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date: 17 April 2024

Social Policy: History (1900–1950)free

Social Policy: History (1900–1950)free

  • Iris Carlton-LaNeyIris Carlton-LaNeyUniversity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


This entry traces American social welfare development from the 1890s to 1950. It also includes social work's participation and response to need during two critical times in American history: the Progressive Era and the New Deal. Social reformers were instrumental in the development of social legislation, including the establishment of the Children's Bureau as well as the development of a public welfare system at the state level. America's response to human suffering left many groups, such American Indians, African Americans, and Asians, marginalized. In response, African Americans established a parallel system of private relief through organizations such as the National Urban League, unlike the other racial groups.


  • Macro Practice
  • Policy and Advocacy
  • Poverty
  • Social Justice and Human Rights
  • Social Work Profession

Progressive Era Social Welfare Policy

During the Progressive Era, the period from about 1890 to 1920, reformers made concerted efforts to address the many critical social problems that resulted in human deprivation. The period saw the development of an array of services and programs designed to meet the needs of many suffering Americans; however, others, particularly people of color, continued to be ignored and marginalized from government policy. Progressive Era social welfare was dominated by the private sector, meaning charitable giving, as few states had instituted any measures to address social welfare needs. In addition, funding for social services on the federal level was virtually nonexistent.

The Charity Organization Society and the social settlement houses funded by sectarian and nonsectarian giving had both begun a movement to respond to overwhelming need during the preceding decades. Other private efforts that influenced social welfare included mutual aid and benevolent societies and a proliferation of women's clubs among African American and White women. These segregated women's groups—the white General Federation of Women's Clubs formed in 1890 and the black National Association of Colored Women founded in 1896—embraced the social reform movements of the day and became a constant force for legislative change and mutual help. The formal institutionalization of these women's clubs ensured their influence well into the Progressive Era and beyond (Martin & Martin 1985; Neverdon-Morton, 1989).

The Progressive Era was marked by economic, social, and political changes. This time period saw a steady movement toward economic prosperity, reforms in women's rights, social services, health care, and education. A tremendous belief in social and economic justice was also characteristic of this era. It was believed that both individuals and social systems could be altered for the greater good. Emigrants from eastern Europe and migrants from southern rural communities filled the cities of the Northeast and Midwest in search of a better life with opportunities for employment, education, and recreation. The United States experienced tremendous industrialization and changed from a rural agrarian society to an urban society.

Life was, however, not progressive for all. The filth, overcrowding, crime, and disease of urban communities extracted a heavy toll. These social problems ushered in an era of social welfare development. Unionization was an important component of the Progressive Era, and employment opportunities were tightly guarded and controlled. The depressions that occurred during this period were accompanied by strikes and labor riots. Despite the danger inherent in labor organizing, women were very active labor organizers. The International Ladies' Garment Workers Union grew out of the depression of 1897–1908 (Day, 2006). Despite the protections that labor unions provided, or purported to provide, demands were sometimes ignored. The 1911 Triangle Shirt Waist Factory fire, in New York's Tribeca, revealed a lack of attention to issues of health and safety resulting in a major labor disaster. Such labor issues magnified the degree of human suffering and the level of individual need among the poor. Simultaneously, the definition of private troubles expanded, bringing more attention to the need for public involvement and governmental responsibility. The awareness of the impact that environmental and structural forces had on individuals, families, and communities led to even more agitation for change.

The expansion of social welfare from the private sector to a state regulated system became part of the Progressive Era agenda. Noted social workers, including Henry Street Settlement founder Lillian Wald and child labor reform advocate Florence Kelley, solicited input from New York City settlement houses to discuss the troubling issue of child labor. Owing to their initiative, in 1904, the National Child Labor Committee was formed as a clearinghouse against child labor. This led President Theodore Roosevelt to call social workers and child welfare workers to Washington to participate in the first White House Conference on Dependent Children in 1909. This conference moved responsibility for child welfare from the private and local levels to the public and federal arena. After nearly a decade of National Child Labor Committee lobbying, Congress passed legislation that established the Children's Bureau in 1912. Similar to the 1909 White House Conference that failed to acknowledge the needs of African American children, the advocates and framers of the Children's Bureau sacrificed African American children and their families in their zeal to move the Bureau's agenda forward. The Children's Bureau, nonetheless, was a landmark in federal involvement in children's issues (Day, 2006; McRoy, 2004; Trattner, 1999.

These social reformers were passionate and strategic in their campaign to have a woman lead the Children's Bureau. Sympathetic to their request and finding no legal barriers, in 1912, President Taft appointed Julia Lathrop, a prominent Hull House resident, as the Bureau's first chief. Lathrop lobbied vigorously for the establishment of public health clinics and hospitals, which resulted in the Sheppard-Towner Act in 1921. This legislation was effective in establishing children and maternal health centers in 45 states which eventually served thousands of women and children. Subsequently, both infant and maternal mortality dropped precipitously.

Similarly the first mothers' pension law was enacted in Missouri in 1911, followed two months later by Illinois. This legislation moved state government into the domain of out-door relief, marking a major breach in the American orthodoxy of private charity and indoor relief. By 1919, 39 states had some type of mother's pension in place. The mother's pension program was not a universally embraced welfare program. The idea that needy widowed mothers were “worthy” and should have the right to stay at home and raise their children was controversial. Some social workers, for example, were opposed to this legislation, fearing that it would eventually develop a populace who demanded relief as a right, while others believed that raising children was a valuable service to society and should be supplemented (Martin & Martin 1985). Operating with low appropriations and long waiting lists, the mother's pension programs varied from state to state and served very few. Immigrants were generally ineligible for assistance based on residency and citizenship requirements. Moreover, the values and discretion of the local field investigators, along with common local practices, restricted pensions to Whites only (Day, 2006; Jansson, 2004).

These social programs grew, but African American and Mexican American children and families continued to be denied access because of racial discrimination. In response, a parallel system of social services was established in the African American community and a system of mutual aid grew in many other communities of color. Individuals and organizations, such as the National Urban League (NUL) founded in 1910 by social worker George Edmund Haynes and wealthy New Englander Ruth Baldwin, responded to these unmet needs. Through a number of programs, including the NUL Fellowship Program, designed to secure and train, educate, and prepare African American social workers to direct services such as housing referrals and employment counseling, the NUL became synonymous with social work in the African American community by 1916.

The NUL's focus on individuals migrating from the rural south to urban centers resulted in the development of many of the same programs and services that settlement houses provided to immigrants. African American social reformers also developed a range of services under the aegis of “self-help,” including orphanages, old folks homes, day nurseries, burial societies, schools, homes for wayward boys and girls, and others. Ida B. Wells-Barnett's Negro Fellowship League and Reading Room in Chicago, Janie Porter Barrett's Locust Street Settlement in Hampton, Virginia, Lugenia Burns Hope's Atlanta Neighborhood Union, Maggie Lena Walker's St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, and Edna Jane Hunter's Phillis Wheatley Homes for women, all testify to African Americans' response to need during the Progressive Era (Carlton-LaNey, 1999, 2001).

The Virginia Industrial School for Wayward Girls founded by Janie Porter Barrett and Charlotte Hawkins Brown's Efland Home for Girls in North Carolina provided models for developing services for girls identified as delinquents. Providing health care for these inmates produced a challenge, especially when sexually transmitted diseases were prevalent. These diseases were a serious health problem for many of these girls, as sexual exploration, rape, promiscuity, and prostitution exposed them to venereal diseases. Furthermore, both inside and outside of institutions, poverty, ignorance, and the desire for affection left many girls and women of this era victimized by sexist norms and an unresponsive health care system (Brice, 2005; Carlton-LaNey, 2001).

Progressive Era reformists' concern for maternal and child health logically included women's sexual health. Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, was at the center of a movement to address this issue. In 1916, she opened the Brownsville Clinic in Brooklyn, New York, to share her knowledge of contraception. She was arrested and her clinic closed under Comstock Act violations, which labeled any communication about birth control a federal offense. The following year, after opening her second clinic, physicians provided medically needy women diaphragms smuggled from Europe. Others, usually middle and upper class women, found help from understanding doctors. Yet, it remained illegal for physicians to dispense contraceptives to women until 1936.

Social insurance also developed as a major issue. A general disinclination of government to become involved in individual problems and industrial issues contributed to America's resistance to social insurance. However, Isaac Rubinow, Jane Addams, Paul Kellogg, and other social workers and their allies, including the American Association for Labor Legislation, led the fight for social insurance. Rapid U.S. industrialization and resulting industrial accidents, along with pressure from scholars and reformers, led to the enactment of workers' compensation legislation. By 1920, nearly all states had enacted some form of workers' compensation (DiNitto, 2007). Although jealously guarding their right to advocate for workers' welfare, labor union leaders generally opposed workers' compensation, claiming that workers could get greater compensation awards through the courts. Eventually Workers' Compensation would become part of the New Deal legislation.

With the focus on World War I from 1914, less attention was paid to the domestic agenda. The Russian revolution in 1917 brought a wave of “nativism” and antiprogressive sentiment in the country. As World War I drew to a close and the economy took an upturn, interest in societal responsibility diminished, and people were again expected to meet their needs through the market economy. Nevertheless, many social welfare and social work pioneers and other reformers were undaunted and continued to engage in and advocate for change strategies that embraced governmental responsibility for meeting the needs of the citizenry (Chambers, 1963). Social workers, however, were not united in their beliefs. For example, radical social workers such as Florence Kelley used cities as laboratories to research the causes of societal ills and to design possible service solutions. While these social workers were pushing for structural change, others believed that the friendly visitors represented an antidote to socialism. Mary Richmond and other Charity Organization Society leaders regarded social work professionalization as a way “to create necessary changes in social service work without promoting a dramatic restructuring of society and its institutions (Reisch & Andrews 2001, p. 22; Simon, 1994). The concepts of worthy versus unworthy poor adopted during the colonial era in many ways illustrated these divergent strategies and continues to influence attitudes, values, and practices today (Crewe, 2004).

New Deal Social Welfare

In response to the Great Depression, which began long before the economic collapse in 1929, an era of emergency reforms began. Economic and social conditions during the depression years created rampant poverty among a new group of American citizens. The people who were poor before the depression remained in poverty, but the middle classes, who embraced the idea of rugged individualism and hard work, suddenly found themselves poor. They were not able to maintain their homes, farms, and other businesses. Personal shame, suicide, and mobility were characteristic of the depression years. From an unemployment level of nearly 3 million in May 1929, the number skyrocketed to more than 5 million by September 1930. By the following spring, more than 8 million people had joined the jobless ranks. When 1932 was ushered in, 1 in every 4 persons was jobless (Day, 2006). Some counties experienced 90% unemployment while the GNP went from an all-time high of $103 billion in 1929 to $55.6 billion in 1933 (Day, 2006).

Unlike many of his predecessors, President Franklin Roosevelt believed that the federal government was obliged to help those in distress. With the aid of trusted advisors, Roosevelt pushed through a barrage of social legislation within the first 100 days of his administration, unprecedented in U.S. history (Day, 2006; Trattner, 1999).

These emergency responses included the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA); the Works Progress Administration (WPA); the National Youth Administration (NYA); the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC); and the Tennessee Valley Authority, which brought electricity to rural America. FERA was one of the first responses to the nation's economic crisis. Under the direction of noted social worker Harry Hopkins, FERA required that states establish emergency relief authorities to receive and disburse the funds. Many social workers and others remained uncomfortable with public relief and made their feelings known (Day, 2006). Hopkins, on the other hand, was sure that he was responding to the immediacy of human suffering and expressed indifference toward his critics. States were encouraged to include racial minorities as recipients, but were not mandated to do so. Southern states in particular engaged in discriminatory practices, generally denying resources completely or changing the rules to reduce benefits because of race.

The WPA, which superseded the FERA, paid wages directly to employees. Although the WPA paid less than regular employment, it paid more than relief. The WPA had a nondiscriminatory policy, and under Harry Hopkins' vigilance, it provided jobs to African American workers that exceeded their population proportion. Women however were systematically excluded from participation in these work programs because mother-only families were designated unemployable, ensuring that men had exclusive access (Trattner, 1999).

The CCC was one of two national youth programs. Operating under the Department of Agriculture, the CCC initially employed young men aged 18–25 years, but in response to criticisms of gender discrimination began to employ unemployed young women as well. One of the most popular programs of the Roosevelt Administration, the CCC placed enrollees in camps run by the Army to engage in reforestation, fire prevention, and flood control. Except for a few camps in New England, CCC camps were racially segregated. About 10% of the CCC's enrollees were African American (Cole, 2003; Jansson, 2004).

Mexican Americans were equally excluded from many New Deal programs. Housing and labor programs ignored both Mexican Americans and African Americans. In 1935 the National Labor Relations Act was passed, which gave workers the right to bargain and to legally join unions. The American Federation of Labor ignored this legislation and, without governmental sanction, continued to discriminate against minorities of color for the next 20 years. Yet many Mexicans and African Americans were used as strike-breakers during the labor movement era (Day, 2006).

The National Housing Act of 1934 facilitated home ownership for working families but simultaneously led to redlining—excluding certain neighborhoods from mortgage loan eligibility. This trend reserved White neighborhoods without integration and left minorities of color isolated in ghettos without access to safe and affordable housing (Figueira-McDonough, 2007).

The NYA, another youth program of the New Deal, was designed to give high school and college students employment to ensure they remained in school. The NYA included a Negro Division headed by Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of Bethune-Cookman College and the only female member of President Roosevelt's Black Cabinet. Through the NYA, thousands of African American youth remained in school. Ten percent of all youth in the NYA were African American; and thousands who were not enrolled in school were given the opportunity to develop skilled trades via the NYA (Carlton-LaNey, 2005).

The federal government's involvement with Native Peoples' welfare has been largely through the Bureau of Indian Affairs housed in the Department of Interior, founded after the establishment of reservations based on treaties with tribes (Davis & Iron Cloud-Two Dogs, 2004). In 1932, social reformer and Indian affairs activist John Collier became director of the Commission of Indian Affairs and through his efforts established the Indian Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The Indian New Deal was introduced with the enactment of the Wheeler-Howard (Indian Reorganization) Act of 1934. Touted as the most influential and lasting federal Indian policy, this legislation reversed the Dawes Acts' privatization of common holdings and returned Native people to local tribal self-governance and communal Indian land-holdings (Davis & Iron Cloud-Two Dogs, 2004). Although Collier worked as an advocate for Indian people, he was not an Indian, and as such, was criticized for his shortsightedness and his underestimation of the diversity of Indian life (Davis & Iron Cloud-Two Dogs, 2004).

Mexican Americans, who were largely landless, were devastated by the depression. Of the more than 2 million Mexicans who were residents of the United States, nearly a forth of these families were returned to Mexico at the behest of local officials. This 1929 repatriation effort was in response to welfare administrators' need to show some tangible way to deal with the onslaught of poor applicants seeking aid. Of those repatriated, half were Mexican Americans. The individuals who remained in the United States as farm labors found that they were not protected under the Social Security Act because the legislation did not cover farm laborers. They were not accorded the right to organize because the Wagner Act of 1936 excluded them. They were, therefore, left without protection and subject to the demands of employers (Figueira-McDonough, 2007).

In 1934, President Roosevelt instructed the Committee on Economic Security to develop a “Grand Design” to ensure that all American citizens were properly housed, clothed, and fed. The Social Security Act (SSA) became law in 1936. This, the most enduring of the Roosevelt administration's legislation, was made up of two systems: federal social insurance and federal or state public assistance. The SSA provided two social insurance programs for persons with work histories: Old Age and Survivors Insurance and Unemployment Compensation. The three public assistance programs were Old Age Assistance, Aid to the Blind, and Aid to Dependent Children which became Aid to Families with Dependent Children in 1950.These public assistance programs were based on economic need known as means-tested, while the social insurance programs were based on work history with contributions in the form of taxes taken from workers and employers (Day, 2006; Jansson, 2004).

Jane Hoey, a graduate of the New York School of Philanthropy (later renamed the Columbia School of Social Work), brought national attention to the social work profession during her term as director of the Bureau of Public Assistance from 1936 to 1953. Through this federal agency, Hoey was charged with implementing the SSA and establishing the state organizations needed to carry out the program. Trattner (1999) notes that Hoey and other social workers provided the professional skills of development, management, and administration that helped craft the nation's response to the Great Depression.

The SSA was fraught with controversy. It was criticized by progressive and radical left critics for not doing enough and by conservatives and the far right for doing to much (Reisch & Andrews 2001). Nevertheless, the SSA was a landmark in liberal response to the welfare of its needy. Aid to Dependent Children became the most controversial of the public assistance programs. Benefits were not standardized, and states were allowed to determine their own subsistence level and to limit eligibility based on their resources, which was also true of Old Age Assistance and Aid to the Blind. Many of President Roosevelt's reforms were deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, but the SSA endured and formed the foundation for a major federal involvement in social welfare.

The Rank and File Movement, led by radicals such as Mary van Kleeck of the Russell Sage Foundation, Harry Lurie of the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds, and Smith College professor Bertha Capen Reynolds expressed resolute dissatisfaction with the New Deal legislation. These social workers attacked the New Deal's bent toward political compromise, ties to business, and overt racism. In their social agencies, the Rank and File Movement's members experienced deprivation and inadequacies that heightened their consciousness and made the sharp contradictions between their work and the capitalist system apparent. Their charge to distribute funds and to alleviate human suffering within the confines of underfunded, restrictive, and abusive welfare agencies radicalized the social work profession. Through Rank and File discussion clubs, social workers addressed and debated critical issues, including the function of public welfare, race relations, and clinical versus community practice (Reisch & Andrews 2001).

In 1940, as President Roosevelt was elected to a third term, the reform momentum began to wane, the economy improved, and the United States entered World War II. Attention was focused on Europe and Japan. Japanese Americans, who faced discrimination and persecution during the turn of the century “Yellow Peril,” were victimized by the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1880. Although this law referred primarily to Chinese, Japanese were also included and faced continued racism and harassment during World War II. Pursuant to Executive Order 9066 issued in 1942 and the Violations of Military Orders Act, which reinforced this executive order, 126,000 Japanese immigrants and citizens were forced to relocate to concentration or internment camps in several states. They remained interned until 1946. The Japanese were perceived to be an internal threat to the war effort. However, Italians and Germans living in America were not targeted for internment and consequently did not suffer the same spiritual, psychological, and real property losses as did their fellow Americans of Japanese origin (Davis, Kim, & Romero 2004).

Large-scale agriculture began on the Colorado River Indian Reservation after the Poston Japanese Internment camp opened there in 1942. Forced to “volunteer” their labor, the more than 17,000 Japanese internees were very productive laborers with highly valued horticulture skills. Poston was the largest internment camp and was constructed on the reservation against the Tribal Council's objection. After the camp closed in 1945, the Navajo and Hopi were relocated from other reservations and became occupants of the Indian River Reservation (Hoxie, 1996).

Civil rights for people of color were not an integral part of the New Deal legislation, and legally segregated facilities and public accommodations remained in effect. In 1945, Vice-President Truman assumed the office of President after Roosevelt's death. He then won the 1948 Presidential race with a surprising victory over Dewey. President Truman issued Executive Order 8802 in 1941, which stated that there would be no discrimination in defense industries or Government because of race, creed, color, or national origin, ultimately providing jobs for African Americans and Native Americans which were unprecedented.

In 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which desegregated the Armed Forces, allowing these groups to advance in military positions.

Also during the Truman era, several notable pieces of social legislation were enacted during the late 1940s, including the National Mental Health Act of 1946, the National School Lunch Program of 1946, the Full employment Act of 1946, the Housing Act of 1949, and the 1946 Hospital Survey and Reconstruction Act known as the Hill-Burton Act (Trattner, 1999). The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 or the GI Bill created great opportunities for the upward mobility of millions of Veterans and their family. In addition to providing educational opportunities, the GI Bill also helped servicemen to become homeowners. Essentially, the bill promoted the gradual reintegration of servicemen into society.

After the war, people began to migrate from the South to the North in an effort to access greater educational and economic opportunities. Some entered the migration stream to escape the South's veneration for past traditions and institutions that had not served them well. One of the major noneconomic reasons that African American men migrated to the North was to avoid lynching.

By the time of the election of President Eisenhower in 1952, the United States had made significant strides toward becoming a welfare state, albeit an imperfect and a reluctant one (Jansson, 2004).


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