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Public Welfare or Voluntarism? Pros and Cons of a Limited Approach to a Big Subject

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 39, Number 2, June 2011
pp. 348-353 | 10.1353/rah.2011.0064

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As Price V. Fishback and Melissa A. Thomasson point out in their essay on "Social Welfare: 1920 to the Present" in Historical Statistics of the United States: Millennial Edition, "probably the most dramatic change in the American economy over the course of the twentieth century [was] the growth of social welfare spending by both public and private entities." By their calculations, total government spending on health, education, pensions, veterans, housing, social insurance, and poor relief in the United States rose from about 4 percent of the gross domestic product in 1929 to just over 10 percent in the late 1960s, then to 20 percent by the early 1990s, with the federal government paying 20 percent of this total in 1929 and about 60 percent since the New Deal. Private expenditure—by employers through pension and other benefit programs, and by families and individuals through savings, the purchase of insurance, spending on education, and charitable giving—also rose steadily, from under 5 percent of GDP in 1940 to 13 percent in the 1990s. As Brad Burke has shown, total private charitable giving for all purposes fluctuated around 2 percent throughout this period, with about half going to religious institutions and causes, much of the rest going to education, and some going abroad. Others have emphasized that "tax expenditures" (deductions and exemptions for private donations and for housing, retirement savings, and health care) actually provide a considerable share of private social welfare spending.

These figures provide part of the context for Andrew J. F. Morris' book, The Limits of Voluntarism. How, Morris asks, did the growth of federal welfare spending between the New Deal and the Great Society affect private, voluntary initiative? More specifically, he asks, how did leaders of a particular set of voluntary social-service organizations adjust their political ideas in response to the realities posed by the Great Depression, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Great Society?

Morris deserves great credit for taking on a topic that is so important, contested, and complex, and one that unfolds over many decades. But because the topic is so large and complicated, he necessarily narrows his focus, so much so that he greatly limits his ability to deal with the general question of the impact of expanded government on private initiative. Leaving aside the fields of health, education, support for veterans, and pensions and other aid to the elderly, he looks specifically at a narrow piece of the story, concerning the changing roles of private "family welfare" or "community service" organizations. Even here, Morris narrows the focus, disregarding some key purposes of these "family service" organizations, almost all of which had been founded by religious communities or coalitions and all of which were necessarily constrained by state family and other laws. He stresses, instead, their roles in family counseling and the relief of poverty.

Emphasizing the eventual engagement of these organizations with the War on Poverty, rather than (as has been more common) their relationship to the social-work field in general, Morris begins with the "New Alignments" urged in 1933 by Linton Swift, General Director of the Family Welfare Association of America. As Morris shows, Swift accepted that the "public sector" would henceforth provide the "financial safety net" while the "voluntary sector" would address needs that legislatures would not agree to fund (p. xv). Morris ends with the challenges to family welfare organizations posed by the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

As Morris recognizes, passion and rhetoric cloud discussion of these matters. Opponents of higher taxes and of various changes in family practice and racial ordering decry government initiatives as "socialist"; believers in entrepreneurial creativity demand the spur of want; advocates of equality denounce limited measures as inhumane. Those committed to the social-work profession emphasize their own field's workers and leaders, their ideas and their contributions to practice and to public policy: they do not single out the private employers of social workers, and they pay little attention to the fields of health and education. Those who advocate for the poor, for minorities, for equality, for a vision of the entrepreneurial society, or for particular religious traditions seek to shape discussions so as to advance...