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Case Work in the Administration of Public Relief: 1935

Case Work in the Administration of Public Relief

By Anna Kempshall, Director, Family Service Department, Charity Organization Society

Better Times. The Welfare Magazine, June 3, 1935

Editor’s Note: This article was written by Anna Kempshall, a nationally renowned social worker who received her social work diploma from the New York School of Philanthropy in 1913.  The original document was one of many in a scrapbook believed to have been maintained by her older sister Helen Pinneo. The scrapbook was recently gifted to the Social Welfare History Project by Mrs. Elizabeth C. Adamson, a great niece, representing the Adamson, Ogden and Pinneo families. Some of the documents date back to 1917; and, the condition of most is fragile and difficult to transcribe. Nevertheless, a number of the documents have been transcribed and will be posted on the SWH Web site because of their importance.  The writings of Anna Kempshall are valuable historical records of the experiences and challenges of family casework through two important periods of American history: the Great Depression and World War II.

In your citation from the Mayor’s Committee on Unemployment Relief the statement occurs – “The one million men and women who are unemployed today in New York City as a result of the depression cannot be regarded as maladjusted individuals in need of case work.” This is another version of the old “worthy” and “unworthy” concept, which holds that ordinary poor are to be regarded as just maladjusted people who may be subjected to an unpleasant discipline called case work; but the new or worthy poor, or the poor “through no fault of their own” must be protected against this case work.

My conception of case work is quite different. The relief population is indeed “a cross section of the community” and, as Dr. Adolf Meyer would say, “the one thing humanity has in common is that no two people are alike.” When we say that we want the case work approach in the administration of relief we mean that there should be recognition of individual differences and acceptance of people’s right to be themselves. The relief worker should be trained to distinguish different needs, to act objectively yet sympathetically, and to treat differently different standards of living, resources, purposes and capacities.

Case workers believe that individualizing people in the relief population is as important as in a hospital, nor is maladjustment implied thereby. Even in mass relief, almost the only thing that makes it tolerable is being treated as a person, not as a “cross section of the community.” Though the amount and rate of relief are standardized, people’s needs remain peculiarly their own and can be considered to some degree within the necessary administrative framework.

No one denies that training in relief can and should be secured in the public relief field itself. Schools of social work have always insisted on training in the field itself. Schools of social work have always insisted on training in the field quite as much as in the classroom. The problem has been, under pressure conditions, to give new workers enough supervision to enable them to acquire quite fundamental procedures. It is readily assumed in the Mayor’s Committee’s report that nurses should be used in the care of the sick, even though many mothers are good nurses, and that physicians should treat the diseases of Home Relief clients, and that business men are best equipped to handle business aspects of administration; but it has not yet been so clearly understood that the handling of relief is also a skilled job.

Although it is easy enough to give out money, it is not at all easy to suit money to needs or even to determine needs, when a day’s intake includes homeless men, widows and children, skilled laborers and clerks, families of foreign cultures, professional people and artists, the mentally and physically ill. It is true that some people are maladjusted and should be referred to specially trained case workers and other specialists. This too calls for a kind of case work, but the case work that we are urging in relief administration begins with respect for the individual, with ability to handle the natural reluctance that self-reliant people feel in discussing their economic distress, and with knowing community resources and procedures well enough to offer, in cases of prolonged distress, the services of health care, nutrition, recreational and occupational opportunity which people on subsistence relief often need quite as much as money.

That among applicants for relief are some who are antisocial is a fact, and for them exceedingly careful methods of study and control have to be used, but here too the trained worker is useful and there is no reason to treat the great mass of discouraged and dependent, but honest people – not all of whom are immediately and perfectly frank, it is true – as if they were exploiting the taxpayers.

Next to the importance of recognizing that people are different is the casework concept that people should be allowed to use their own capacities – and again we mean everyone, so far as his capacities permit, and not the “new poor” only. Even in mass relief people feel less humiliated and less crippled by the experience if they are not “investigated” but are encouraged to be participants in a straightforward investigation of their resources. It costs no more in taxpayers’ money to help the client keep his self respect. The most expensive thing that can be done is to force large numbers of people to be merely recipients. Caseworkers have always believed in self help and self direction, but it is the trained worker in the public agency, just as much as in the private agency who most elicits and develops these qualities.

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