How Social Work Became the Pit of Despair It Is Today

Who Killed Civil Society?: The Rise of Big Government and Decline of Bourgeois Norms  

by Howard Husock

The Manhattan Institute's Howard Husock begins this overview of social services in America by considering the "biggest mystery" of his childhood — namely, "how my father survived his."  Husock's dad was an orphan living in a scruffy Philadelphia neighborhood during the Great Depression.  The answer his dad provided was "The Agency," a private, largely volunteer organization that stressed norms over material provisions — a message often delivered to the elder Husock by a widow who rode in a chauffeured Cadillac across town to encourage principles like self-control, honesty, and good manners.

By contrast, today's social service message is that "institutional barriers are to blame" for the plight of America's "marginalized" individuals.  In the words of a recent textbook, "Social Workers recognize the extent to which a culture's structures and values may oppress, marginalize, alienate, or create or enhance privilege and power."  Consequently, social workers should "engage in practices that advance social and economic justice."  Husock's book documents this fateful transition from the structure and philosophy of "The Agency" to massive government programs that focus on material provision, social issues, and the amelioration of existing maladies (e.g., drug addiction and broken families) rather than the formation of character traits that prevent those maladies from arising.

Five prominent figures are employed to chart Husock's road toward our cultural Hades — a path paved, to be sure, with good intentions: Charles Loring Brace, Jane Addams, Mary Richmond, Grace Abbott, and Wilbur Cohen.  A sixth figure, Geoffrey Canada, provides a modern example of the type of organization Husock hopes will flourish to help re-establish "Middle-Class Values" among a burgeoning social services population.   

The norm-centered focus of the Juvenile Aid Society that saved Husock's father was pioneered in the latter half of the 19th century by Charles Brace's Children's Aid Society, which began its privately funded mission of instilling the values of education and civility in thousands of newsboys, bootblacks, and other waifs who roamed the streets of New York City.  Beyond supplying lodging homes and living necessities, Brace sought to influence the character of children who possessed no vision of a better future.  Brace thus became a "missionary of bourgeois norms" that provided the means for achieving a good life.  A major aspect of Brace's effort involved "orphan trains" that relocated 120,000 children to Midwest farm families — not as servants, but as family members who would learn the same morals and habits as their parents.  Brace, who died in 1890, noted that "our whole influence is moral" and shunned assistance "which doesn't touch habits of life and ... character."

Much better known than Brace is Jane Addams, founder of Chicago's Hull House.  Addams's approach to social work began, as it did with Brace, with modeling and encouraging behavioral norms and habits for the poor immigrants with whom she lived.  Over the years, however, Addams focused more attention on government-funded assistance and political issues (a living wage, workplace safety, child labor laws, etc.).  Indeed, in 1935, Addams won the Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy of that expansive goal.  Meanwhile, the task of instilling positive character traits began to be derided by the crusading Addams as "incorrigibly bourgeois."

Mary Richmond, who herself (unlike Brace and Addams) came out of difficult circumstances, attempted to preserve the character-focused approach of Brace while also emphasizing the need for significant material assistance.  Her "friendly visit" vision of social work stressed professional "diagnostic" methods employed largely by trained volunteers working with private organizations.  This non-governmental approach that retained an emphasis on moral norms was abandoned completely by the Abbott sisters, Grace and Edith, both University of Chicago graduates, Hull House residents, and fervent advocates for government assistance programs.  The capstone of their efforts was the Social Security Act of 1935 that included an Aid to Dependent Children component.

The final nail in the coffin of a character-centered vision of social work was administered by Wilbur Cohen, "the consummate federal bureaucrat" who earned the sobriquet "Mr. Social Security."  Cohen, who had no close connection with the population affected by his policies, saw poverty purely as a product of economic circumstances whose solution was to be found in a variety of "social insurance" programs.  Cohen's lasting legacy was achieved via LBJ's massive Great Society welfare system that focused overwhelmingly on providing material "entitlements" and dealt with existing, often intractable, pathologies.  But to Cohen's dismay, "social services increased along with benefit levels," and many of the problems those material benefits were intended to solve (e.g., illegitimacy) increased dramatically.  

Husock's new model for social services follows the structure and philosophy of Geoffrey Canada, whose Harlem Children's Zone project grew out of his own experience of the violence and cynicism inculcated in youngsters by hardened mentors who saw the system rigged against them and scoffed at the foolishness of seeking anything beyond immediate gratification.  Canada's privately funded project focuses on young kids not yet corrupted by the negative influences around them and has grown from one block to more than a hundred.  His urban oasis provides a stark example of a clean, graffiti-free neighborhood and demonstrates what can be achieved by embracing "middle class values" such as self-discipline and education.

While Husock's overview of social work's abandonment of moral norms is instructive, the hope he places in admirable efforts like Canada's seems unrealistic.  As Husock himself admits, the world of social work represents only a fraction of the cultural input that shapes individual perspectives and habits.  And Canada's work, even multiplied by dozens of similar projects, represents a small fraction of the services delivered by state and federal government agencies.  Put bluntly, the cultural input of all social service workers pales in comparison with that of mass media.  Husock mentions rap music in one sentence, noting its banishment from Canada's model community.  Yet rap is a cultural item whose negative influence by itself dwarfs all the unquestionably positive work done by Canada and similar projects.  Now add to rap the drumbeat of cynicism promoted by Hollywood, academics, politicians, and the mainstream media.  While morally focused social projects are certainly saviors for the thousands they touch, the idea that such projects will significantly move the broader cultural needle in the same direction is naïve. 

Attorney General William Barr's recent Notre Dame speech accurately summarized the massive secularist attack on religion and traditional values over the last half-century — an attack that includes but goes well beyond the world of social services.  The success of that attack is poignantly summarized by Planned Parenthood's indignant response to New York City's "moralistic" campaign to discourage teen pregnancy: "It's not teen pregnancies that cause poverty, but poverty that causes teen pregnancies."  This anti-moral economic determinism is now deeply engrained in American culture.  

Without a "fundamental transformation" of the mass media's constant condemnation of personal moral judgments — without a drastic change in its lionizing of hedonistic pursuits that "push the envelope" beyond every prior boundary of decency — without a rejection of its reflexive division of society into  privileged and victim groups — without a massive intellectual and moral shift on the part of educators, the entertainment industry, prominent intellectuals, and folks in electronic communications, the prospect for significant improvement in the culture at large, including its ever expanding social services arena, seems bleak.     

Richard Kirk is a freelance writer living in Southern California whose book Moral Illiteracy: "Who's to Say?" is available on Kindle.

Who Killed Civil Society?: The Rise of Big Government and Decline of Bourgeois Norms  

by Howard Husock

The Manhattan Institute's Howard Husock begins this overview of social services in America by considering the "biggest mystery" of his childhood — namely, "how my father survived his."  Husock's dad was an orphan living in a scruffy Philadelphia neighborhood during the Great Depression.  The answer his dad provided was "The Agency," a private, largely volunteer organization that stressed norms over material provisions — a message often delivered to the elder Husock by a widow who rode in a chauffeured Cadillac across town to encourage principles like self-control, honesty, and good manners.

By contrast, today's social service message is that "institutional barriers are to blame" for the plight of America's "marginalized" individuals.  In the words of a recent textbook, "Social Workers recognize the extent to which a culture's structures and values may oppress, marginalize, alienate, or create or enhance privilege and power."  Consequently, social workers should "engage in practices that advance social and economic justice."  Husock's book documents this fateful transition from the structure and philosophy of "The Agency" to massive government programs that focus on material provision, social issues, and the amelioration of existing maladies (e.g., drug addiction and broken families) rather than the formation of character traits that prevent those maladies from arising.

Five prominent figures are employed to chart Husock's road toward our cultural Hades — a path paved, to be sure, with good intentions: Charles Loring Brace, Jane Addams, Mary Richmond, Grace Abbott, and Wilbur Cohen.  A sixth figure, Geoffrey Canada, provides a modern example of the type of organization Husock hopes will flourish to help re-establish "Middle-Class Values" among a burgeoning social services population.   

The norm-centered focus of the Juvenile Aid Society that saved Husock's father was pioneered in the latter half of the 19th century by Charles Brace's Children's Aid Society, which began its privately funded mission of instilling the values of education and civility in thousands of newsboys, bootblacks, and other waifs who roamed the streets of New York City.  Beyond supplying lodging homes and living necessities, Brace sought to influence the character of children who possessed no vision of a better future.  Brace thus became a "missionary of bourgeois norms" that provided the means for achieving a good life.  A major aspect of Brace's effort involved "orphan trains" that relocated 120,000 children to Midwest farm families — not as servants, but as family members who would learn the same morals and habits as their parents.  Brace, who died in 1890, noted that "our whole influence is moral" and shunned assistance "which doesn't touch habits of life and ... character."

Much better known than Brace is Jane Addams, founder of Chicago's Hull House.  Addams's approach to social work began, as it did with Brace, with modeling and encouraging behavioral norms and habits for the poor immigrants with whom she lived.  Over the years, however, Addams focused more attention on government-funded assistance and political issues (a living wage, workplace safety, child labor laws, etc.).  Indeed, in 1935, Addams won the Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy of that expansive goal.  Meanwhile, the task of instilling positive character traits began to be derided by the crusading Addams as "incorrigibly bourgeois."

Mary Richmond, who herself (unlike Brace and Addams) came out of difficult circumstances, attempted to preserve the character-focused approach of Brace while also emphasizing the need for significant material assistance.  Her "friendly visit" vision of social work stressed professional "diagnostic" methods employed largely by trained volunteers working with private organizations.  This non-governmental approach that retained an emphasis on moral norms was abandoned completely by the Abbott sisters, Grace and Edith, both University of Chicago graduates, Hull House residents, and fervent advocates for government assistance programs.  The capstone of their efforts was the Social Security Act of 1935 that included an Aid to Dependent Children component.

The final nail in the coffin of a character-centered vision of social work was administered by Wilbur Cohen, "the consummate federal bureaucrat" who earned the sobriquet "Mr. Social Security."  Cohen, who had no close connection with the population affected by his policies, saw poverty purely as a product of economic circumstances whose solution was to be found in a variety of "social insurance" programs.  Cohen's lasting legacy was achieved via LBJ's massive Great Society welfare system that focused overwhelmingly on providing material "entitlements" and dealt with existing, often intractable, pathologies.  But to Cohen's dismay, "social services increased along with benefit levels," and many of the problems those material benefits were intended to solve (e.g., illegitimacy) increased dramatically.  

Husock's new model for social services follows the structure and philosophy of Geoffrey Canada, whose Harlem Children's Zone project grew out of his own experience of the violence and cynicism inculcated in youngsters by hardened mentors who saw the system rigged against them and scoffed at the foolishness of seeking anything beyond immediate gratification.  Canada's privately funded project focuses on young kids not yet corrupted by the negative influences around them and has grown from one block to more than a hundred.  His urban oasis provides a stark example of a clean, graffiti-free neighborhood and demonstrates what can be achieved by embracing "middle class values" such as self-discipline and education.

While Husock's overview of social work's abandonment of moral norms is instructive, the hope he places in admirable efforts like Canada's seems unrealistic.  As Husock himself admits, the world of social work represents only a fraction of the cultural input that shapes individual perspectives and habits.  And Canada's work, even multiplied by dozens of similar projects, represents a small fraction of the services delivered by state and federal government agencies.  Put bluntly, the cultural input of all social service workers pales in comparison with that of mass media.  Husock mentions rap music in one sentence, noting its banishment from Canada's model community.  Yet rap is a cultural item whose negative influence by itself dwarfs all the unquestionably positive work done by Canada and similar projects.  Now add to rap the drumbeat of cynicism promoted by Hollywood, academics, politicians, and the mainstream media.  While morally focused social projects are certainly saviors for the thousands they touch, the idea that such projects will significantly move the broader cultural needle in the same direction is naïve. 

Attorney General William Barr's recent Notre Dame speech accurately summarized the massive secularist attack on religion and traditional values over the last half-century — an attack that includes but goes well beyond the world of social services.  The success of that attack is poignantly summarized by Planned Parenthood's indignant response to New York City's "moralistic" campaign to discourage teen pregnancy: "It's not teen pregnancies that cause poverty, but poverty that causes teen pregnancies."  This anti-moral economic determinism is now deeply engrained in American culture.  

Without a "fundamental transformation" of the mass media's constant condemnation of personal moral judgments — without a drastic change in its lionizing of hedonistic pursuits that "push the envelope" beyond every prior boundary of decency — without a rejection of its reflexive division of society into  privileged and victim groups — without a massive intellectual and moral shift on the part of educators, the entertainment industry, prominent intellectuals, and folks in electronic communications, the prospect for significant improvement in the culture at large, including its ever expanding social services arena, seems bleak.     

Richard Kirk is a freelance writer living in Southern California whose book Moral Illiteracy: "Who's to Say?" is available on Kindle.