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National Conference on Social Welfare

National Conference on Social Welfare (1874-1985)

For more than a century, the National Conference of Social Welfare (NCSW) was a focal point and forum for social welfare services and reform efforts in the United States and, to a certain extent, Canada. From 1874 to 1983, thousands of persons responsible for, or concerned about, charitable or social institutions and programs came together once a year, forming a critical mass where issues were debated and new programs spawned. The Conference’s published proceedings reflect attention to a broad range of social concerns – immigration, urban blight, sanitation and public health, industrial accidents, child labor, juvenile delinquency, mental health, poverty and pauperism – and organized efforts to address them. Known for years as the National Conference of Charities and Correction, the organization changed its name in 1917 to the National Conference of Social Work, and again in 1956 changed the name to the National Conference on Social Welfare.

Background On May 20, 1874, representatives from the State Board of Charities of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and Wisconsin met in New York and organized the Conference of Boards of Public Charities. Invitations to the meeting were sent jointly by the Section on Social Economy of the American Social Science Association and the Massachusetts State Board of Charities. The purpose of the meeting was to establish some sort of clearinghouse of ideas and experiences between state boards. It is important to note that the American Social Science Association was organized in 1865 and modeled after the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science of Great Britain. It functioned through four departments, education, health, finance and jurisprudence to which a fifth was added in the fall of 1873, social economy. Both the English and American associations were the embodiements fo the conviction that the application of science to the problems in human relations would result in new discoveries and improvements in the field of social relationships.

In 1879, representatives of State Boards of Charities and Corrections met outside the auspices of the American Social Science Association and changed the name of their organization to the National Conference of Charities and Corrections, a name which it bore for nearly forty years. In 1917, the organization changed its name to the National Conference of Social Work, to conform more to the times. In addition to changing the name, the leaders also changed the direction of the association. Challenged by the insistence of their day-to-day problems such as the increasing numbers of insane, rising numbers of children being raised in almshouses, growing numbers of mentally deficient and the fact that dependency was placing an increasing burden on taxpayers, the leaders shifted their attention from scientific inquiry to the administration and methods of practice. This growing emphasis on technique received reinforcement in 1915 when Dr. Abraham Flexner denied that social work was a profession because, he claimed, it did not possess a distinct and educationally transmissible technique.*

  • Source: Frank J. Bruno, Trends in Social Work, (New York, Columbia University Press, 1948)

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