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Public Welfare: A System of Government Social Work


A Presentation at the Forty-Fifth Annual Session of the National Conference of Social Work

Held in Kansas City, Missouri, May 15-22, 1918

By: L. A. Halbert, General Superintendent, Board of Public Welfare, Kansas City, Missouri

Ed. Note: A copy of the 1918 Model Ordinance to be used by cities and counties desiring to create public welfare departments is available under the Tab for Programs/Public Welfare

In December, 1908, an ordinance was passed by the common council of Kansas City which established a Board of Pardons and Paroles of three members appointed by the mayor, which had the power to parole prisoners from the city workhouse. In July, 1909, this same board was given the authority to administer the workhouse and in March, 1910, this body was enlarged to five members and given broad powers to devise and execute plans to fulfill the duties of the city toward all the poor, the delinquent, the unemployed, the deserted and unfortunate classes in the community, and to supervise the private agencies which solicited money from the public for these purposes. In August 1914, the board was again reduced to three members by ordinance.

Early Activities of Kansas City BoardLeroy A. Halbert, Superintendent, Board of Public Welfare, Kansas City [View Image]
[View Image]
Leroy A. Halbert, Superintendent, Board of Public Welfare, Kansas City

Under its broad powers, the board moved the city workhouse to the country and developed a municipal farm on which the prisoners have built buildings and roads and established extensive vegetable gardens, a cannery, a bakery, a sorghum mill, a shoe shop, a blacksmith shop, a hog ranch, a modern dairy, etc. Funds have been spent at various times as the appropriations permitted to pay persons extra wages to help rehabilitate them or to support their families. A merit system with good time for industry and good behavior was secured by an additional ordinance. The institution has full facilities for medical treatment, for educational classes and for social case work with the inmates.

A careful system of endorsement of private charities was set up and for some time a confidential exchange or clearing house was operated in which all the leading charities registered their cases and a staff of investigators to do case work for the various private charities, but more especially for the Provident Association, was employed at the expense of the board. The problem of non-support and desertion of families was taken up and has been vigorously dealt with. In the highest year, over $15,000 was collected in weekly installments from negligent husbands and paid over to the families. The board has several times spent as high as $200 to bring deserters back as far away as Seattle, Wash., or Norfolk, Va.

Provision for the homeless and unemployed was made by arranging for meals and lodgings at the City’s expense at the Helping Hand Institute and, in 1914, the maximum of over $17,000 worth of such relief was given. An employment bureau was established and for several years secured an average of about 30,000 jobs per year. During the winter, a municipal quarry has usually been operated at which any able-bodied man could work for meals and lodgings or for coal or groceries for his family. During the first year of the board’s history, it established a free legal aid bureau which has continually handled about 5,000 cases per year at an average expense of less than $1.00 per case.

Seeing the great evils wrought by the loan sharks, the first president of the board furnished the capital himself and opened a remedial loan agency under the supervision of the board and has continued to finance it till the present time, and, for some time past, it has had loans outstanding to some 1,500 customers, amounting to about $117,000.00.

During the first year of the board, an ordinance was passed requiring all dance halls to have a permit signed by the president of the Board of Public Welfare before they could operate and, under this general supervision, the board established a thorough system of inspection and supervision over all public dances. Soon followed an ordinance extending this supervision to skating rinks. A couple of years later, the censorship of all motion picture films exhibited in the city was established and the same superintendent employed by the board to supervise dances and skating rinks was chosen censor and now every film exhibited in Kansas City is run in the board’s projection room before it is shown in Kansas City. Only a few months ago, an ordinance was passed requiring all pool halls to have a permit from the board before they can operate and prohibiting them all gambling and forbidding the halls to permit minors to frequent them and the supervision of these is under the same department. Under this ordinance, over 115 pool halls have been closed for gambling or other violations of the law and these constitute more than half of all the pool halls in the city. All this supervision of the commercial amusements is to raise their moral tone.

Research and Education

The original ordinance establishing the Board of Public Welfare gave it general power to investigate the condition of living among the people and, under this power, a bureau of sociological research was established. This bureau first surveyed the charities of the city, in which work it was assisted by Mr. Francis H. McLean. During the same year, it made an extensive study of the social evil in Kansas City, filling out individual schedules on 554 inmates of the 121 recognized bawdy houses which then existed in Kansas City. A study of unemployment was also made the first year. These three studies were published in the second annual report.

In October, 1911, the board promoted a child welfare exhibit in Convention Hall, which displayed the best ideas and activities along these lines of both Kansas City and elsewhere. The attendance for the week was approximately 100,000.

During the next year, a housing survey of Kansas City was completed in which schedules were made on about 6,000 houses, covering all the older part of the city. During the progress of this survey, over $60,000 worth of improvements were caused to be made on the houses inspected.

An extensive survey of recreation in Kansas City was made by Rowland Haynes, of the Playground and Recreation Association of America, under the direction of this board.

After that, an extensive study of the conditions of working women in Kansas City was conducted in which personal schedules were made on over 2,000 working women.

A report of the social effects of one hundred industrial accidents in Kansas City was compiled.

A comprehensive outline of all the social agencies and forces of the city was published under the title of The Social Prospectus of Kansas City.

Subsequent studies have been made in regard to desertion and nonsupport, the cost of workingmen’s houses, the handicapped, child labor, crippled children, drug addicts, etc. A brief study of the problem of delinquent women in Kansas City was made in1914 by Miss Maude Miner of New York.

Missouri is backward as a state in her factory inspection law and she still has it on a fee basis and poorly supported. Therefore, city factory inspection was established as a function of the Board of Public Welfare and yearly hundreds of safety devices have been installed and recently many safety committees instituted.

In the foregoing, I have given you a bare outline of the scope and achievements of the first Board of Public Welfare established in the country. Not all the activities here enumerated are now being operated, chiefly because of a shortage of funds, but none of the authority under which these things were done has ever been repealed or abrogated and indeed, greater scope is likely to be added from time to time as has been done almost yearly since the board was established.

The work of the Kansas City Board soon received wide public notice and it has been followed by the establishment of boards and departments of public welfare in other large cities as follows: Chicago, St. Joseph, Missouri, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Cleveland, Dallas, Columbus, Ohio, Toronto, Dayton, Ohio, Edmonton, Alberta, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Omaha, Nebraska.

National Public Welfare League

In connection with the extension of this Board of Public Welfare plan and name, I should mention the work of the National Public Welfare League.

In 1910, Rev. Theodore Hanson, who was greatly interested in the problem of the social evil, gave considerable volunteer service to the Kansas City Board of Public Welfare in making its survey of the social evil. He came in contact with the general plan of the board’s work and began telling of it as he went from place to place, lecturing in the interests of social purity, and found such an interest in it that he gathered about himself a group of men who decided to organize a league to extend the idea. His field of work lay at first in Kansas and a board was formed in 1911 and J. K. Codding, warden of the Kansas Penitentiary, was chosen president of the board. Soon the policy of going to a town or city and definitely proposing an ordinance to establish a board of public welfare and making a thorough campaign to get it passed, was adopted. This league was incorporated in Missouri in 1916 and headquarters established in Kansas City and the first president and the general superintendent of the Kansas City board were elected to its board of directors. About fifty boards have been promoted by the National Public Welfare League in Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Nebraska.

State and County Boards of Public Welfare

In the spring of 1912, the general superintendent of the Kansas City board outlined a plan for county boards of public welfare for Kansas, which were all to be coordinated under a State Board of Public Welfare. The plan calls for the consolidation of all the social work to be done by the county into one department with a skilled superintendent and a staff as needed. The contemplated activities include outdoor relief, parole and probation work for adults and juveniles of the county-whether released from the local courts or from state institutions-after-care of the insane, employment finding, child-placing, truancy work, censorship of commercial recreation, public health work, etc. In counties with no great cities, these things are usually either neglected or made incidental duties of officers whose main interests lie in other directions. They can never be skillfully done so long as they are organized in that way.

This plan unifies and systematizes the social betterment work of each county and concentrates it under one board. It provides a local agency that comes in close personal touch with the unfortunate and their problems in a way formerly only reached by a state agency at a great distance.

Combining all the various kinds of social work makes it possible to have at least one skilled social worker in every county, whereas it is not practical to have in every county a juvenile probation officer, an adult probation officer, a poor commissioner to administer outdoor relief, an agent of the free employment bureaus, an agent for placing dependent children in foster homes, an inspector of commercial amusements, etc. But it is practical to combine all these functions in one good, high-class, all-around social worker, even in small counties, and in larger counties it is possible to have the force of workers adapted exactly to the needs of the county.

In January, 1913, St. Joseph, Missouri, succeeded in having a combination city and county board of public welfare established for their city by the state legislature. It has broad scope and has been operated on a scientific basis from the beginning. About that time, Cook county, Illinois, established a public welfare department and put it on a high professional plane, with Miss Amelia Sears in charge; but its scope was limited to the handling of relief cases.

Los Angeles county, California, under the liberal state laws which give counties a large degree of self-government, established a county public welfare department in 1914, which includes among its functions the administration of outdoor relief on a scientific basis, administration of the almshouse, a children’s home, special and general hospitals and other public health work, and supervision of private charities. They have put their work on an efficient professional basis. Good, popular educational work has been carried on throughout the various towns of the county. January 1, 1918, Fresno county, California, established a comprehensive county board of public welfare.

North Carolina, in January, 1917, adopted the first comprehensive law providing for a State Board of Public Welfare and authorizing county boards of public welfare in every county of the state. The work of organizing the department and applying the law is only in its infancy but it presents the first opportunity to apply this plan to rural counties, where I believe it is most needed and where the benefits of consolidation would be the greatest.

In Pennsylvania, New York, Minnesota and California, county boards, for the care of children or with other limited duties, exist, but in scope they do not fully exemplify the board of public welfare idea.

In Illinois, July 1, 1917, a law establishing a great state department of public welfare, which had been adopted earlier in the year, went into effect.

National Department of Public Welfare

The board of public welfare idea is not yet ten years old, yet, as this review shows, it has applied to town and city, county and state governments in widely scattered parts of the United States and Canada. It is equally adaptable to our national government. Indeed, there are already assembled in the Department of the Interior many of the functions that would tend to justify calling it a National Public Welfare Department. It deals with Indian affairs, with national parks and forest reserves, with soldiers’ pensions, with the great reclamation service and with education.

In my judgment, it would be best to segregate the social work or the national government in this department by giving to it the Children’s Bureau, the bureaus of Immigration, Public Health and the Census; and as the social work of the national government develops, I think it should be the policy of social workers to try to put it in the Department of the Interior and make this the National Department of Public Welfare in fact, if not in name.

All the social welfare work done by towns, cities and counties, or even by private agencies in any given state, should be at least loosely correlated, and co-operation and exchange of service and information should be brought about by the state government through its public welfare department; and the work of states should in like manner be correlated and co-operation and exchange of information should be provided under the leadership of a national department. This would truly constitute a system of government social work.

Board of Public Welfare Ideals

The board of public welfare movement has behind it the dynamic of a great ideal which in a measure explains its history. The movement proclaims a practical Utopia to be realized by doing scientific social work on a large scale. This program is based on the idea that social science and social invention can revolutionize society. It accepts no misery as inevitable and no wrong as irremediable. It aims at a new social order.

Since 1900, there has been a greater development along these lines than existed in the previous one hundred years. Miss Eva M. Marquis, superintendent of the research bureau of the Kansas City board, made a study of all the national organizations devoted to social betterment propaganda and social reform which she could find. She listed ninety, in all, and found that three-fourths of them had been organized since 1900. It is probably no exaggeration to say that the proportion of governmental activities for social welfare that have originated since 1900 would be almost the same.

First, what has been accomplished in the way of preventing sickness and prolonging life? The average length of life in civilized countries is from 40 to 50 years. In the United States it is about 45, in Sweden it has reached a maximum of 56, while in India and even in Japan, it has only recently been as low as 20 or 25 years; and this difference is due to better measures for the promotion of the health of the people. Or, if you wish to, you can compare the average length of life in modern European countries fifty years ago with what it is today and you will find that it has increased from about 30 to 45. And, if you want a still more recent example, you can compare modern cities and find that they vary in the death-rate for infants under one year of age from 135 to 250 per 1,000; and you will find that where infant welfare stations and careful instructions have been introduced, the death-rate for infants has been cut in two within a year’s time. This record of achievement in the prevention of sickness and death ought to convince anybody that the measures are practical and the program is not merely a dream.

Let us see how we have progressed in the matter of the prevention of vice and crime. It is interesting to read from the Anti-Saloon League Year Book that in the states where prohibition has prevailed for ten years or more, there are only 84.4 prisoners in state prisons per 100,000 population, and in so-called near-prohibition states, where over 50 per cent of the people live in dry territory, there are 115.8 prisoners per 100,000 population; and in partially licensed states, where only 25 per cent to 50 per cent of the people are in dry territory, the number of prisoners per 100,000 population is 118; and in license states, there are 130.3 prisoners per 100,000 people. The publication of the report of the Chicago Vice Commission in 1911 marked an epoch in the handling of the social evil by cities. If time permitted, I could show that great  progress had been made in the reduction of this evil. Prof. E. A. Ross, of Wisconsin University has said the Chief of Police of Cleveland told him that he had been able to reduce the number of prostitutes by about 90 per cent by taking away from them music, lights and liquor. A committee on crime, of the Chicago common council, headed by Prof. Charles E. Merriam, showed that the business of thievery was organized and exploited by dealers in stolen goods and gave data which would justify the conclusion, that if these exploiters were suppressed, thievery would be reduced to a minimum.

These few brief hints tend to justify the conclusion that it is an entirely practical program to stop the exploitation of vice and crime and to practically wipe it out so far as normal people are concerned. When we supply complete custodial care of the defective classes, as we will in the future and as we are now doing increasingly, the problem of the elimination of crime will be practically solved. It is entirely practical to achieve a sort of society where arrests for crime will be very exceptional and where many units of government will not have any arrests within a year; in fact, there are many such towns and counties in Kansas and other states already.

Our progress in attacking the problem of poverty has been somewhat less’ marked, perhaps, than the progress we have made in attacking sickness and crime. Poverty may be said to arise from three causes,misfortune, inefficiency and exploitation. There is no form of misfortune but what can be covered by social insurance. Inefficiency is being met by vocational education and guidance and by scientific management, in so far as details are concerned; and by conservation work, agricultural bureaus and business consolidation in a wholesale way. Exploitation is being curbed and offset by the Interstate Commerce Commission, Industrial Trade Commission, the National Reserve Bank Commission, the Income Tax, the Inheritance Tax and other forms of government regulation. Whenever we can secure even moderately intelligent people to manage industry for the direct purpose of providing for the comforts and luxuries of the people, abolishing poverty presents no insuperable obstacles. It is not unreasonable to hope that the nation, whose mechanical inventors have given us the steam engine, the gasoline engine, the electric light, the telephone and the aeroplane, will have social inventors equal in skill, and many of the dreams of the centuries may be realized in this generation.

Government Efficiency in Social Work

The achievements which I have just been describing have been largely dependent for their execution upon the government as an agency. We are moving in the direction of government ownership of social work. Many of the new social welfare activities of the various government units have been established only after a thorough study has been made by a commission appointed for the purpose and after a survey of the facts and conditions has been made by trained social investigators.

What is the meaning of this, except that there is an attempt to establish social action on a scientific basis? But this vast extension of research work is not the only evidence that the government is trying to establish these activities on a scientific basis. The municipal research bureaus, established and paid for by the municipalities, and the commissions on economy and efficiency, which have been established in various places throughout the nation, show the same tendency to put not only the social work but all the work of the government on a scientific basis. The civil service merit system has been extended by leaps and bounds. Classes and schools for training the employees already in government service have been. established in many city departments and the work of training people for the government service has been taken up by the municipal universities of Cincinnati, Akron and other places; and it will not be ten years before training courses for public service will be thoroughly established in our system of public education, and entrance into the public service will be increasingly made through that avenue. There are thus many evidences that the society of tomorrow is to be scientifically organized.

Apropos of this statement, I would like to comment on the general reputation for inefficiency and graft which the government has as an agency for doing things. There are two different agencies that promote this slander with great vigor. One is the partisan political organization which belittles the achievements of its opponents in order to have its own representatives elected; the other is the great array of public utilities, such as street car systems, water works, electric light companies, railroads, etc., which are trying to stem the rising tide of public ownership. They have a motive in representing that the government’s work is inefficient and inferior to their own. While the government has plenty of faults and deficiencies, I would be perfectly willing to place it side by side with the general run of private enterprises, and challenge anybody to show that there was either more graft or more inefficiency in the government than there was in the private enterprise. Mr. F. C. Croxton, formerly connected with the national Department of Labor, has told me that various clerks connected with his department gave several weeks of their time to the government for nothing as a mere matter of patriotism in order to get out a certain government report when the appropriation for that purpose was about exhausted. The employees of the Board of Public Welfare of Kansas City voluntarily proposed and accepted a cut of 25 per cent in their salaries for three months near the end of the fiscal year in 1913 in order to prevent the crippling of its activities.

Democratization of Social Work

While it may be true that the government needs some infusion of unselfishness and scientific precision from social work, it is not unlikely that some gains may be made by bringing the democracy of the government into some of the realms of social work that have been exclusive in management and limited in scope and condescending in spirit. It is quite likely that, in some directions, it would result in a regulation and standardization of social work that would improve it. What would it mean to thoroughly democratize social work? Abraham Lincoln’s formula for political democracy was “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”

“Of the people” implies that the government is inclusive and universal in its scope. This phrase has to do with the extent of the authority of the government. If we should apply this to our field, it would mean that social work would keep within its purview the whole population. Our objective must be the welfare of the people, not merely of selected cases that come to our attention. The democratization of social work means the enormous extension of social work.

The second phrase of Lincoln’s formula is “by the people.” This has to do with defining where the authority to control and administer the government is to be lodged. What does it mean to have social work administered “by the people?” In the first place, it means that it is henceforth to be supported by taxes, and that everybody must contribute to build up a fund against the day of misfortune; it means that each man has a right to the benefits of it when misfortune overtakes him. It means that what was charity has practically been transformed into social justice. It means that many little ill-advised and conflicting societies will be wiped out and the duties of others will be assumed by the government, and the cost of a good deal of administrative machinery and much of the expense of money raising will be saved. It means that there are sufficient available funds so that relief can be adequate when it is necessary. Social work by the people means social work by the government, the only agency in which all the pople have an opportunity for equal representation.

The third phrase of Lincoln’s formula is “for the people” and this is used to define the object and central purpose of the government. It is to be for the benefit of the people. Social work has always exemplified this principle of democracy in a high degree. It should be the ambition of social workers to place the imprint of this standard upon government and industry and every human institution. For, why is the obligation to serve any more binding on one than on another?

Let us undertake to apply Lincoln’s formula of democracy to the field of social work by establishing such a system of government social work as I have outlined here.

Source:  Proceedings of the National Conference of Social Work, Forty-Fifth Annual Session, May 15-22, 1918, pp. 220-229..  Available at:










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