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Delivering Aid: Implementing Progressive Era Welfare in the American West

Author(s):Krainz, Thomas A.
Reviewer(s):Saunders, Dawn

Published by EH.NET (April 2006)

Thomas A. Krainz, Delivering Aid: Implementing Progressive Era Welfare in the American West. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005. xiv + 325 pp. $37.50 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-8263-3025-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Dawn Saunders, Department of History, Geography, Economics, and Politics, Castleton State College.

So was the United States’ Progressive Era really all that progressive? Not very, suggests historian Thomas Krainz, at least in terms of policies and practices regarding public aid to the poor. In his richly researched project on public aid in Colorado, Krainz finds that rather than a period marking the birth of the modern welfare state, there was instead, largely, considerable continuity with nineteenth-century outdoor aid practice — means-tested and often degrading efforts at in-kind or cash assistance, generally of short duration, that largely maintained the discipline imposed on the poor by the country’s inheritance of English poor law customs; as such, these programs were structurally inadequate due to a failure to fund through adequate taxation, a distrust in the honesty and efficiency of public aid administration, and a belief in the need to avoid the sin of “pauperization” or permanent dependency on the public purse.

These findings, Krainz notes, diverge considerably from the recent findings of social historians, such as Gwendolyn Mink, Linda Gordon, and Theda Skocpol, that have found that the period marked a “turning point” in the delivery of aid, particular in regard to mothers’ pensions, state-legislated programs that purportedly marked an acknowledgement of a new role and responsibility for the state, as identifying classes of citizens who were deserving of aid because of the roles they played in society. In the case of widowed mothers, the story goes, the state stepped in when the husband died and provided support not as a form of charity, but in return for the services provided by the women to the state and society, through the raising of the next generation of citizens.

But, asks Krainz, did anybody actually ask the folks receiving aid if this, in fact, is how these programs affected them? Krainz finds that even in Colorado, the home of Judge Ben Lindsey, the nationally known advocate of the juvenile court system and mothers’ pensions, the record shows that the recipients of aid faced little change in their circumstances from the institution of “Progressive Era” welfare policy.

Krainz pursues this project by examining several different kinds of policies, including institutional aid (poor farms and tuberculosis hospitals), public outdoor relief, charitable and voluntary association aid, mothers’ aid, and blind benefits, across several counties and the city of Denver, reflecting Colorado’s range of cultural and racial differences and local economic circumstances. Krainz finds considerable diversity in how public aid in particular was delivered, rooted largely in local circumstances, as aid was locally funded, and administered by local county commissioners. Thus, for example, a widow in a prosperous mining county would generally be expected to achieve self-support through providing a variety of market services — housekeeping, cooking, cleaning and (even if not socially acknowledged) prostitution — to the large numbers of bachelors who worked and lived in the company towns, and thus would not receive much aid for very long; whereas a widow who resided in a farming community would be in very different circumstances, requiring more aid and perhaps for longer duration, or assistance in relocating to a region more suited to self-support. Residents of Mexican-American communities relied more on religious-based voluntary associations and did not receive much aid from the usually Anglo local commissioners. Native Americans struggled to maintain treaty-based entitlements on their reservations. In Denver aid was shaped by long-lasting turf wars between political machines and professional charity workers.

Colorado was certainly affected by the wave of reform spirit that filled newspapers and journals of the period, and as noted, Judge Lindsey’s influence helped in the creation of a nationally touted juvenile court system, and Colorado became the second state, after Illinois, to pass a state-wide mothers’ pension law, which enabled counties to create tax funds towards establishing and administering pensions locally. But in practice, while changes occurred in local recipients’ experiences over the early decades of the twentieth century, these changes came more from economic factors, such as the decline of the mines, and from the ascendancy or decline of various political entities, such as political machines and the Ku Klux Klan, than from Progressive Era reform intent. Mothers’ pensions, in particular, largely appeared to fizzle out as a practical effort to affect the lives of widowed mothers. Few counties actually enacted and funded programs, and when enacted, the result was generally the movement of recipients from one welfare roll to another, with the only practical change being the greater availability of cash rather than in-kind relief. Krainz thereby concludes that the failure of the mothers’ pensions to initiate real change “rests with the fact that the new pension laws largely left local communities in control of implementation” (180). Thus, they did not initiate the dawning of the welfare state, either in Colorado or elsewhere in the nation, as Colorado’s experiences were shared by other states that had enacted mothers’ pension laws.

By contrast, Krainz finds that Colorado’s Blind Benefits program really was a break with tradition that it did, in fact, “transform the welfare state,” as blind benefit activists — mostly blind themselves — effectively utilized rhetoric that had been successful in achieving pensions for Civil War veterans to find the blind to be intrinsically deserving of aid, especially in Colorado, where much adult blindness was caused by industrial or mining accidents. Blinded men, they argued, were deserving of aid to support themselves and their families, preserving their gendered place in society. But unlike mothers’ pensions, which were relegated to the usual local authorities to dispense, and were lacking centralized oversight or adequate funding, blind activists studied national pension laws and determined that an appropriate law must provide for centralized supervision and state-level funding. The blind benefits law provided for one-half state funding for each pension, providing local authorities incentives to comply with the law, and the amount of aid was generally double or triple the maximum amounts available to widows. Moreover, the program itself was administered largely by the blind community itself and their sighted allies. However, the heyday of the blind benefits program was short-lived, as political currents of the 1920s (including the rise of the Ku Klux Klan as a statewide political force) transformed the program into one more closely resembling other forms of aid.

This book is a pleasure to read, as through Krainz’s effective use of period documents, literature and journalism, it brings to life in vivid detail personal experiences of aid recipients, political turmoil and turnover, and some very prominent local citizens involved in the determination and administration of aid. But is Krainz correct that the Progressive Era was not a true beginning of the welfare state? I think that depends on how one thinks that beginning should be defined. What if one considers — rather than the immediate practical effects (administrative practices and the personal experience of recipients — the idea behind Progressive Era policies and their actual fruition in the period in such programs as workers’ compensation, wage and hour regulations for women workers, and juvenile courts, and later development into New Deal policies such as Aid to Dependent Children? Skocpol’s (1992) analysis of the development of this idea — through soldiers’ and mothers’ pensions — is, I believe, actually still appropriate. There was a new notion about the role of the state that caught on during this period, and it had actual practical effects in many policies, and these did indeed form the models from which New Deal policies developed. These programs did not arise out of nothing in the 1930s. They were based on Progressive Era models, including mothers’ pensions; those involved, for example, in advocating and lobbying for Aid to Dependent Children while it was being considered by Edwin Witte’s Social Security Committee, had studied the best and the worse of the mothers’ pension programs and based their recommendations on their findings.

In my own work on Massachusetts’ Mothers’ Aid program, I found, as Krainz did, that actual aid received by recipients was largely based on local economic circumstances, as local (town, rather than county) officials administered the aid. Regression analysis of aid received by recipients in a number of Massachusetts towns was found to be significantly affected by the economic base of the community (specifically whether the town offered textile employment, which employed large numbers of women and working-age children), and also by marital status (deserted or widowed) and by the numbers and ages of children. That families still were held to nineteenth century standards of self-support to some degree was evident in, for example, the fact that families with working-age children had less aid than would have been predicted by the number of younger children, indicating that working-age children were expected to contribute to their families’ support, at least in communities that offered them reasonable employment opportunities (Saunders 1994).

However, I concluded that Mothers’ Aid was indeed a substantial departure from earlier practice in Massachusetts. Under the Massachusetts law, communities were provided with one-third state support, and centralized supervision of the delivery of aid. Communities were expected to offer adequate aid, although the programs were locally administered and thus showed tremendous variation in aid grants. Overall, however, Massachusetts’ program was the most generous in the nation, and was praised by contemporary researchers such as Mary Bogue and Grace Abbott as a model for other states. Boston’s expenditures on public relief rose from $76,250 in 1912 (the year before Mothers’ Aid went into affect) to $405,815 in 1914, after incorporating the new program — a level of increase surely befitting the more recent phrase, “welfare explosion” (Boston Overseers of the Poor 1913, 1915).

Krainz’s point that, in general, mothers’ pension programs did not live up to their Progressive billing is certainly not new. Frances Piven and Richard Cloward (1983) have, in fact, described them as “trivial,” while others (Abromovitz 1988, Gordon 1988) suggest that the inadequacies and meagerness stressed by Krainz actually highlight the role of these new programs to discipline women to their gendered place in society, and were in that way precursors to the “two-tiered” gender-based welfare structure that unfolded with the New Deal. And, of course, the failings of the programs were well known to contemporary observers such as Bogue and Grace and Edith Abbott, who researched and reported on the state programs as part of their roles in the U.S. Children’s Bureau during the 1920s (Bogue 1928, G. Abbott 1938, E. Abbott and Breckinridge 1921). They argued that such programs, to be successful and to meet the laws’ lofty goals, required substantially more funding, and especially, state funding and centralized oversight. It is very likely that Colorado’s advocates for Blind Benefits crafted their own legislation in the light of this research.

Krainz’ analysis fails to connect some important dots, including the link between mothers’ pensions and other Progressive Era social policies, especially state regulation of hours and wages of women employers, which the Supreme Court sanctioned in Mueller v. Oregon. The idea that women had a special role in society, and the state a special interest in enhancing it, enforcing it, and protecting it, was real, even if the policies themselves touched few women’s lives. And the idea survived through the twenties and was reborn in new forms in the New Deal. The connection was fairly direct: Grace Abbott, due to her own experiences and research as past head of the federal Children’s Bureau, consulted with Edwin Witte and other members of the Committee on Economic Security, and she likely contributed to the recommendations on dependent child policies the idea of the one-third federal contribution towards aid funds from her own research on Massachusetts Mothers’ Aid. And the report of the Committee to the President clearly reflects the Progressive Era maternalist logic in their proposals: “The very phrases ‘mothers aid’ and ‘mothers pensions’ place an emphasis equivalent to misconstruction of the intention of these laws. These are not primarily aids to mothers but defense measures for children. They are designed to release from the wage-earning role the person whose natural function is to give her children the physical and affectionate guardianship necessary not alone to keep them from falling into social misfortune, but more affirmatively to rear them into citizens capable of contributing to society” (Committee on Economic Security, cited in Bremmer et al 1974: 528).

One could still claim that these goals, too, never truly materialized. Racialized politics led to considerable state discretion on the part of the administration of Aid to Dependent Children, and substantially diminished the reach and adequacy of the program in its early days. As authors such as Gordon and Abramovitz have stressed, the result was, by the 1960s, a bifurcated welfare state that provided demeaning and insufficient means-tested aid to poor mothers, disproportionately African American, and much more adequate aid through Social Security to recipients based on a gendered paradigm centered on male workers.

These dots are important, but they do not diminish Krainz’s accomplishment in bringing to life the very real history of aid programs in Colorado. It is well worth the reading for those interested in the history of the U.S. welfare state.


Abbott, Grace. The Child and the State Vol. 2, The Dependent and the Delinquent Child: The Child of Unmarried Parents: Select Documents, with Introductory Notes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938.

Abbott, Edith and Sophisba Breckinridge. The Administration of the Aid-to-Mothers Law in Illinois. Washington: U.S. Children’s Bureau, 1921.

Abramovitz, Mimi. Regulating the Lives of Women: Social Welfare Policy from Colonial Times to the Present. Boston: South End Press, 1988.

Bogue, Mary. Administration of Mothers Aid in Ten Localities. Washington: U.S. Children’s Bureau, 1928.

Boston Overseers of the Poor. Annual Report for the Year Ending January 31, 1912, Annual Report for the Year 1913-1914 and Annual Report for the Year 1914-1915.

Bremner, Robert H., John Barnard, Tamara K. Hareven, Robert M. Mennel. Children and Youth in America: A Documentary History. Volume III. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974.

Gordon, Linda. “The New Feminist Scholarship on the Welfare State,” in Women, the State, and Welfare, edited by Linda Gordon. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990: 9-35.

Piven, Frances Fox and Richard Cloward. “Humanitarianism and History: A Reply to the Critics,” in Social Welfare or Social Control? Some Historical Reflections on Regulating the Poor, edited by Walter I. Trattner. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1983.

Saunders, Dawn. Class, Gender, and Generation: Mothers’ Aid in Massachusetts and the Political Economy of Welfare Reform. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Massachusetts, 1994.

Skocpol, Theda. Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1992.

Dawn Saunders teaches courses in economic history, economic theory, economic policy, and labor economics at Castleton State College, and lives with her family in Middlebury, Vermont, where she also serves as chair of her local school board. She edited (with Ron Baiman and Heather Boushey) Political Economy and Contemporary Capitalism: Radical Perspectives on Economic Theory and Policy (M.E. Sharpe, 2000).

Subject(s):Household, Family and Consumer History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII