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Widows and Orphans First: The Family Economy and Social Welfare Policy, 1880-1939

Author(s):Kleinberg, S. J.
Reviewer(s):Moehling, Carolyn M.

Published by EH.NET (June 2006)

S.J. Kleinberg, Widows and Orphans First: The Family Economy and Social Welfare Policy, 1880-1939. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2006. xiv + 230 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 0-252-03020-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Carolyn M. Moehling, Department of Economics, Yale University.

In 1890, the Pittsburgh Association for the Improvement of the Poor protested that widows endured “the unnatural responsibility of the wage-earner. Mothers are designed by nature to care for their own children, nor do they wish to place them in homes or other institutions” (p. 77). In the same time period, the Associated Charities of Fall River described one Margaret Dooley as “very trying” because she refused to leave her infant son in the care of a day nursery and take a job in the textile mills (p. 72). Jay Kleinberg, Professor at Brunel University, West London, ascribes these contrasting attitudes to the different employment opportunities of women in the two industrial centers and argues that such “local values” played an instrumental role in the development and implementation of social welfare policy in the early twentieth century.

Kleinberg makes her case by contrasting the experiences of women in Fall River, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore between 1880 and 1939. As Kleinberg notes, few poor widows or orphans recorded their experiences in writing; so she constructs snapshots from records of charity organizations, government documents, and samples of households collected from the 1880, 1900, and 1920 census schedules. These snapshots portray some commonalities in the hardships faced by widows in this period. But more poignantly, they reveal the stark differences in experiences of women in the three cities. In Fall River, the textile mills offered plentiful employment to women and children in the late nineteenth century. In 1900, half of all women ages 16 and over in Fall River were in the labor force (p. 34). Widows with young children, like Margaret Dooley, were hence expected to place their children in care and work in the mills. Widows with older children were likewise expected to take their children out of school to go to work in the mills. Charitable organizations provided help in finding work rather than providing relief to these women. In contrast, the steel mills of Pittsburgh offered very few jobs for women. There, an extensive private charity network developed to provide support to widows and their children. Baltimore had a more diverse economic base than the other two cities, but here economic opportunities varied greatly by race. White women could find work in canneries and garment factories, but African American women were generally limited to domestic work. Charitable organizations were also segregated by race. But as in Fall River, the availability of jobs meant that women of both races received little outdoor relief.

These differences in expectations and support structures persisted even as other forces narrowed the gaps in women’s economic circumstances. By 1920, the decline in child labor had all but eliminated what had been an important source of income for many widows’ families. The differences in widows’ employment rates narrowed as widows in Pittsburgh found work in garment factories and rolling cigars. Yet the attitudes born of the earlier differences remained entrenched and shaped the way public widows’ pensions were implemented in the three cities.

Although the administration of widows’ pensions was local, the influence of local values was constrained by the parameters of the state enabling legislation. Fall River granted few pensions compared to other cities in Massachusetts, reflecting the still strongly held view that women and children should work in the mills to support themselves. In 1915, it granted pensions to only 4.4 families per 10,000 residents compared to 13.7 per 10,000 residents in Boston (p. 115). But the grants provided in Fall River were more generous than those provided in Pittsburgh because of the differences in state funding across the two states. Pennsylvania, like Massachusetts, paid 50 percent of the costs of mothers’ assistance, but the funds allocated by Pennsylvania were much smaller. The inadequacies of the state funding forced localities to limit the number and the size of grants they awarded. In 1916, Pittsburgh received 1,843 applications for grants and investigated 800-900 of these, but could only fund 100 (p. 116). Widows’ aid did not allow women to leave the labor market despite the view that a mother’s place was at home caring for her children. A 1926 survey found that mothers’ assistance grants accounted for less than 40 percent of the income of families receiving aid in Allegheny County. A quarter of their income came from the earnings of the mother and another quarter from children over the age of 16 still living at home (p. 118). In Baltimore, the hostility toward outdoor relief delayed the granting of widows’ pensions until 1929. Maryland enacted a widows’ pension law in 1916 but left the administration and funding to the discretion of local governments. The mayor of Baltimore, James H. Preston, opposed the idea of using taxpayer funds to pay for pensions and sided with the views of organized charities that pensions should be privately funded or under the control of “scientific philanthropists” (p. 97). When new state legislation forced Baltimore to offer grants, the rolls were kept short and the grants small. Funds were provided only to maintain the children; the mother was expected to “forage for herself” (p. 123). The granting of pensions also displayed a strong racial bias. In 1930, African Americans accounted for 18 percent of the population, yet received only 9 percent of pensions (p. 123).

Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), enacted as part of the Social Security Act, muted the role of local attitudes since it provided federal funds and required the establishment of “state programs.” But even under ADC, local administrators had some discretion over who received benefits and how much they received. For instance, in Fall River, the “puritanical” local administrator required children to go to church to be eligible and the average payment per family was less than the statewide average (p. 158).

Other scholars have asserted the importance of regional attitudes in the implementation of social welfare policy, but Kleinberg, by presenting three in-depth studies, is able to flesh out this argument more fully. Chapters 3 and 4 persuasively articulate how the interactions between labor markets, private charities, poor relief, state legislation, and racial politics shaped the implementation of early public welfare programs. Kleinberg’s account of the influence of local conditions is much more nuanced than those produced by studies which have approached the issue from broader vantage points.

The other chapters of the book make less significant contributions. The early chapters are weakened by the absence of a discussion of how the census samples were constructed. Moreover, the experiences of widows in the three cities are rarely compared to the experiences of widows more generally. In fact, at many points the samples for the three cities are combined to make statements about widows in general. It would have been more appropriate — and not very difficult — to use the nationally representative samples of the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) to make such statements.

The final chapter on the New Deal covers little new ground. However, it does serve to complete Kleinberg’s narrative of the history of social welfare programs in the three study cities.

Regional variation has been an enduring characteristic of the American welfare state. Kleinberg’s book provides greater insight into the origin and persistence of this variation.

Carolyn M. Moehling is Associate Professor of Economics at Yale University. She is currently engaged in a project looking at the political economy of the cross-state variation in mothers’ pension laws.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII