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Community Chests

   The profession's embrace of the clinical approach contributed to social work's conservative perspective in the 1920s.  The emergence of Community Chests added to the growing unpopularity of grass roots approaches by making hard for them to raise funds.  Heralded initially as a big step forward in fund raising, the community chest fund raising approach stifled agency creativity and punished more radical approaches to social problems.

   A co-operative and more efficient fund raising model had existed since the early days of the charity organization societies. However, the idea did not become popular until World War I. After the war, the concept of coordinated fund raising for local charities proliferated. In Nineteen-nineteen there were only 12 Community Chests, by 1930 there were 363.

   One big fund raising campaign was more efficient and less obtrusive than individual fund raising efforts, but it gave local business leaders a commanding position in many charities. More reform-minded agencies often found themselves being fiscally strangled. Settlement houses had a particularly difficult time getting their share of community chest funds and only those settlements that maintained their own independent fund raising programs were able to maintain a presence as community organizers.


   In 1925, the president of the new American Association of Social Workers delivered a keynote address entitled,"Is Social Work A Profession? A Re-examination of the Question". This paper strongly made the case for professional status and was widely accepted as an effective rejoinder to Dr. Flexner's earlier denial.

   There is no doubt that casework's strong link to psychiatry and Freudian theory in large part accounted for this new, improved, professional image. Many social workers felt that the new dominance of psychiatric social work helped shed the profession of its stigmatizing attachment to the poor. They viewed this traditional link with the poverty population as an encumbrance in the quest for professional status. No longer would the social worker be viewed solely as a charity worker delivering relief and moral uplift, but rather as therapist who could employ new sophisticated psychiatric skills in aiding poor, middle class or even affluent clients.

   There are other problems however, Social work’s strong identification with psychiatric techniques and theories led historian Walter Tratner to summarizes some of the more obvious flaws:

"More significant, was the fact that psychiatry which at first seemed to be a blessing that would elevate social work to its deeply cherished professional status created serious long term problems for the field. Aside from undermining the capacity and desire for social workers to promote change and deal with mass deprivation in an urban society, psychiatry threatened the very professional identity which social workers were so anxious to attain, for if psychiatric knowledge was fundamental to the profession, what distinguished psychiatric social work from psychotherapy, except for social work's inferior education and training? Were psychiatric social workers mere handmaidens to psychiatrists?"

A settlement house group studies English.

Some were concerned that poor children would be forgotten by the new social workers.

Adapted from

Special thanks to the late Professor Dan Huff and Boise State University School of Social Work

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