Chapter 1: Early Charity Philosophies Shape Future (Early 1900s)

The early philosophies and practices of American social welfare were rooted in the English Poor Law, which was codified in 1601. Settlers in the American colonies adapted the Poor Law’s principles to the new country’s beliefs in democracy as well as individual rights and freedoms. Social welfare was influenced heavily by religious ideas, such as saving souls, and a moral duty to help those in need.

People of sound mind and body were expected to work and take care of their families. Relatives and neighbors were responsible for helping family members in need. If they were unable to do so, the local community, which was usually organized around a parish, was obliged to help. Ultimately, local officials were responsible for providing relief.

Charity was afforded only to those at the very margins of society—the “dependent, defective and delinquent.” Dependent poor were a plentiful source of cheap labor and were literally “farmed out.” Children were bound out as apprentices, and adults were sent to the workhouse. Both children and adults were placed with other families and the host family was paid for the service. It was, perhaps, a precursor of foster care, but it lacked the well-intentioned motivation of later years that a family setting was the best placement for a child.

Religious, ethnic and fraternal groups created almshouses and other programs to look after their own. The Scots’ Charitable Society, founded in Boston in 1657, is the oldest American charitable organization still in existence. In the early 1650s, Scots captured in battle by English forces were sold as indentured servants. Many were sent to work in an English-owned ironworks factory in Massachusetts. “Our benevolence is for the releefe of our selves being Scottishmen,” stated the founders of the Boston Society (Scots’ Charitable Society of Boston).

The 19th century was a period of sweeping transformation. Abundant prosperity alternated with civil war, bank panics and depression. Rapid industrialization led to equally rapid urbanization and immigration. The port cities along the Eastern Seaboard swelled with vast numbers of new immigrants.

Loosely-organized voluntary charitable groups developed to address the emergent problems of the day: pauperism, widows and orphans, mistreatment of animals, and epidemics along with natural disasters that ravaged entire cities. A sense of humanitarian moral responsibility vied with the belief that the misfortunate were responsible for their plight and should help themselves.

The New York Society for the Prevention of Pauperism was founded in 1817. The panic of 1819 and subsequent depression led to rapid development of similar societies. By the 1820s, states were forming commissions to assess administration of public charity. Poor farms and public institutions were created for orphans, the deaf, tuberculosis patients, delinquent youth and prisoners. The United States government created the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1824, and it was the first federal effort to provide direct welfare services.

Orphanages are Among the First Organized Charities

Since the earliest recorded histories, most cultures have provided for their abandoned, vulnerable children: family helping family, neighbor helping neighbor, and religious congregation helping members. With the population explosion, rampant disease, and peripatetic society of America’s 19th century, orphanages proliferated.

The first known orphanage in America was founded in 1795. By 1900, there were about 1,000. Many arose in response to the needs of immigrants living in poverty. Others followed in the wake of war, depression or epidemic disease.

Many children living in orphanages were not parentless. Some had lost one parent and the surviving parent was unable to care for the children. Some were placed there because their parents were impoverished, seriously ill or disabled. In some cases, the orphanage was intended to be a temporary placement until the child could return home or until another suitable home could be found. In others, the orphanage became a home until the child reached adulthood. Residents would be taught a vocation, receive an education, and then “graduate” upon maturation. Fresh country air, hard work and a structured environment were thought to equip children with good morals and a tough constitution.

Religious institutions were a primary sponsor of orphanages. They instilled the beliefs and values of the religion, and they also were an important means of preserving the language and culture of immigrants. Private charities and public departments also founded charities and other forms of institutional care, such as mental asylums and almshouses.

Today’s Hillside Family of Agencies in Rochester, N.Y., illustrates the trajectory of the many Alliance member agencies that were founded as orphanages. Following the cholera epidemic, the fast-growing village of Rochester, N.Y. had an increasing number of children needing aid. The Rochester Female Association for the Relief of Orphans and Destitute Children, which was later named the Rochester Orphan Asylum, was formed and admitted its first charges from the local almshouse in 1837. These were children who no longer had parents to care for them because of death, prison or indigence. The orphanage continued to grow and began to admit many children who were not orphaned, but who came from families in crisis.

By the turn of the century, the concept of child residential treatment had changed. Homer Folks, a pioneer in the child welfare movement, was among the progressives who argued that the best setting for children was in their own home. Rather than removing children from dysfunctional families, the focus should be to improve their family situations. Institutionalization was to be avoided. If children could not remain at home, then a foster home or the most home-like setting possible should be provided. The first White House Conference on Dependent Children in 1909 and the creation of the U.S. Children’s Bureau in 1912 supported this philosophy. The new widow’s pension laws made it easier for single mothers to support their children.

The Rochester Orphan Asylum was an early adapter. It debuted an innovative cottage system in 1905 to create a home-like setting within the structure of the institution.

By the 1920s, institutionalization was falling out of favor. A family setting, whether it was through foster care or adoption, was recognized as the best environment for children. “Gone were the days when ‘benevolent’ middle and upper class women would take a child from his or her home and place them in an institution, sheltered from the evil world and defective parenting. Banished were words like orphanage and asylum. If a child couldn’t be helped from within the framework of the family he or she would be removed only on a temporary basis and put into an institution more like a ‘normal’ home than any asylum of the past century had ever been. Children who could not be returned to their biological families for a while, if ever, were placed in foster care.” (A New Era in Child Care, Jane Yunker)

Civil War Heightens Need

The War Between the States prompted federal health and social welfare programs. Army camps and hospitals were riddled with disease, lacked trained medical care, and had no preventive sanitary measures. The first national public health group, the U.S. Sanitary Commission, was created in 1861. Private groups mobilized to provide food, clothing, medical supplies, and a nursing corps. State boards of health were formed and implemented sanitation practices. Numerous charitable organizations were founded to care for widows and orphans; among them were many members of today’s Alliance for Children and Families.

The United States government created the first federal social welfare organization just before the war ended; the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands provided temporary relief to freed slaves. Operating from 1865 to 1872, the bureau provided rations, education, legal aid, health care, job training, housing, and other resettlement services.

The bureau provided relief on an unprecedented scale—the first indication that if poverty and hardship could not be remedied at the local level, the federal government could successfully provide for the welfare of the people. Such massive, sustained social welfare was not seen again until the Great Depression necessitated federal action. (From Poor Law to Welfare State, Sixth Edition, Walter I. Trattner, The Free Press, New York, 1999)


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