income immigrant neighborhoods brought new attitudes and perspectives to the charity field.



        The Phenomenal growth of the settlement movement was fueled by two miseries. The first misery was the plight and trials of the poor.


        The second misery that nourished the settlement movement was the problems confronting the first contingent of college educated women. Many recently educated women were not drawn to the traditional roles in hearth and home. However, they found themselves in an environment where career opportunities, even for women with a university education, were very restricted.




        The English settlement differed from its American cousin in significant ways. Both were based on a foundation of Christian spirit not unlike the earlier missionary movement. However, the religious orientation was expressed more subtly in the American settlements. Most American settlements were an expression of what was then called the Social Gospel. The Social Gospel movement encouraged followers to express their faith through good works rather than in prayer.

        While most early settlement workers were, like their English counterparts, strongly influenced by their religious beliefs, most came to accept that their work in the predominantly immigrant and Catholic neighborhoods would be seriously compromised by a religious emphasis. Catholic leaders were often suspicious of predominately Protestant charity workers. Consequently, the settlement movement was largely nonsectarian.


        Another important difference between the English model and American settlements was gender. The English movement was led and staffed by young Protestant men. While men played pivotal roles in English settlement work, American settlements were dominated by young, college-educated women.









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