The depression changed the way Americans viewed social welfare. Always before, assistance to the needy fell under the scope of charity and the government was not in the business of running charities. The depression, which impacted Americans of all races and socioeconomic standing, created a different understanding of welfare. Once viewed as a handout for those who were unable to help themselves, millions of Americans recognized that unbridled capitalism could result in severe economic downturns that left very capable people unable to provide for themselves or their families. The New Deal ushered in sweeping changes that reflected the public’s demand for government to assume many of the functions previously left to charitable organizations. This change, one of the most revolutionary in American history, allowed charities … to reevaluate their role in social welfare. (Changing Times, Changing Families: A Century of Service, Family Services of Greater Houston; 2004)

In June 1929, the American Association for Organizing Family’s Committee on Industrial Problems issued a prescient report entitled “The Time to Plan is Now.” The report’s purpose was to help member agencies prepare for relief functions and other emergencies: “The business cycle with its undue credit expansion and attendant deflation shows great peaks of unemployment more or less periodically over the last 100 years. Family caseworkers can save their clients severe distress by planning ahead through federal, state and city organization to meet these emergencies when they come. No matter how firm its foundations, no program of family rehabilitation can be built if at any moment it may be inundated by a wave of unemployment or … irregular unemployment.”

With the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, family service agencies were overwhelmed with unemployment and relief needs. Now their clientele included middle class families who were suddenly jobless, homeless, and hungry. State departments of public welfare still were in their infancy, and federal assistance was not forthcoming in the early years of the depression. Thus, most association member agencies, even if they had not provided financial relief previously, tapped their own limited funds to assist destitute clients.

Agencies were struggling just to keep their doors open. In fact, between 1929 and 1932 about one-third of the nation’s private agencies disappeared for lack of funds. (From Poor Law to Welfare State, Walter I. Trattner, The Free Press, New York, 1999) It was clearly evident to both the voluntary and public sector that such massive relief only could be addressed by the federal government. In addition, the federal government must institute reforms to prevent the causes of this crisis. Leaders from the association, member agencies and social workers testified before the U.S. Congress, and the association advised on local and state welfare programs. In 1931, at the request of the president’s Organization on Unemployment Relief, the association created the Department of Special Studies and issued monthly bulletins on unemployment relief methods and other emergent issues.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1932, he swiftly enacted widespread New Deal social welfare programs to combat unemployment and poverty. With the exception of the short-lived Freedmen’s Bureau created to aid former slaves, this was the first time the federal government had accepted responsibility for the social welfare of its citizens. The New Deal programs created, for the first time, a public safety net for those grappling with extreme poverty, unemployment, old age, and physical disabilities.

By 1933, the federal government had created the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Civil Works Administration, and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). FERA provided federal funds for relief and established public assistance offices in each state. It also required local relief administrators to employ at least one trained social worker, heightening visibility and appreciation of professional social work in towns nationwide—and straining demand for personnel already in short supply.Children from the organization known today as The Methodist Home for Children and Youth in Macon, Ga., bundle up for the winter.

The landmark Social Security Act was enacted in 1935. It included contributory social insurance and public assistance for specific groups such as dependent children of single mothers, the aged, blind, and disabled workers. Federal funds were provided for state and local public health services. Although it was widely criticized for not going far enough—particularly for not including health insurance—the Social Security Act and its 1939 amendments expanded social welfare throughout the country and moved responsibility for relief from local municipalities and charitable organizations to the federal government.

Fundamental Change in Social Service Role

With the creation of a public safety net for welfare relief, the role of voluntary agencies was fundamentally altered. Both the public and private sectors grappled with shifting boundaries and new roles.

“The collapse of voluntary institutions during the Great Depression and the rise of the federal welfare programs under the New Deal are rightly seen as watersheds in the relationship between charity and welfare … After opposing public ‘relief’ for a generation, charities embraced it in the 1930s as a means to save a crippled voluntary sector from collapse. Welfare was to be delivered by public institutions, which allowed charities to offer and promote specialized therapeutic services.” (The Limits of Voluntarism: Charity and Welfare from the New Deal Through the Great Society, Andrew J.F. Morris, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2008)

Linton Swift, who succeeded Francis McLean as general secretary of the newly renamed Family Welfare Association of America (FWAA) in 1933, issued a historic response to the changing social welfare landscape. His 1934 treatise, “New Alignments Between Public and Private Agencies in a Community Family Welfare and Relief Program,” redefined the role of voluntary family service agencies. He acknowledged—even welcomed—the public sector’s assumption of responsibility for the financial safety net. The voluntary sector, Swift wrote, would push on to ‘‘meet human needs not yet recognized by a majority of the public as vital or meriting community support.’’

Swift’s statement was hailed by family agencies nationwide for its clear and thoughtful statement of underlying principles. The FWAA held regional round tables and other meetings in the following years to enable representatives of both public and private agencies to exchange ideas and think strategically about the goals they should be setting.“

Rather than seeing the expansion of welfare as zero sum, where voluntary agencies were the losers, many charities viewed increasing public responsibility, particularly for maintaining a financial safety net, as a relief … They crafted a new voluntary sector based on the provision of specialized, professional services that complemented the material provision of the public sector. This, in turn, led them to become defenders of the welfare programs that helped make it possible for them to offer these new services.” (The Limits of Voluntarism: Charity and Welfare from the New Deal Through the Great Society, Andrew J.F. Morris, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2008)

With the explosion of new relief programs and the infusion of funds, there was an immense demand for social services. Requests for field service and training from the FWAA increased tremendously as local agencies rose to the challenge of unemployment and relief needs. Both the FWAA and local agencies loaned professional staff to help develop public relief programs. Many agencies lost their top executives to public programs. The shortage of professional staff was acute in both public and private organizations. Even experienced workers were new to the specialized demands of relief administration.

The FWAA was especially concerned about maintaining and improving service standards amidst the rapid transformation of relief programs from voluntary social organizations to public agencies. “The new order gives us much concern unless every precaution be taken to obviate the pitfalls and the difficulties, which too frequently characterize public machinery,” reported Henry Monsky of the Family Welfare Association of Omaha (today’s Heartland Family Service) at the FWAA 1934 annual meeting. Monsky continued, “It is important that we insure and preserve the maintenance of standards and continued scientific treatment of the programs. The progress of social work must not be retarded. There must be no set back from the standards attained in the past decade.”

Improvement and maintenance of such standards, the association believed, was achieved through comparison and evaluation, exchanging ideas with sister agencies, and constant experimentation. The FWAA’s field service, research, and publications arms and personnel service mobilized to strengthen member agencies.

The FWAA’s five regular field workers were augmented by an emergency field program and additional field workers, funded through a 1933 grant by the Carnegie Corporation. Through consultation within the National Social Work Council, the program was closely coordinated with that of the American Public Welfare Association and other national agencies. Field work varied from a day to several weeks, with field staff offering guidance on problems of organization, relief administration, cooperative relationships with local and state organizations, staff development, and other issues.

Staff at the FWAA headquarters focused on collecting and reporting practices and trends, answering inquiries from the field, and general distribution of research, case records, and publications, including The Family, which would aid local agencies in their relief work. Association publications also were distributed to about 300 non-member public organizations newly entering relief work.

The FWAA staff assisted member agencies in conducting surveys and studies to enhance services. In 1931, for example, a worker from the FWAA national office was lent to a member agency to survey unemployment relief needs and resources. The survey was then presented to the governor for use in legislative action and welfare programming. FWAA obtained a grant to cover the work so it cost the local agency nothing.

FWAA also focused on professional development and training. Institutes and regional meetings were increased, bringing together agency staff to focus on casework skills such as intake, investigation, treatment, and supervision. Agency executives gathered in inter-city conferences to discuss broader relief topics. The association worked closely with schools of social work to develop casework, supervision, and leadership curricula.

As the central membership organization of more than 200 family service agencies, the FWAA had long served as a clearinghouse for field training, vocational guidance, and placement. The FWAA partnered with the Joint Vocational Service of New York to make these services available to all member agencies. FWAA and local agencies alike offered field training to social work students. A specific field service was developed to aid members in public relief development.The FWAA also worked in partnership with other local and national groups that shared an interest in family life. These partnerships included the American Association of Social Workers, the National Social Work Council, the National Junior League, the National Conference of Social Work, and the National Committee on the Care of the Homeless and Transients.

New Opportunities for Service

The FWAA surveyed its membership in 1935 about public versus private responsibilities. It learned that members agreed that the provision of food, clothing, and shelter for those in distress had passed from the realm of private philanthropy into that of public obligation. They believed that private funds were “insufficient to scratch the surface” of relief needs. Private funds as available should be used to help individuals and families deal with problems other than relief.

“Unemployment … is an industrial and social problem, in the opinion of private welfare agencies,” said a 1936 FWAA press release based on its membership survey. “These agencies, therefore, believe in the establishment of permanent public welfare departments to administer relief on a professional, non-political basis.”
The Great Depression called attention to poverty as never before. In particular, there was a new understanding that extreme poverty existed in rural areas, not just urban slums.

At the May 1935 FWAA board meeting, the association recommitted to working for social legislation. It cautioned members that they and the FWAA itself needed to recapture their earlier skill in this phase of their work. With the prosperity of the 1920s, social action had lost impetus.

The FWAA and member agencies were outspoken advocates on issues and legislation addressing poverty, unemployment, and social welfare. They coordinated their work with that of other national agencies and worked closely with governmental agencies at the state and federal level on issues of social welfare. Policy statements by the FWAA board of directors included a condemnation of racial and religious discrimination as practiced by the Nazi government, support for passage of the Wagner-Rogers Bill to admit German Jewish refugee children to the United States, and urging continued study to assure social adjustment and adequate standards of life for new immigrants.

A 1938 FWAA report revealed that virtually all member agencies had some funds for relief. But because these funds were limited—and because the federal government at last was accepting responsibility for relief and public programs were expanding—the family service movement transitioned away from relief. The FWAA and its members worked to clearly define the types and responsibilities of relief they could reasonably assume.

There was a steadily increasing recognition that voluntary family agencies could serve most usefully in the area of preventing individual and family disorganization and breakdown by making their services available to all families, regardless of their income status.

As the government established public programs for basic relief, and as the Great Depression eased, family agencies were able to shift funds and attention back to casework. They initiated new programs, implemented new techniques, and served new populations. Family agencies began to focus on relationships between family members, not just on individual situations. They experimented with group work and added group activities such as parent education, recreation, and nursery schools. By the late 1930s, agencies were beginning to discuss a sliding fee scale for clients with the ability to pay for service.
Psychiatry and medicine rapidly were augmenting the social service field. A May 1937 press release details Maurine Boie’s speech at the FWAA annual meeting. Boie, of Philadelphia, reported that science might prove as useful in dealing with problems of the human personality as with diseases of the physical organism. Progress in this direction was being made by various groups. Among these were scientists trained both in the study of society and the study of the individual, who were bringing the two fields together. Social caseworkers practicing in family service agencies had a “unique and remarkable” scientific advantage because their laboratory consisted of real-life situations, she observed. Some family agencies created psychiatric clinics during this period. Many used psychiatrists as consultants or brought them in for specialized staff development.

Against this new environment, FWAA convened a committee of agency caseworkers and supervisors to develop a statement on the goal of family casework. After two years of study, they responded: “The objective of family casework is the healthy functioning of the individual— economically, physically, and psychologically—so that he may make the utmost use of his own capacity in his situation.”

“For the first time, perhaps, our view of the problem of a family or an individual is from the basis of the whole,” noted Betsy Libbey in her address at the 1938 FWAA conference in Philadelphia. Libbey’s paper, “Family Social Work Today,” defined the current tasks of family social workers:

  • We counsel with families on problems they cannot meet alone
  • We analyze our experience and strive to find ever more effective ways of helping people
  • We give field training to students
  • We interpret to the community the work we are doing and “bear witness” to the economic, social, and psychological problems that disrupt family life

At the annual conference the following year, FWAA associate director Margaret Rich built upon Libbey’s remarks and discussed the underlying principles of a family agency:

Human beings have a capacity for growth and constructive relationships under favorable environmental conditions. In contemporary society, there are conditions inimical to family life with which many families are unable to cope without help. The family agency’s approach to the family is not as an institution but as a living group of individuals with almost infinite variations in the ways of achieving a satisfying and useful modus operandi. Those who sponsor the agency must, like those early pioneers in charity organization societies, believe that the uniqueness of the individual’s personality is important not only to himself but to society; that his integrity must be conserved and strengthened; that it is his inalienable right to have his own view of his life and to be free to fulfill it … Social casework, wherever it is practiced, focuses not on the individual as an isolated entity or on his social environment alone, but on the interplay between the two.

The depression era created a huge demand for professional social workers and a corresponding demand on training schools and field service. Women in particular were attracted to this new career, which now enjoyed great prestige. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration requirement that local and state relief organizations employ experienced social workers had vastly raised awareness of the profession. Prominent social workers were appointed to lead many of the newly-created governmental social service agencies, further elevating the profession’s status. The new public programs relied extensively on the skill and knowledge of the social work profession, opening opportunities in education, recreation, medicine, social justice, agriculture and numerous other areas.

These new opportunities created a critical shortage of personnel. The association and member organizations mobilized to provide training for workers. Like many agencies, today’s Family Services of Western Pennsylvania previously provided advanced training for postgraduate social workers. It partnered with two other organizations to develop curriculum and field training that helped establish the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh, the fifth oldest such program in the country.

In 1939, FWAA general secretary Linton Swift brought together representatives of other national agencies to work cooperatively in personnel service. They included the Child Welfare League of America, National Travelers Aid Association, American Red Cross, American Public Welfare Association, National Committee for Mental Hygiene, American Association of Social Workers, and others in the casework field. The group agreed that maintenance and development of standards demanded a sound training and placement program on a professional level. All were concerned about the undersupply of personnel, particularly those with the particular skills required by new programs and services, such as family and marriage counseling.

Read the next chapter from A Century of Service.

Resources Used

Stories from the Network 

Name Change Reflects New Focus

Recognizing that its focus had shifted from charitable organization to family assistance, the American Association for Organizing Family Social Work changed its name in 1930 to the Family Welfare Association of America (FWAA).

By its 20th anniversary the following year, it was a flourishing society with a staff of more than 25 and membership of almost 250 family welfare agencies representing the major cities of the United States and Canada. 

Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles

The Jewish community of Los Angeles was thriving in the 1920s. The city had become a significant industrial center following the war. Jobs were plentiful in the rapidly developing metropolis.

The Jewish Social Services Bureau (today’s Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles) was formed in 1854 as the Hebrew Benevolent Society and was able to expand its services from distributing charity to a new mission of helping clients solve their social and personal problems.

By the 1930s, refugees from Nazi Germany began arriving in the United States. A condition of their entrance was that they not receive public assistance; their needs became the responsibility of each Jewish community. Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles’ early assistance to these refugees was the beginning of the agency’s impressive work in helping immigrants settle and assimilate in a new country. Resettlement has continued to be a focus, with the organization aiding Holocaust survivors following World War II and aiding people in the years since from the former Soviet Union, Middle East, and other countries.

DePelchin Children’s Center

Founded in 1892, DePelchin Faith Home (today’s DePelchin Children’s Center) was Houston’s recognized leader in the child welfare arena by the 1920s.

The agency received national recognition as it launched a comprehensive array of services.

It was a leader in addressing the problems of child abuse and neglect, stresses caused by economic and social conditions, and the state’s role in the protection of children’s rights.

Like the rest of the country, DePelchin struggled financially during the depression. But as the nation began to recover, DePelchin solicited support to care for all groups of children. Of particular concern were black children, a group that traditionally had been overlooked. In 1939, DePelchin opened the Negro Child Center, and the community chest approved an experimental budget to study the needs of black children. Over the next several decades, DePelchin battled segregation and societal attitudes as it worked to improve services for Houston’s minority population.