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Public Welfare In The Democratic Process


Message of Loula Dunn, President, at Regional Conference of the American Public Welfare Association

A Presentation at the American Public Welfare Association Regional Meeting, Bradford, Connecticut, June 20-21, 1946

 Miss Loula Dunn, Commissioner of Welfare for the State of Alabama[View Image]
[View Image]
Miss Loula Dunn, Commissioner of Welfare for the State of Alabama
Photo: Library of Congress
Digital ID fsa 8d43717

Public welfare is one way in which a basic principle of democracy finds practical application.  This is the principle that the whole society is responsible in certain measure for each of its members.  Public welfare, by its very nature, is allied with people and their needs.  As a governmental service, public welfare today reaches into every county in America and is an accepted part of government.  The American Public Welfare Association is composed of people who make this service a living reality.

June, 1946, will be the 16th birthday of the American Public Welfare Association.  Actually, however, the idea for this Association originated at a meeting of the National Conference of Social Work in San Francisco in 1929.  Impetus to the establishment of the American Public Welfare Association came from the realization by persons attending the San Francisco Conference that during the previous year 75% of relief in 15 major cities had been supplied from public funds.

More than 40 officials were in the group which organized the Association in Boston in 1930.  With agreement as to general aims and purposes, a formal organization was created whose first responsibility was to draw up the blueprint for its activities and programs.  Sharing of the relief burden by all levels of government, as we know it today, was untried, A.P.W.A.’s first objectives, therefore, were directed toward furthering public understanding of public relief and welfare work, developing and maintaining standards, conducting research, promoting correlation among agencies, and offering consultant service where needed in states and localities.

During the decade and a half of its existence the Association has seen the realization of many of its original ideals.  It has witnessed the broadening of public knowledge of public welfare, as well as the emergence of accepted standards of welfare administration.  It is not surprising, therefore, that the present tenets on which the Association’s 1946 program is based should reach farther than the internal organization of public welfare agencies to the role these agencies play in our whole democratic system of government.

Today, the trend toward the evolution of public welfare as a comprehensive and integral function of Government – Federal, state and local – embodies four basic factors.

“First:  Public welfare represents a basic guarantee by government of minimum standards of  human existence below which no one may be permitted to fall.  This means that no person  should be denied its benefits because of arbitrary concepts of eligibility in terms of residence, categorical exclusion or regional economic inequalities.  It means the acceptance of primary responsibility by federal government for leadership and financial aid in behalf of people of the entire nation, even while administrative responsibility remains in local hands.”

“Second:  Public welfare is a comprehensive function in which economic aid and social services are so closely related as defy arbitrary segregation.”

“Third:  A comprehensive program based on consistent policy can only be achieved through unified administration at all levels of government.”

“Fourth:  Public welfare is a residual function and recognizes the responsibility of government to utilize other primary means to assure security and social well being.”

It is on these concepts that A.P.W.A.’s platform was adopted last December.

Actually these philosophies are not new – they were the foundations on which the initial A.P.W.A. organization was based.  Conditions then, however, necessitated that the focal point of attention be on public welfare legislation, organization, and administration as a prerequisite to achievement of the underlying purpose of a public welfare program in democracy.

No single milestone in the emergence of public welfare as a function of government was more significant than the enactment of the Federal Social Security Act in 1935.  This legislation not only stimulated welfare organization in states and countries, but also fabricated a pattern for welfare services financed on a grants-in-aid basis.  The Social Security Act in itself was preceded by extensive studies of economic resources and needs.

The severest test for the Social Security Act and of the Nation’s public welfare agencies came during the war years.  During no other National emergency was there a public welfare agency is each of America’s political sub-divisions, nor had government previously accepted such extensive responsibilities for the well-being of its citizens during periods of conflict.  Acceptance of this obligation and the problems which have arisen and increased because of war had material effect upon public welfare.  The result has been a broadened concept because of the need for broadening the scope of service.  Lessening of relief pressures during war-time labor shortages was paralleled by an enlargement of the variety and kinds of service requested of public welfare.  In fact, the war brought to public welfare wider responsibility, professional maturity, and new stature.  It gave us the opportunity to perform professional service for the community and for individuals which will permanent affect their attitude toward the place public welfare holds in a modern democracy.  This meant also that there resulted deeper and fuller understanding of public welfare’s services on the part of the whole people.

Growth and change in public welfare, however, have been more marked than have been the upheavals in other phases of our social and economic life.  America has weathered its greatest depression, has fought its most critical war, and now faces a future holding its richest opportunities.  Out of these unforgettable years has come our present definition of public welfare’s function in democracy.  It is essential, therefore, that public welfare in the post-war period hold high human values.  As the well-being of people is inherent to democracy, so the growth of welfare programs as an accepted governmental service is living proof that our faith in democracy is justified.

The leadership of the A.P.W.A.  has been a signal factor in the growth of public welfare agencies and it the dissemination of knowledge of the need of people of resources to meet them  At the same time, it is through the Association that the thinking of professional and lay people has been welded together and ideas have been exchanged.  Few organizations can boast a greater degree of membership interest and participation than the American Public Welfare Association.  It is the mutual interest and sharing of responsibility that assure the vitality of the organization.

While, as public welfare people, “…..we cannot measure by rule or scale the warmth and brightness of more abundant life, the happiness and joy of larger living, in those personal vale which transcend all others, and whose protection and promotion is the supreme end of Government,…..

We know that “.….Public welfare…..i more than a check.  It is a child’s laugh, a fire burning on the hearth, a roof overhead on a rainy night.  It is a blanket to keep you warm, medicine when you are ill, a porch where the old can sit and rock.  It is that which gives you hope and enables you to hold up your head like other people…

Source: University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN:

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