The Limits of Voluntarism: Charity and Welfare from the New Deal through the Great Society (review)
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The Limits of Voluntarism: Charity and Welfare from the New Deal through the Great Society. By Andrew F. Morris. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. 284. $85.00 cloth)

In The Limits of Voluntarism, historian Andrew Morris examines how policy entrepreneurs in the voluntary sector adapted their institutions to address public problems that arose from the 1920s to the Great Society. The Great Depression made clear to most in the voluntary sector that private welfare and charity could not provide for the nation's needy. Working under the assumption that the state would take responsibility for providing an economic safety net, some voluntary sector leaders in the post-World-War II period, according to Morris, turned their attention to providing care and therapy to individuals and families whose problems fell outside the purview of the emerging welfare state. In this era of "New Alignments," leaders in government and nonprofits, such as Harry Hopkins and Linton Swift, argued for a clear line separating public and private aid. This division of labor was premised on the idea that public aid would provide an adequate level of economic support to families in need, which would allow some in the voluntary sector to focus on providing counseling and other "therapeutic" services for the working and middle classes. Increasing unemployment, poverty, and activism in the 1960s demonstrated the uneven and inadequate nature of the U.S. welfare state and led to yet another realignment by way of the Great Society. In the 1960s and 1970s, according to Morris, the line that separated the public and private aid disappeared almost entirely [End Page 124] as nonprofit agencies competed for public dollars.

Morris's analysis—considered alongside that of historians such as Jennifer Klein, Alice O'Connor, and Michael Katz—helps us to better explain the mixed nature of the public-private system of policymaking and policy implementation in the United States. This is a system that has been patched together by way of benefits tied to employment, the "semi-welfare" state, and the voluntary sector. While much has been written about the first two, Morris stays focused on the voluntary sector in the period after World War II. He nicely weaves together a more familiar national-welfare policy narrative with that of local family-service agencies (particularly those in St. Paul, Wilmington, and Baltimore) that adapted to dramatic shifts in welfare state.

Often Morris's analysis reveals how voluntary-sector practices, particularly in the realm of family services, had an impact within nonprofit and public-policy spheres disproportionate to their size and financial resources. Particularly instructive on this point is Morris's analysis—derived from archival research in the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota—of the 1948 St. Paul Study and the 1950s Family Centered Project. In these cases, a philanthropically funded group of policy entrepreneurs from the voluntary sector conducted deeply flawed, yet highly influential, investigations of the recipients of public and nonprofit assistance. Proposed in part as a method of saving money for the growing welfare state, the 1948 St. Paul Study identified what came to be known as "multiproblem" families who consumed a disproportionate amount of public aid and who were deemed at risk for passing behaviors that led to poverty from one generation to the next. In the 1950s, and now under the guise of the Family Centered Project, voluntary agencies in St. Paul, armed with what they believed to be empirical evidence identifying multiproblem families, went from assisting families who requested help to a much more offensive posture in which they preemptively intervened in those families where there existed a "clear and present danger" to the children of the household (p. 132). While the "family centered" approach fell out of favor in the early 1960s, the idea of [End Page 125] locating aspects of the causes of poverty in the family persisted in the form of the "culture of poverty" argument articulated by Oscar Lewis among others (p. 144). Whereas in much of the book Morris portrays the voluntary sector as largely a reactive force responding to political and economic changes beyond its control, their "focus on the family" in these...