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Charity Organizations React

   Faced with the grim realities of the depression, many charity organization leaders began to change. Charity societies began publishing studies of the depression's effects. The studies of the 1890s evolved from the earlier friendly visitor investigations. They grew out of their intimacy with the situation's grim realities. The studies consistently suggested the need for new thinking about poverty. The old shibboleths commonly accepted as the major causes of poverty,low character, indolence, and intemperance, were replaced with more systemic theories.

   For example, one such study conducted in the city of New York found that only ten percent of the city's poverty was caused by shiftlessness and intemperance. The most substantial causes were found to be unemployment, sickness and industrial accidents. In 1896, Josephine Shaw Lowell, stalwart leader of the COS movement and previously a staunch proponent of traditional charity organization policies said,

It seems often as if the charities are the insults which the rich add to the injuries they heap upon the poor.

   Edward Devine, general secretary of the New York COS stated:

We may quite safely throw overboard, once and for all, the idea that the dependent poor are our moral inferiors, that there is any necessary connection between wealth and virtue, or between poverty and guilt.

   Even the charity organizations' most important attribute, its disdain for direct relief, changed under criticism and pressure produced by the depression. By turn of the century, two-thirds of all charity organization societies were directly involved with relief efforts.

Early Casework? 

   As the attitudes and policies of the charity organizations began to change, so, too, did the character of friendly visiting. Significance was placed on the visitors' investigations with a greater emphasis on objectivity. As visitors became more systematic and professional, a consensus spread that visitors needed training. The charity organization movement in New York began publishing a journal to disseminate new ideas in the field (1891). Training programs under the leadership of new professionals such as Mary Richmond sprang up around the country. In 1898 these activities culminated with the establishment of the New York Summer School For Applied Philanthropy. Volunteer visitors were replaced by "professional" social workers, some of whom now referred to themselves as "caseworkers."

   Early social work began with visitors who primarily relied on prayers and a Christian view of the world to help the poor. By the 1870s, volunteer friendly visitors applied their new scientific tools of investigation and moral uplift. In the 1890s, this approach evolved into more sophisticated and realistic tactics. The increased demand for more refined techniques required training and suggested the beginnings of a profession. The volunteer visitors of the 1880s became, in the 1890s, social workers. They attended training programs to upgrade their skills and returned to their agencies to take leadership positions for a salary. They no longer saw themselves as providers of friendship or moral uplift, but instead extended to their clients a professional relationship that aspired to be both scientific and objective.

   The early professional social workers also broadened the application of their new skills to include other types of charity work through expanding "casework" practice into child welfare institutions and juvenile courts. By the beginning of the 20th century, the volunteer friendly visitor of the early charity organizations had evolved into what we now identify as social casework.

A workingman celebrates the Sabbath in his basement room

Young orphans say their prayers

Mary Richmond

New York Summer School For Applied Philanthropy

A young family on relief

Adapted from

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

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