The progressive governmental activism of the earlier decade diminished amidst a newfound prosperity and optimism. The 1920s saw a return to political conservatism.

As the United States moved out of a wartime economy, the first years of the 1920s were marked by an employment crisis. The American Association for Organizing Family created a Committee on Industrial Problems, held a conference for agency leaders in New York City, and issued special bulletins to assist member agencies in meeting the needs of their community.

But new technology and rapid industrialization quickly altered the country, ushering in a prosperity that seemed to have no limits. By 1920, more Americans lived in cities than on farms. The automobile fostered greater mobility of the population. Factories were booming and employment was plentiful, although labor conditions and tenement housing were deplorable. The association and many of its member agencies were outspoken advocates for fair wages and other labor reforms. The Associated Charities of the District of Columbia (today’s Family Matters of Greater Washington), for example, led the fight to implement a child labor law.

New philanthropic organizations were an outgrowth of the decade’s prosperity. Service clubs, fraternal organizations and women’s clubs, which had long been a strong force for social good, multiplied rapidly and extended their outreach. Only a handful of philanthropic foundations existed at the turn of the century. Now, with the creation of sudden millionaires, foundations proliferated.

Federated fundraising was not a new idea, but World War I had generated a nationwide mobilization of charitable donations on a scale not seen before. Local communities had created “war chests” to further the war movement and support charitable organizations that assisted servicemen and their families. Philanthropy was no longer just the province of the upper classes; now business people and even people of modest means who had never thought of donating to charity were spurred to action. After the war, these chests shifted to support for local organizations, and they spread across the country.

Federated financing enabled community leaders to partner with charitable organizations, assess local needs, identify gaps and duplications in service, and arouse community support for local agencies. Greater community involvement also created a strong resource of lay leaders to serve on charitable boards and committees. But while the community chest potentially created new opportunities for funding, it also restricted program innovation and social activism. “Larger and smaller societies are confronted with the problem of what limits they must set to their work on the basis of financial possibilities,” Francis McLean noted in an August 1924 field report. “The community chest may be genuinely progressive or it may stand in the way of progress.”

“Community chests proved to be conservative forces in social welfare … The chests requested support not for individual agencies but for an organized pattern of welfare services that was tied to the social structure of the community. This, in turn, contested the independence and distinctiveness of the participating agencies, for the power of their purses, and thus their very existence was in the hands of outsiders—usually the community’s business and financial leaders—to whom they had to be accountable. To be funded, agencies were forced to play it safe … rather than to encourage social reform and change from the existing order.” (From Poor Law to Welfare State, Sixth Edition, Walter I. Trattner, The Free Press, New York, 1999)

Religious organizations founded many of the country’s earliest child and family service organizations. They were a vital force in the field. The association appointed a Committee on Casework and Religion in 1921 to examine how the two could more closely work together on behalf of people in need. The June 1926 report noted that Roman Catholic and Mormon communities had the most complete social casework program among all church bodies. Catholic Charities USA, for example, had full family and children’s social work departments operated by professional social workers on exactly the same lines as any well-established, non-sectarian social work agencies. The committee noted the involvement in professional social work that had long been carried out by Jewish charities. The committee recommended that theological seminaries introduce casework into their courses.

 The 1927 biennial conference opened a new period for the American Association for Organizing Family Social Work. It was held in Buffalo to commemorate the 50th anniversary of America’s first charity organization society in that city. Called The Conference on Family Life in America Today, the conference not only recommitted the association and its members to the enrichment of family life, it plunged them into new ideas and practices. The conference brought together leaders of the family welfare movement, biologists, sociologists, educators, religious leaders, family social workers, and writers. Mary Richmond, who helped organize the conference, succeeded in presenting family welfare as “the best possible touchstone of every new development in this country’s social, economic and cultural life.” (“Highlights in 1927 – 1928,” American Association for Organizing Family Social Work report, 1929)

A note appeared in the conference bulletin that Tuesday morning, Oct. 4, 1927: “Undersigned renegades send cordial greetings to celebrants of fiftieth anniversary of founding of family service in America … Best wishes for fifty more successful years. Don’t worry beyond that as the first hundred are the hardest.”

Based on this commitment to family life, the “Report on Future Programs,” presented to the 1929 conference, recommended future activities of the American Association for Organizing Family:

  • Development of a general family social work program to aid member agencies in development
  • Direct field contacts with a “thinking together” between the local agency and association field staff
  • A personnel service to aid in training, recruitment, and placement of staff; the American Association for Organizing Family committed to work with the Joint Vocational Service, develop scholarship resources, reformulate content and methods of training and curricula for family casework, and create additional training centers
  • Educational programs, institutes, and study groups to further develop the field

To mark the 50th anniversary of the charity organization movement, the American Association for Organizing Family created a new emblem in 1927. It was presented at the Buffalo biennial Conference on Family Life in America Today. Mary Richmond and artist Elizabeth Shippen Green envisioned the creed: “Light from Hand to Hand; Life from Age to Age.” In it the lighted torch is the symbol of the family as nurturer of the individual and bearer of the culture and tradition.

Social Work Achieves Professional Status

Rapid industrialization and the demands of the war years underscored the urgent need for trained social workers. For some years, social work had been moving from philanthropic activism to a professional vocation requiring scientific knowledge and practice. The White House Conference on Dependent Children and Youth in 1909 highlighted the role of social work, which lent it a new credibility.

The introduction of scientific theory irrevocably replaced the belief that social work required no more than good morals, a caring heart and a friendly disposition. The fields of psychiatry, clinical psychology, and sociology were exploding with new knowledge and techniques. Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, Carl Jung, Wilhelm Wundt, William James, and others lent fresh understanding of human development, personality and behavior. Intelligence tests now were widely in use. Child guidance and mental hygiene were new concerns, with a focus on prevention and early intervention. It was now recognized that the human condition was influenced by both heredity and social environment.

This new body of knowledge provided, for the first time, a scientific foundation for the work of charity organization societies. Casework and documentation, once the province of volunteer friendly visitors, increasingly required technical competence. The Family Welfare Society in Greenwich, Conn., (today’s Family Centers) is typical of many agencies of this era. In 1909, it employed a district visitor who worked with the town officials. Families appealed to the town for help, and the district visitor was sent to determine the families’ needs. By 1916, the agency had created the Social Service League with trained social workers who provided professional casework.

Mary Richmond was instrumental in transforming friendly visiting into professional casework. Her book, Social Diagnosis, published in 1917 by the Russell Sage Foundation, was the first textbook on social casework theory and method. It provided the family counseling field with a scientific foundation and modern skills to diagnose and treat family problems. It stimulated colleges and graduate schools to provide professional training in social work, and it was used as a core textbook for decades.

“The work … almost overnight helped raise casework from one of several instruments of the charity workers ... to a method and philosophy that was preeminent in the profession.” Social work was elevated to a professional status, and it opened new opportunities for women to enter professional careers. (From Poor Law to Welfare State, Sixth Edition, Walter I. Trattner, The Free Press, New York, 1999)

The American Association for Organizing Family offered numerous publications to further the field of social work. It began publishing The Family in 1920. Published today as Families in Society, it was and remains the primary organ of exchange among family service agencies. By 1931, it was read monthly by 10,000 social workers. The association also published a monthly newsletter and bulletins on family social work.

The association and many member agencies also partnered with schools of social work to help develop relevant curricula, create opportunities for field training, and place trained social workers. Associated Charities in Minneapolis (today’s The Family Partnership) was among those agencies that established training programs and set new standards for volunteers.

At its annual conference in 1924, Mary Richmond urged the American Association for Organizing Family to assume responsibility for its future development. Her audience was more than receptive: among those in attendance were 260 graduates of training institutes. The association created the Institute of Family Social Work the following year, directed by Frank Bruno, who had been general secretary of the Minneapolis Society and a graduate of a social work training institute. The institute, limited to 20 people, offered post-graduate training with an emphasis on casework technique and research. To encourage more professional training, the association created the Alice Higgins Lothrop Memorial Fund, named for a leader of Associated Charities of Boston (today’s Family Service of Greater Boston).

The American Association for Organizing Family also created the Round Table, intended for agency executives. Typically, caseworkers rose to the level of general secretary, but had little or no organizational and executive training. Extension courses for the staff of local agencies, group conferences, and inter-city conferences also were offered. The Milford Meetings, begun in 1925, brought together caseworkers from six allied fields to encourage learning and cooperation.

In addition, the association fostered the exchange of workers between societies for observation and hands-on work. It recognized the mutual enrichment that societies would gain by having a worker from another society work alongside its staff. One report from the 1920s, for example, cites a worker, about to begin his first executive position in family service, who spent two weeks observing the work of member family service agencies in four different cities, The Minneapolis Society borrowed a district secretary from Cincinnati, and the Columbus and Baltimore societies exchanged two workers for three months.

Read the next chapter from A Century of Service.

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Highlights from the 1920s

At the Mississippi Valley Conference in 1924, the weighty agenda also included a discussion of “the occasional injection of humor into staff meetings.” After much debate, the general secretaries agreed that humor sometimes was an effective means to defuse serious situations.

The 1927 American Association for Organizing Family Social Work Biennial Conference was held in Buffalo to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the local charity organization society there, the first established in the country. A note appeared in the conference bulletin on Tuesday morning, Oct. 4, 1927, “Undersigned renegades send cordial greetings to celebrants of fiftieth anniversary of founding of family service in America … Best wishes for fifty more successful years. Don’t worry beyond that as the first hundred are the hardest.”

Achieving Self Support, an association publication, reported in March 1926, “With the growth of closer relationships among our member societies, there has gradually developed through the association a greater group consciousness and a more concerted attack upon problems common to the whole movement.”