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Social work in the past – rare wisdom

After frustrating years in social work, I came across an article I wished I’d seen when I was in school about social work in the l9th century.  In those days social workers saw some of the poor as improvident and irresponsible.  If a man came to a social agency hungry, he had to chop wood to get a meal.  If a woman came, she had to sew to get a meal.  This sorted out those who wouldn’t work, and made those who would, feel they had done something to earn their meal.

If a person needed further aid, his background was checked and he was categorized as:

  1. a. Unwilling to work.
  2. b. Willing to work.
  3. c. Unable to work, through no fault of his own, and worthy of relief.

When giving short term relief, the charity gave:   in small quantities, the minimum, what was least susceptible to abuse, less than what the person could get by working, and for the shortest period of time.

When the relief was long term, the charity would:

  1. Restore the ties between the person and his family and friends.
  2. Get their assistance.
  3. Assign a volunteer to the person. 
  4. Require the person to work.  This helped those who were motivated.  Nothing was more demoralizing to those who worked than loafers or the criminal poor who got by or ahead without working.
  5. Meet the person only half way.  Handouts were seen to be as dangerous as drugs; dependency was ‘slavery with a smiling mask’.  Welfare was the worst as it came to be regarded as a right.  [In England it had to be set below the lowest wage so people would  look for work.]

In those days, knowing when not to give assistance was seen as important as when to give it.  This also helped fund-raising efforts, as donors knew their money was used efficiently.

These practices continued until the l890s when the ‘Social Gospel’ emerged, claiming:

  1. None of the poor were improvident, intemperate, lazy, or irresponsible.
  2. Charity must be universal and unconditional.  
  3. Requiring a person to work for a meal was cruel.
  4. A person would not change if challenged, but would change when put in a pleasant material environment where his benevolent nature could come out.  Thus government was to provide agreeable housing.
  5. Compassion equaled money.
  6. Raising money through taxes forced compassion from the public.
  7. Professional social workers were best; volunteers got in the way.
  8. Private charities were bad as they made it easy for government to evade responsibility.

The l960s accelerated this.  Welfare was given on the basis of entitlement, not need, with the result that the poor were worse off, with less hope, less pride, less reason to work, and greater resentment over being dependent. 


Welfare has broken up families, set fatherless boys on the streets, and polarized those who work against those who don’t.  Bad charity (welfare) has driven out good.  The list goes on.  We’d do well to study the past.

3 Responses to “Social work in the past – rare wisdom”

I thank you humbly for sharing your wisdom.

  • Anonymous August 12th, 2011 2:31 pm

God helps those who help themselves.

  • Anonymous January 27th, 2012 1:57 am

This is the perfect way to break down this ifnromtaion.

  • Anonymous November 14th, 2012 7:22 am
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