Encyclopedia of Social Work is now a consistently updated digital resource. Visit About to learn more, meet the editorial board, or explore the latest articles.

Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the Encyclopedia of Social Work, accessed online. (c) National Association of Social Workers and Oxford University Press USA, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the applicable license agreement governing use of the Encyclopedia of Social Work accessed online, an authorized individual user may print out a PDF of a single article for personal use, only (for details see Privacy Policy).

date: 21 September 2017

Social Policy: History (Colonial Times to 1900)

Abstract and Keywords

American social welfare began in the colonial period with the adoption of the Elizabethan Poor Laws as the basis for treatment of society's poor and deviant. By the beginning of the Progressive Era (1900), immigration, the Women's Movement, scientific investigation of social problems, and societal growth produced significant innovations in both public and private perceptions, programs, and treatment in such areas as poor relief, mental and physical health, and corrections, and led to the beginnings of professionalization of social work.

Keywords: Charity Organization Society, Child-Saving Movement, Elizabethan Poor Laws, friendly visitors, protestant work ethic, Settlement House Movement

Colonial Social Welfare: 1607–1776

The few French and Spanish settlements of colonial America followed the European Catholic charity traditions of aiding the poor through almsgiving, shelter, health care, and so on, while English colonists imported the harsher Elizabethan Poor Laws and the Protestant Work Ethic, which equated work with morality and deemed the poor immoral, denying them any kind of charity unless they worked in return.

As early as 1632, town authorities assigned “overseers of the poor” to investigate poverty and problems such as physical and mental disabilities, crime, or vagrancy. Their tasks were to assess need, collect and distribute funds (from a combination of taxes, private donations, church collections), and decide the fates of needy or deviant townspeople (Day, 2006, pp. 144–146). Work was required of all, and so almsgiving (poor relief) was meager, since people believed that it discouraged work and contributed to immorality. War veterans were exceptions: from as early as 1616, they, their survivors, and their dependents were allotted pensions, and by 1777 almost every colony had veterans' benefits (Compton, 1980, p. 198).

The Poor Laws categorized public dependents as worthy or impotent poor (aged or mentally or physically impaired) and perhaps deserving of aid; unworthy poor (sturdy beggars—able-bodied adults in poverty); and dependent children—poor, unwanted, abandoned, or orphaned. Laws requiring family and local responsibility for public dependents were passed in 1662 and 1675, respectively. The Law of Settlement (1662) required towns to supply food, firewood, clothing, and household essentials for their poor. But alternatives were also used for penalties, which ranged from stocks and pillory to whippings and tar and feathering; “warning out,” which warned strangers that they could expect no help if they entered town, and warned residents that if they had no incomes they could be indentured or forced from the community to other towns or to die in the forests; auctioning whole families or individuals to work for their keep; placing them in prisons, workhouses, or almshouses; and hanging. Dependent children usually shared their parents' fates, though they may also be placed in almshouses, orphanages, or apprenticeship; or auctioned off (“sold”) to families, work schools, and factories. Some work was demanded of children as young as 3 years (Grob, 1976, p. 6–7).

The most popular solution was for the local authorities to place all public dependents (those who had no means to support themselves or their children and so had to depend on local governments for food, shelter, clothing, and so forth) in institutions, which included almshouses, workhouses, orphanages, asylums, and prisons, as soon as they could afford them. All emphasized work rehabilitation, but their purposes were primarily to control or warehouse society's unwanted. Inmates were not segregated based on sex, age, or reason for incarceration—crime, poverty, insanity, age, or physical disability. Local administrators were paid “by the head,” and care and sustenance depended on keepers' largesse, inmates' ability to pay, or kindness from other inmates. Thousands died from a combination of starvation, freezing, epidemics, lack of medical care, and violent deaths, but this was acceptable because it rid towns of “social burdens” (Grob, 1976, pp. 6–7, 48–53).

Policies Concerning Poverty and Dependency

Institutionalization (“indoor relief ”), meager poor relief, and individual responsibility for subsistence remained unchanged well into the 1700s. Toward mid-century, the Enlightenment and evangelical religious movements (1730–1750) aroused interest in the causes and remedies of social problems, especially poverty. The Revolutionary War had little effect on attitudes and policies toward the poor, but the Enlightenment that accompanied it brought attention to their needs, especially for children. Catholic charities and Quakers began to open orphanages both for children without parents and unwanted children, including African American children, and expanded charitable work into local work in communities. Philanthropists founded schools for blind and deaf children and began to investigate lack of employment, drunkenness, ill health, and other causes for public dependency. Mill work, especially in the South, became placements for women and poor children, and more poorhouses and old age homes were opened. Although the poor were still blamed for not overcoming their poverty through work, for the first time critics looked at sociostructural problems as causative.

In 1818, a report by the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism blamed these problems on drunkenness and work immorality, the belief that not working was in itself immoral. This position was reiterated in an 1824 report by New York's Secretary of State John V. N. Yates (see Yates, 1900) and again in 1832 by John Tuckerman, who began a ministry to the poor in that era. Each report generally condemned outdoor relief and made several recommendations: division of cities into wards for welfare administration; community-wide planned giving through a central agency; private rather than public charities for temporary poor relief distribution; and trained “friendly visitors” (later to become social workers) to investigate need and distribute alms, advice, and moral support. The reports also recommended employment bureaus, savings banks, mutual aid societies, and insurance programs to address employment hazards (a forerunner of today's later workers' compensation programs) (Compton, 1980, p. 236).

Other Social Welfare Policy Areas

Physical and public health problems, mental illness, crime and delinquency, and the need for public education were areas that states and localities began to tackle along with private charity. All these were aggravated by the growing immigrant population that arrived during different periods in the 18th and 19th centuries.

As early as 1647, Massachusetts legislated public schools, and free schools proliferated in the 1700s. By 1802 some states ordered overseers of the poor to set up free education for poor children, and the Catholic Church opened free schools beginning in 1809. New York legislated a 3 months' school year in 1812, and Massachusetts increased its school year to 9 months in 1852. Drs. John Sanford and T. Gallaudet, among others, began work with blind and deaf children as early as 1817, and this led John Fisher and Samuel Howe to establish in 1819 what would become Perkins Institute. In 1846 Perkins expanded to offer treatment and education for developmentally disabled children.

Compulsory education was one solution to the growing numbers of unsupervised and undisciplined children who contributed to the crime and chaos in many cities. Another solution was the Reformatory movement, led by the Society for Reformation for Juvenile Delinquents, which in 1825 opened the House of Refuge, a combined prison, factory, and school. These institutions emerged throughout the states, with reformatories for boys opened in 1847, and a cottage system for girls opening in 1854. With new research, the emphasis on work and education rather than punishment as rehabilitation made New York's Elmira Reformatory, established in 1870, a model for others (Platt, 1977, p. 73). Along with elements of prevention of cruelty to children, the child-saving movement was derived from the belief that poverty was genetic but that children could be saved if taken from bad environments and placed in homes where they could learn the value of hard work. Child-savers took children from parents whom they deemed “bad,” often because they were poor, or even kidnapped them from city streets and put them on trains to the West. At each stop, some were chosen by local people to work on farms, often to death, though some found happy homes. The reformatory and child-saving movements both worked for children's legal rights, and one result was that in 1869, state agents were appointed to ensure fair court trials of delinquents and take responsibility for children's probation.

For adults, colonial workhouses were the original prisons. Boston built the first House of Correction in 1660 for criminals and the able-bodied poor, and over the next century they spread throughout the colonies, evolving into prisons. Not until 1776 did the workhouse concept change, as Quakers theorized that penitence for deviance could be achieved through silence and solitary confinement. Their belief led them to open penitentiaries, where the able-bodied poor, debtors, and vagrants, as well as criminals, would work hard, pray, and meditate on the error of their ways, and receive rehabilitation rather than punishment. Their first penitentiary opened in 1823, and their innovations appeared in later institutions such as Sing Sing (New York, 1825) and San Quentin (California, 1852). In the last half of the century, new architectural designs provided more efficient supervision, and rehabilitation became the treatment goal. Probation for those convicted of lesser crimes began in 1852, under Isaac Hopper, who informally helped discharged prisoners, and Boston's John Augustus, who, in agreement with the courts, supervised people who committed minor offenses, and posted their bail rather than see them imprisoned. With his own money he provided rehabilitation for them, and became a model for social workers in the field of probation.

Mental and physical illness, including public health issues, became humanitarian concerns before and after the country was founded. Though in 1676 Massachusetts enacted a law instructing towns to provide care and protect the public, for the next century most mentally ill people had little or no care, whether left with their families or placed in almshouses. Disturbed by such inhumane treatment, in 1755 Thomas Bond and Benjamin Franklin secured room for the mentally ill in the cellar of the Philadelphia hospital they founded. The first colony-wide mental hospital opened in Virginia in 1769, and in 1783, Dr. Benjamin Rush developed “moral treatment” for the insane, which became the prototype for future asylums (Compton, 1980, p. 76). The Marine Hospitals Service (later the Department of Public Health) opened the first medical school (1765) and first federal public health program (1789) (Day, 2006, p. 235). As early as 1791 in New York's general hospitals often had areas set aside for the mentally ill. Not until 1870 did the first state hospital open (Willard). When Bellevue opened in 1906, it developed a medical social work unit to help patients and outpatients, including the mentally ill.

Immigration and Social Welfare

Massive immigration in the mid-19th century brought vast numbers of the ill, unemployed, and destitute to the United States and overwhelmed local almshouses. Most of them came from Ireland after the potato famines of the 1850s. New York City turned the whole of Ward's Island into a hospital, refuge for the unemployable, and nursery and school for orphans and unwanted children (Compton, 1980, p. 226). As thousands crowded into tenements and cellars, public health concerns grew (Hymowitz & Weissman 1980, p. 195), and lack of sanitation, crowding, inability to find work, crime, delinquency, epidemics, and starvation killed thousands. The Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, organized in 1843 by Robert Hartley, opposed to almsgiving; it eventually changed its stand in response to the time's enormous human difficulties and by 1877 became a major private poor relief agency.

Racial and Ethnic Minorities

Ethnic groups, including those of African descent, Finns, Poles, and Chinese, began mutual aid and insurance societies (Seller, 1984, p. 179). To give support to young people, Jewish centers for boys and girls opened in the 1840s, and Protestant groups opened young men's Christian associations beginning in 1851 and young women's Christian associations in 1866. Numerous private agencies concerned with child care, drunkenness, moral reform, employment, and health care were created, including the Salvation Army, Volunteers of America, Florence Crittenton Homes, and Boys and Girls Clubs. The Catholic Church built orphanages, schools, and hospitals and instituted highly effective outdoor relief programs through Catholic Charities, St. Vincent de Paul Societies, and Sisters of Charity.

With the exception of concern for children's education, neither public nor private agencies gave aid to people of color. Until the Civil War, slaves were subject to plantation rule and freed persons had access to help only from their churches and mutual aid societies. Later, this “race work,” which is defined as African Americans aiding other African Americans, laid the foundations of African American social work (Schiele, 2000). Native Americans did not have citizenship, and following their banishment to reservations, received no government aid except meager allotments often stolen by Indian agents appointed by the federal government. Native American children were sent to boarding schools, less to educate them than to take away their languages and cultures. People of color had some access to Catholic charities but were denied mainline assistance. Asian immigrants, mainly from Philippines and China, who were brought to United States to build railroads, could rely only on their mutual aid societies.

After the Civil War, the Freeman's Bureau (1865–1872) was a federally funded agency designed to aid former slaves, but it evolved into a full service agency for all. It provided finances, land, counsel and advice, education, community action, and children and family services. Though extremely successful and a model of state and federal cooperation, it was eliminated by the Reconstruction Congress in 1876, which feared federal encroachment on states' rights as White politicians regained control of the South.

Women and the Beginning of Social Work

Although men continued to control social welfare throughout the 1800s, women from middle and upper economic classes influenced new humanitarian movements, first in women's rights and antislavery movements and then in other social concerns. Among early women leaders were Emma Willard, who opened the Troy Seminary for Women in 1821; Angelina and Sarah Grimke, avid abolitionists; women's rights leaders Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony. Dorothea Dix in 1843 convinced the Massachusetts legislature of its moral obligation to the mentally ill. This resulted in her Ten Million Acre Bill, proposed to the United States Congress in 1848 to provide treatment for the indigent insane. This was a milestone for women's status in social welfare, even though President Franklin Pierce vetoed the bill. Drs. Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska set a new benchmark for women in medicine by establishing health centers for poor women (Seller, 1984, pp. 97–98).

During the Civil War, women developed essential services for the Union. Drs. Blackwell and Zakrewska, along with Clara Barton and Dorothea Dix, formed the Women's Central Association of Relief on the Battlefield, which became the U.S. Sanitary Commission. The Commission trained nurses for battlefield duty, set up a mobile hospital on the railroad, provided medical and health services, staffed field hospitals, and provided social services, including informing relatives of war deaths, transporting the wounded, distributing relief to dependents, and counseling soldiers and their families. Women's societies in the North gathered the food and clothing distributed by the Commission (Jacobs, 1976, p. 98). For poorer women, the Civil War meant new opportunities for better-paid employment previously reserved for men, as nurses, teachers, secretaries, and workers in the expanding field of social services.

Social Welfare: The Progressive Era

There were several trends that were evident during the last half of the 19th century that influenced early 20th social welfare and social work. These were the movement from state to federal organization and the divergence of private and public charities, as private charities moved toward reforming individual clients and public bureaucracies toward provision of money, and specifically, (a) the child welfare (“child-saving”) movement, (b) the Charity Organization Society (COS), and (c) the Settlement House Movement. Child-saving developed from the Reformatory and orphanage movements that removed juveniles from almshouses and adult prisons to become child rights advocacy programs. It was spurred by the Mary Ellen child abuse case in 1875. The movement aided in promoting new protective legislation, research in child psychology, and charities oriented to child and family counseling. Its first Children's Aid Societies opened in New York in 1853 and Boston in 1864, and the movement evolved into Child and Family Services in the mid-1900s.

Charity Organization Societies (COSs), first organized in Buffalo in 1877, developed centralized community cooperative agencies and central client registries, and trained friendly visitors (caseworkers). COSs promoted the coordination services of and private fundraising for private agencies at both local and national levels, which became the United Way organizations of the mid-1900s. In 1882, Josephine Shaw Lowell established New York's COS, and in 1876 she became the first woman member of the New York State Board of Charities (Coll, 1971, p. 61).

Finally, in the last decade of the 1800s, the Settlement House Movement led by Lillian Wald in New York's Henry Street Settlement, and, in Chicago, Jane Addams and the women of Hull House (established in 1887) became a reality in America. On the basis of a model from Toynbee Hall in London, England, their goals were to provide safe houses where women, particularly immigrants, could become educated for citizenship and become employable. Settlement houses became centers for social action and client-oriented practices from which developed group work, community practice, and policy advocacy promoting new legislation for children, women, and workers.

As social welfare moved to state and national levels, State Boards of Charities and Corrections began, first in New York (1858) and Massachusetts (1863). Other states soon adopted their model, charged with the goal of inspecting asylums, hospitals, almshouses, industrial schools, and publicly supported charities. In 1865 state boards organized nationally in the American Social Science Association (1865), which later became the National Conference on Social Welfare. In 1874, the National Conference of Boards and Public Charities formed, evolving into State Departments of Public Welfare that supported poor relief through county boards of supervisors. By the 1890s, most public funding had been withdrawn from private agencies except those for the aged, and the government assumed responsibility for income maintenance, care for the aged, disabilities and deaths related to employment, public health, and corrections.

The Beginning of the Profession

In 1882, Pennsylvania's Children's Aid Society became the first to train friendly visitors, the predecessors of professional social workers. In 1893, Boston Associated Charities began to pay workers to learn COS techniques developed under the leadership of Mary Richmond, who conducted a series of conferences defining the meaning and practice of casework and the importance of person-in-situation counseling. In 1897, Richmond developed a curriculum for a philanthropic school (Day, 2005, pp. 237–238), and in 1898, with the cooperation of the New York COS, sponsored a course in applied philanthropy that evolved into the New York School of Philanthropy in 1901. At the same time, the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy opened to train caseworkers and administrators of social agencies, becoming the Institution of Social Sciences in 1903–1904 and later the Chicago School of Social Service Administration.


From the colonial period to the Progressive Era, social welfare's roots remained firmly embedded in the Elizabethan Poor Laws. They dictated that poverty and deviance were personal rather than societal problems, with hard work rather than public aid the cure. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, family and local responsibilities, categorization of poor, and institutional placement provided the solution to social problems. In the 1700s new humanitarian and scientific interests began to differentiate social needs, leading to new perspectives and programs in the 1800s. The women's movement, massive immigration, and the Civil War led to the divergence of private and public care systems and the proliferation and diversification of social welfare agencies organized at the state and then the national level, and training for caseworkers and administrations led to social work as a profession steeped in the dual approaches of casework and community organization, of work with individuals and families, and advocacy and policy change.


Coll, B. (1971). Perspectives in public welfare: A history. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.Find this resource:

Compton, B. R. (1980). Introduction to social welfare: Structure, function, and process. Homewood, IL: The Dorsey Press.Find this resource:

Day, P. J. (2006). A new history of social welfare (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.Find this resource:

Grob, G. N. (1976). The state and public welfare in nineteenth century America. New York: Arno Press.Find this resource:

Hymowitz, C., & Weissman, M. (1980). A history of women in America. New York: Bantam Books.Find this resource:

Jacobs, W. J. (1976). Women in American history. Encino, CA: Glencoe.Find this resource:

Platt, A. B. (1977). The child-savers: The invention of delinquency (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

Schiele, J. (2000). Human services and the Afrocentric paradigm. New York: Haworth Press.Find this resource:

Seller, M. (1984). Immigrant women. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.Find this resource:

Yates, J. V. N. (1900). Report of the Secretary of State in 1824 on the relief and settlement of the poor. Reprinted in the 34th Annual Report of the State Board of Charities of the State of New York (Vol. 1, pp. 939–963).Find this resource: