NCSW Part 2: A Century of Concern 1873-1973: Economic Independence
A Century of Concern
by Walter Trattner, Professor School of Social Welfare and Department of History University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, Wisconsin
“Social Work and Economic Dependency, 1872-1972”
The impending centennial of the National Conference comes at an opportune time. Attacked from within and from without, first by Blacks who walked out of the 1968 meeting in San Francisco, and then by other disaffected groups – Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Asian Americans, women, and young people – its very existence, for a while, appeared to be at stake. Disruptions, dwindling attendance, financial difficulties and other problems led to talk, or rumors, of dissolving the group. In the long run, however, it may emerge from this troubled period stronger, and more useful, than ever before, for as a result of the disturbances the Conference is now studying “alternate means including merger, coalition or other relationships with one or more organizations to find the most responsible way for … (its) membership to be involved in social, political, and legislative action.” A look at the last hundred years or so, then, may serve some useful purpose, for, if anything, it will demonstrate that while serious problems are present, the future, when placed in historical perspective, does not look so gloomy.
Far-reaching changes have occurred in social work during the last century. When the National Conference was created in the early 1870’s the common idea was that, for the most part, poverty (and dependency) was the result of personal failure, a flaw in the moral character of the individual; the individual, therefore, not society, was responsible for economic independence. Indeed, it was widely believed that the economic and social order could not operate successfully if the state, through its poor laws, undermined the work incentive by providing citizens a degree of security through public assistance.
That had not always been the case. Earlier, in the 17th and 18th Centuries, for example, Americans were relatively calm about poverty and dependency, readily accepting responsibility for the indigent. Need was in the order of things, natural and inevitable; it was pointless, therefore, to blame or suspect the poor, or punish or isolate them, especially since resources were abundant and labor scarce. Indeed, the individual’s right to public assistance was clearly and firmly established, and evidence indicates that, for the most part, aid was provided humanely and generously, usually at home or with relatives or neighbors.
For a variety of reasons, however, such a response to poverty and dependency under went drastic change in the 19th Century. First of all, as David and Sheila Rothman have pointed out, both the Enlightenment ideology, which with its belief in boundless progress wore away the grim determinism of Calvinism and the notion that misery and want were inevitable, and republican enthusiasm, which fostered the belief that in a land where men were equal and resources abundant poverty need not exist, encouraged a harsh and suspicious view of the poor. Then industrialization, urbanization, widespread immigration, more poverty, higher taxes, and a laissez-faire philosophy all tended to make dependency a vice and its relief an unscientific and irrational interference with the “natural harmony” of the social and economic order. These ideas were strengthened by the pseudo-scientific teaching of Herbert Spencer, the English civil engineer turned philosopher, and others who applied the Darwinian theory of evolution to society. If, as social Darwinists claimed, competition and survival of the fittest was the law of life, there was no remedy for poverty other than self-help. Those who remained poor were the unfit who had to pay the price exacted by “the decrees of a large far-seeing benevolence.” “The unfit must be eliminated as nature intended,” said Spencer, “for the principle of natural selection must not be violated by the artificial preservation of those least able to care for themselves.”
The American tradition of individualism, with its emphasis on personal initiative and self-reliance, the Horatio Alger myth, with its glorification of hard work and success, and the so-called Gospel of Wealth, which emphasized the moral duty of the individual to acquire property and accumulate wealth, even further reinforced these beliefs. Opponents of public assistance also had a potent weapon in the political graft and corruption of the era. This was the so-called Gilded Age, a period when political scandals and raids on the public treasury, including departments of public charities, were common. It was impossible, therefore, or so it seemed, for public aid, especially home relief, to be administered honestly, efficiently, or economically.
Yet helping those in need, through private as well as public aid, was too deeply engrained in the American culture to be eliminated entirely. What resulted, therefore, was an informal division of labor. The public’s role was severely circumscribed. Confined to a caretaker and punitive function, it was limited to routine maintenance in asylums, alms houses, and other institutions for dependents whom the private or voluntary sector was unable or unwilling to handle and whom, it was felt, should remain behind brick walls–the old, the sick, the disabled, the insane, and others clearly unable to support themselves. The primary source of assistance, especially home relief, was the private agency which, staffed by middle and upper class volunteers, would dispense benefits without fostering pauperism, especially those religious and moral influences that would produce the desired changes in the attitudes and behavior of the poor. Private aid had such other desirable characteristics as precariousness and uncertainty, it could not be interpreted as a right (for the poor had no statutory claim to it), it bound the poor to the well-to-do, and it was less susceptible to political pressure for liberalization of benefits.
Such was the temper of the times when the famed charity organization movement, or “scientific charity,” was spawned. Aimed at cooperation and greater efficiency among the private relief dispensing agencies in the community and, at the same time, dealing with or treating poverty by having “friendly visitors” diagnose individual causes of destitution and dependency, the organized charities quickly undermined their deeply cherished beliefs–that poverty and dependency resulted from personal defects and evil acts, namely sinfulness, intemperance, indolence, excessive relief giving, and the like. Their agents learned that poverty and dependency were not, for the most part, expressions of individual moral perversity, but rather the result of faulty social and economic conditions over which the needy had little or no control. All the character regeneration in the world, for example could not help the hundreds of thousands of laborers (and their families) thrown out of work during the depression of the 1890’s.
Also, since the organized charities had insisted upon gathering the facts and keeping detailed records, they unwittingly compiled comprehensive data on the social and economic problems of the poor, the real poverty-producing factors that had little to do with the sufferers’ character–involuntary unemployment, industrial accidents, low wages, poor health, premature death of the family breadwinner, etc. Preconceived notions about the poor had to be discarded, or at least seriously reconsidered, especially when a number of studies by Stanford University Professor Amos Warner and others, based on charity organization records, verified that poverty and dependency resulted mainly from social and economic causes not personal inadequacy. Moreover, as Robert Hunter, the noted reformer, demonstrated in his classic work, Poverty (1904), the charity organization approach did not work; it neither prevented nor alleviated poverty, for at least ten million Americans, or one out of every eight, were still poor some twenty-five years after the movement began.
By the turn of the century, the organized charities had begun to broaden their efforts. Among other things, they had established the nation’s first training schools for charity workers, an inevitable tendency of their individualistic orientation. Scientific charity, with its investigation and treatment of each individual, made use of volunteers harder and harder, for it was increasingly difficult to reconcile untrained, part-time service with sustained treatment based in scientific knowledge. It became increasingly clear that the gathering and interpreting of factual material, the technical character of many of the services that had to be performed, and the consistency of effort required in case treatment, could be achieved only by full-time workers with education, experience, and professional discipline. This, then, led to the creation of training schools for charity workers, the demise of volunteer service, and ultimately, the rise of a social work profession.
In addition, charity organization societies not only provided financial relief to the needy but also engaged in a variety of other activities-housing reform, public health work, juvenile courts, probation and legal aid, publication of reform oriented journals, etc.–which, if not aimed at altering the social and economic order, at least sought to mitigate some of its worst effects. Other developments meanwhile, especially the appearance of settlement houses in the nation’s larger cities, were leading in the same direction.
From the start, settlement house residents regarded themselves as social reformers rather than charity workers. They were not interested in doling out relief, either economic or moral. Rather, their goal was to eliminate the sources of distress and to improve urban living and working conditions-for all classes, those above as well as below the poverty line. More interested in action than theory, pragmatic in program as well as in approach, and convinced that the settlement ideal was the answer to the nation’s urban industrial problems, they went about their task of making America’s cities a better place in which to live.
Their research and their personal relationships with their neighbors, with whom they lived and toiled and with whose problems and needs they therefore became well acquainted, enabled them to comprehend the true causes of poverty. They also had a realistic understanding of the social and political structure of the city and, far from avoiding commitment, assumed it was inescapable and thus became deeply involved in ward, city, state, and even national affairs. Battling, then, in legislative halls as well as in urban slums, they became successful initiators and organizers of reform.
By the early 20th Century, then, as the settlements and the organized charities were beginning to cooperate, a major shift in attitudes and policies toward dependency was occurring. If the indigent were not victims of moral defects but rather of flaws in the economic and social order, then personal reformation and isolation in institutions was not only inadequate but unjust. The enactment of preventive and protective legislation, including a system of social insurance-the replacement of charity with social justice – was the answer to urban poverty.
As for the first, the passage of preventive legislation that aimed at eliminating the forces that bred poverty and degradation, the residents were highly successful. Specifically, they secured legislation to establish and maintain fair standards of wages, hours, and housing, to prohibit child labor and regulate the dangerous trades, to establish more vigorous and effective public health programs, to institute a more practical system of public education, etc. With regard to the second, however, the enactment of a comprehensive system of social insurance against the hazards of illness, old age, unemployment, physical disability, and loss of the family bread-winner, they were less successful. With the exception of widows’ pensions (which provided “worthy” widows with young children — the group least suspect among the needy — with public aid) and the enactment of some inadequate workmen’s compensation and old age pension statutes, little in the way of social insurance was secured before the 1930s.
In the meantime, however, the settlements began to wane. World War I and the opposition of many residents to America’s entrance into the conflict hurt the movement. The postwar recession, the conservative reaction that accompanied the return to prosperity, broadened night and summer school programs, and the growth of boys’ clubs, neigh borhood youth centers, “Y’s” and other programs and institutions that seemed to make settlement houses less necessary, also contributed to their decline. So did population changes; as the central city increasingly became the home of various minority groups few Americans really cared about – Latin Americans, Puerto Ricans, Indians, and especially Blacks – it was more and more difficult to raise money for, or sustain interest in, settlement house work.
Perhaps most important, however, was the fact that, for the most part, the postwar generation of social workers were not reformers but rather practitioners, Many were graduates of training schools, experts in casework who were more interested in their client’s emotional and psychological problems and their own therapeutic techniques than in their neighbors’ social and economic needs and preventive legislation.
For some time, social workers had been seeking professional status. Success, however, required that they , like other professional groups, have their own body of specific knowledge, technical competence obtained through education and training, and subculture whose members shared common values. They had to demonstrate, in other words, that social work consisted of more than benevolence and well-wishing, that it had a scientific as well as an ethical component, that it utilized unique skills, and that it had professional schools and organizations.
By the time of World War I, charity workers had made substantial headway in becoming professional social workers. Schools of social work had been created, the volunteer friendly visitor had yielded to the paid, full-time, trained agent, and professional organizations were in the bud.
Suddenly, however, the roof fell in when, in 1915, Dr. Abraham Flexner, America’s foremost authority on graduate professional education, appeared before the National Conference to discuss the topic “Is Social Work a Profession?” To the dismay of his audience, Dr. Flexner concluded that social work, lacking its own “technique which is communicable by an educational process,” was no profession.
The paper had a profound effect upon social workers and their world. While not all of them accepted Flexner’s conclusions, most did, and they desperately began trying to define and to perfect techniques they could call their own.
Then came publication of Mary Richmond‘s Social Diagnosis (1917), the first definitive treatise in book form of social casework theory and method. The method of dealing with the dependent on a one-to-one basis in an effort to have them adjust to their environment as opposed to engaging in social reform, obviously was not novel. The organized charities and their friendly visitors, for example , had a personalized approach to social welfare. But because they knew little about the human personality and had a moralistic approach to those in need, friendly visitors provided little or no real treatment. In their hands, casework was largely a device for snooping, refusing appeals for help, or controlling the needy. With Miss Richmond’s book, however, all that presumably would change. Grounded in a logically conceived theoretical base, and meeting the most exacting requirements of professional and scholarly standards, the very criteria specified by Flexner, the effect of the work was dramatic. Almost overnight, social diagnosis, or casework, became the method of social work and, presumably, the badge of professionalism as the National Conference of Charities and Correction changed its name to the National Conference of Social Work.
This return to casework-dealing with needy people on a personal basis in an attempt to reconstruct their lives rather than the social and economic conditions under which they lived and worked-was reinforced by other developments, both within and without the field. America’s entrance into World War I and, with it, the rejection of a large number of draftees because of mental or emotional problems, the creation of the American Red Cross Home Service Division (to provide casework services to uprooted soldiers and their families), and the establishment, in 1918, of the Smith College School of Psychiatric Social Work, all furthered this development. Then came psychoanalytic theory, or Freudianism, a body of knowledge that provided caseworkers with a scientific understanding of and a way of dealing with psychological factors in human behavior that they had long observed but could not really explain or treat, facets of human behavior previously ignored as irrelevant or dismissed as irrational.
Most important, casework, especially psychiatric casework, promised to eliminate any lingering doubts about social work’s professional status. Preoccupation with individual and emotional rather than with social and economic factors allowed social workers to portray themselves in a new light; shorn of old time moralism and armed with a vocabulary strewn with psychological and medical terms and a technique grounded upon scientific principles, they were not humanitarians but primarily social physicians concerned with problems of emotional maladjustment- problems that occurred as frequently among the upper classes as among the lower – and thus were worthy of professional status. However, as David and Sheila Rothman have perceptively pointed out, “the new result of this new . . . [approach] was to couch in modern terminology some very traditional ideas. The poor remained essentially responsible for their difficulties. Reformation and rehabilitation returned to the center of the stage … [only] rationalized in updated language.”
Nevertheless, the trend continued. In fact, still other forces contributed to the shift from a social-economic to an individual-psychological approach to dependency. The growing size of agency operations, the need for sound administrators (rather than zealous crusaders), the demand for specialization, and the development of united giving or the community chest, all furthered the shift from social change to individual service.
So, too, did the failure of the so-called Progressive movement and the disillusionment that followed; the 1920s was not noted for its social experimentation. Then again, many people felt that social reform was unnecessary, for this was the “prosperity decade,” or so it was believed. There appeared to be little need to improve the social environment, eliminate poverty, or raise the standard of living; had not those tasks already been accomplished? So emphasis upon the personality and emotional problems rather than poverty and social problems reflected not only the social worker’s concern with the three “p’s” – professionalism, psychology, and psychoanalysis — but the conservative social and economic climate of the postwar years.
By the time of the Great Depression, then, social work had undergone change once again, it had gone from “cause” to “function,” to use Porter Lee’s terms, from advocating reform to efficiently rendering technical services. Most social workers, graduates of training schools, were technicians responsible to their cases, not reformers bent upon curing the maladies of society. As a result, when the Depression came, the nation’s welfare institutions and agencies were unprepared to meet its grave problems.
The stock market crash of 1929, and the deep depression that followed, brought destitution and suffering to an extent unknown in American history. The task of relieving the jobless and their families was undertaken, at first, by private and local agencies who found themselves unprepared and unable to meet the crisis. For many , then, the Depression provided an answer, once and for all, to the vexing question of whether private or public agencies should be responsible for relief-giving. Voluntary charity simply could not cope with the situation; only public agencies had the resources to deal with the collapse of the economy and mass unemployment.
Still, significant public action to meet the emergency was laggard. Other than creation of a few advisory committees, some federal efforts to encourage reemployment, and the initiation of some municipal and state public works projects, no public action of any importance was taken until September, 1931 – almost two years after the crash when, under the prodding of Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, the New York State Legislature acted to provide unemployment relief to jobless citizens of that state.
In the meantime, however, many social workers, aware of the inadequacy of private and even local public resources and the desperate straits to which many citizens were being driven through no fault of their own, returned to social action. To their credit, they were among the first to call for public action, even federal aid to the unemployed, not as an act of charity but as a matter of right. And, along with a handful of social-minded Senators, they were responsible for organizing the historic (LaFollette-Costigan) U. S. Senate committee hearings on federal unemployment relief.
Still, there was a great deal of opposition to such action, especially from President Herbert Hoover who, it quickly became evident, was unable to keep up with the times. Convinced that the economy was basically sound and that prosperity was just around the corner, and wedded to a belief in the American folklore of self-help, he rejected all proposals for federal aid.
Franklin Roosevelt, however, had no such qualms. Soon after entering the White House he signed into law a number of measures to aid the jobless and dependent. The most important of these, welcomed enthusiastically by social workers, was the Federal Emergency Relief Act, a tradition-shattering for social welfare. Considering unemployment a national problem, the statute made available at the outset $500 million of federal funds to be distributed as grants-in-aid to the states for relief of the needy, thus transferring, for the first time, responsibility for the relief of a large number of citizens from the local or state level to the federal government.
Yet as social workers and others realized, relief alone, especially on a temporary basis, was not enough to assuage the economic insecurity that grew out of the depression. Something of a more lasting or permanent nature was needed, something that not only would include a rescue operation to relieve distress during emergencies but would com prise a long-range plan for preventing dependency, especially for the growing number of senior citizens, many of whom were hard hit by the depression. Aside from humanitarian considerations or the question of justice, a system of security that would help prevent destitution was essential for social and economic stability. Thus on August 14, 1935 the Social Security Act became law.
As finally adopted, the Social Security Act was an omnibus measure which, through two lines of defense, contributory social insurance and public assistance, sought to prevent destitution. The statute set up old age and unemployment insurance programs and provided federal funds (grants-in-aid) for dependent women with children , the crippled, blind, and aged, and for state and local public health work.
With the exception of the unemployment insurance, which by 1934 had been enacted only in the state of Wisconsin, the provisions of the S.S.A. were not novel. They were influenced by or were based upon previous or existing state and federal statutes; the measure merely strengthened and expanded, or in some cases revived, earlier practices. Still, it became the target of considerable criticism-from all sides.
Social workers stood in the middle. Some, like Frank J. Bruno the noted educator, considered the Social Security Act quite inadequate, “a series of miscellaneous provisions which altogether do not furnish a logical plan for social security.” As they pointed out, the measure not only tied benefits to stable, long-term labor force participation, but financed in large part through individual contributions, it was deflationary and regressive, siphoning off billions of dollars in taxes from the purchasing power of those it was supposed to protect. In no way did it redistribute wealth. It paid benefits on the basis of past earnings not current needs. The payments were minimal and, in the case of un employment insurance, limited to a relatively short period. It did not cover numerous classes of people, including many of those who needed protection most, especially farm laborers, seasonal and migrant workers, domestic servants, and workers’ dependents. And most important, it omitted entirely the most pressing need in the area of social security health insurance.
Nevertheless, most social workers accepted the Act for what it was-a compromise measure that, despite its many shortcomings, comprised something of a landmark in American history. The statute established a new alignment of responsibility in the field of public welfare; it marked the beginning of a policy of federal aid to the states upon a permanent basis for regular recurring social work, thus closing the door on three centuries of poor law and its principle of local responsibility. For the first time in American history, relief (and its administration) became a major permanent item in the national budget, one that has continued to grow each year.
The Depression and the so-called New Deal also had a profound effect upon social workers and their profession. First of all, many more jobs for social workers were created, especially in the public social services. Despite widespread unemployment during the 1930’s, qualified social workers were in constant demand; indeed, their number approximately doubled during the decade.
The Depression also prompted a resurgence of interest among many social workers in social reform and even old-fashioned relief. What good was psychiatric assistance when millions of workers were unemployed and entire families starving? As Paul Kellogg, the well-known editor of Survey put it: “You cannot deal effectively with an inferiority complex on an empty stomach.” Moreover, the adverse experience was proof, at least for the time being, that social and economic forces were at the root of the problems with which social workers dealt and that they could best make their contributions by allying themselves with those groups in society working for social, political, and economic change.
For some, however, the experiences of the decade had no such effect. Indeed, by getting public agencies to take over the job of providing financial aid to the needy, even bringing federal funds to bear on the field of social welfare, the New Deal seemed to free these social workers from feeling an obligation to provide such services; they would continue, or return to, their work with problems of emotional adjustment and individual development. Some social workers, in fact, aware of the profound emotional and psycho logical problems caused by the depression (with its insecurity, prolonged poverty, altered family relationships, etc.), argued that there was more need than ever before for casework and psychotherapy. So, the psychiatric deluge and concern for the super-ego did not give away entirely to the economic deluge and concern for the trade cycle in the 1930s.
Still, the profession assumed a new prestige and importance in American life as a result of the Depression and the New Deal. Social workers, such as Harry Hopkins, Frances Perkins and others as well, were listened to, in Washington and elsewhere; they were on the inside, in high positions, making and implementing policy. Moreover, by the end of the decade social work was not only an acknowledged obligation of the federal government and every state, city, and village in the nation, but its scope had greatly expanded. It no longer meant simply providing financial assistance to the dependent, or even case work to the emotionally disturbed, but both of these and much more. Social work no longer was viewed as an emergency profession, but as an accepted part of the machinery of the state, an important every-day function in a modern industrial society.
Still, all was not clear sailing, especially since many social workers quickly reverted to individual service. Indeed, by the 1940s and ’50s most, once again, were more concerned with casework and technique than with the further expansion of public social services and the improvement of living conditions.
Why? Some social workers felt that as a result of the many reforms of the 1930s, especially enactment of the Social Security Act, most citizens were protected from poverty and want. They, and others, also had their attention diverted from broad social issues, when, during World War II and increasingly thereafter, many self-supporting individuals and families turned to social workers for help, creating a lucrative private practice. Then there was the Cold War and the other anxieties of the postwar era in which survival of the human race became of real concern; advances in the field of social welfare seemed insignificant by contrast.
Related, was the problem of McCarthyism. A nation shaken by fears and suspicions, by vague ·charges of disloyalty and Communist conspiracy, hardly offered a climate hospitable to social criticism and change. Of importance, too, was the fact that many poor were, as social critic Michael Harrington would say, “Invisible;” they were isolated in rural and urban ghettos where the non-poor rarely ventured as they commuted to and from their suburban homes and downtown offices by car or train.
In any event, concern with poverty seemed remote, almost antiquarian, during the war and postwar years, for once again it appeared as though mass prosperity prevailed. The general image was that of an affluent society with the highest standard of living in the world which gave everyone his (or her) fair share. Why engage in reform? For all practical purposes the task already had been accomplished. Almost everyone had a television set and a car, didn’t they? Such smug self-satisfaction naturally led to an era of complacency: contain the Communists, balance the budget, cut taxes, and don’t rock the boat, these were the goals. As Walter Lippmann, the syndicated columnist, scornfully observed: “We talk about ourselves as if we were a completed society, one which has achieved its purposes and has no further business to transact.”
The flight from social reform in the 1940s and ’50s Gust as in the 1920s) did not go without uneasy words of warning from some people within (as well as without) the social work profession. Ernest Hollis and Alice Taylor, for example, urged the readers for their widely discussed book, Social Work Education in the United States (1951). to take a stand on the major social issues of the day. Whitney Young, Benjamin Youngdahl, Agnes E. Meyer, and other social workers also pleaded with their colleagues to return to social action, pleas that apparently were not entirely in vain, for by the 1960s a change was evident. Whereas earlier most people assumed that poverty was rapidly vanishing from America, during the 1960s few subjects were as fashionable – at least to discuss.
This sudden turnabout resulted from a variety of factors. The running debate during the 1950s on the question of foreign aid may have awakened at least some Americans to the existence of poverty at home as well as abroad. Then there was the coming into office of President John F. Kennedy, who conveyed a sense of urgency in his approach to social problems neglected by his predecessor. Setting the tone in his inaugural address in 1961, which aroused many citizens, Kennedy asked the nation to “bear the burden of a long twilight struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war…””The hand of hope,” he said, “must be extended to the poor and the depressed.” Even more important, however, was the civil fights movement of the 1960s which, perhaps more than anything else, made the nation aware of its poor and was responsible for what little progress occurred during the decade. Americans who had regarded poverty as a problem that had virtually disappeared were suddenly confronted with a militant reform movement that arose precisely because that was not the case; to be made aware of the injustice of racial discrimination was inevitably to be made aware of want, for what ever criteria were used – income, employment, education, skills, health, dependency – blacks constituted a disproportionate number at the bottom of society, and this could no longer be ignored.
Those who had overlooked the invisible poor- the unskilled, the migrant laborer, the tenant farmer, the victim of regional depression or automation, the aged tucked away in the nation’s rural and urban ghettos, black and white alike — were forced to come to grips with a blight that they had tried to forget, or pretend did not exist. This was especially so after a score of scholars and publicists, using the 1960 census figures and other data, factually discovered — or rediscovered — poverty.
Gabriel Kolko, James Morgan and his team of University of Michigan social scientists, Dwight Macdonald and, above all, Michael Harrington demonstrated clearly that the New Deal had not eliminated poverty, that beneath the layers of American affluence there were strata of deprivation, and that the deprived were not merely those who inhabited well-known urban and rural slums. Rather, the poor were ubiquitous; they could be found in.. all sections of the country’ in all parts of the population, in all age groups.
Then, as if to bear out what these writers were saying, America’s cities exploded. Riots occurred not only in New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Newark, but in hundreds of other communities around the nation. And while the outbreaks varied in origin and development, they all resulted from long suffering wounds- unemployment, poverty, poor housing, crowded living conditions, economic exploitation, frustration, and desperation. President Lyndon Johnson created a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders future occurrence. Placing most of the blame for the riots on “white racism,” the Commission made a series of modest proposals for social change, few of which, however, were ·implemented. Instead of serious attempts to alleviate the causes of distress, the principal response to the riots was greater expenditures for police and weaponry.
Earlier, the much-heralded War on Poverty had been initiated, a make-do program that, as many social workers were quick to point out, was bound to fail from the start. Designed for the most part not to change society but its victims, it emphasized education and job training rather than inadequate income and job creation. Moreover, even on its own terms, the program did not live up to its billing. Less a war on poverty than a minor skirmish, it was scantily financed. Moreover, much of what little was appropriated, was squandered or caught in bureaucratic red tape, delaying tactics, and political hassles while those who were supposed to be helped by the measure continued their miserable exist ence in their wretched ghettos and slums. There were not too many tears shed when, late in 1966, dismemberment of the program began, a process continued by the Nixon Administration.
With the exception of some amendments to the Social Security Act, including Medicare, approved by President Johnson in July, 1965, the only major new welfare proposal during the 1960s to be introduced in Congress was President Richard Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan, announced in August, 1969. The President’s recommendations, which in effect would have instituted a minimum guaranteed annual income, provoked immediate controversy. While some people hailed the plan as a giant step forward in helping the poor, most social workers and other experts denounced the proposal as inadequate and even retrogressive.
While the program would increase welfare payments in some areas of the country, especially in parts of the rural South, it would add little or nothing to those in most northern cities. Indeed, there were fears that it would lead the more progressive counties and states to cut back their welfare payments in order to conform to the lower federal standard – $1600 (later $ 2400) per year for a family of four. In addition, its provision requiring women with young children (over age three) to leave the home and go to work at any type of job and often at substandard wages — was anathema to most (especially after the President vetoed a bill that would have provided federal funds for a massive day care program).
The proposal’s greatest shortcoming, however, was its emphasis upon job training and employment when most of the poor and dependent are either too young, too old, or too sick to work, are already employed at below subsistence wages, or are women with young children. Moreover, absorption of all Americans into the labor market- even those with normally marketable skills – is impossible; despite affluence and prosperity, unemployment is at about 6 per cent of the labor force. Jobs, in other words, simply are not and may never be available for all Americans, especially for semi- and unskilled workers.
In any event, three years after it was proposed, the Nixon plan was still bogged down in committee and the prospect for its passage seemed remote. In the meantime, however, Congress enacted another “workfare” measure, one that included the worst feature of the Nixon proposal — the provision requiring recipients of Aid to Dependent Children to work.
So, little has been accomplished. Two distinct economics continue to exist. One, the economy of affluence, includes most Americans – well trained, holding steady jobs, in relatively good health, living in reasonably comfortable homes or apartments. The other, the economy of poverty, is inhabited by the poorly trained, unable to find or hold jobs, suffering from low or no incomes, bad health, and poor housing. Born to the wrong parents, in the wrong part of town, or the wrong racial group, they are trapped in a cycle of poverty and degradation. Poverty appears to have congealed and hardened into a kind of subculture producing its outcasts from society.
Yet, all is not bleak; there are rays of hope – and perhaps even signs of progress. There may yet be an end to the war in Indochina, and if so, hopefully more funds will be available for badly needed domestic social services. Also, more Americans are beginning to accept the idea that automation and technology has broken the traditional link between jobs and income, that some citizens simply cannot work, or find jobs, or earn a living wage in today’s labor market; that there is a need, therefore, to set up a truly sound system of social security, including comprehensive health care and some sort of federal income maintenance program. Only in that way, by meeting immediate need with the instruments best designed to overcome those needs – adequate health care and money, not extended education, makeshift jobs, or casework – will the rejects of society be brought into the mainstream of American life.
Perhaps even more important, the expectations of the poor have been aroused and they no longer will return to their urban and rural slums and sit by in quiet pose, and, for the first time since 1912, the National Conference took an advocacy role, drafting a liberal statement on a wide range of social issues that was presented to the platform committees of both major political parties at Miami last summer.
These and other signs indicate that a growing number of today’s social workers have learned the lessons of social welfare history. Not only do they have an increasing aware ness that achievement of the profession’s goals entails their participation in social programing, but they are again beginning to accept that challenge; they have shed the old realities, to correct discrepencies and inequities in our social and economic order and create a truly just society. To allow, let alone compel, the National Conference to close its doors at this vital juncture in American history would be a disaster for the course of social advance.
Walter Trattner holds his Bachelors degree from Williams College, a Master of Arts in Teaching from Harvard University, and a Master of Science and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. An officer of the Social Welfare History Group for several years, he is currently Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where he also teaches in the School of Social Work. He is the author of many scholarly articles and of two major books-Homer Folks: Pioneer in Social Welfare (Columbia University Press, 1968), and Crusade for the Children: A History of the National Child Labor Committee and Child Labor Reform in America (Quadrangle, 1970). His manuscript, From Poor Law to Welfare State: A History of Social Welfare in America, is scheduled to be published by Free Press during 1973.