Private efforts were not enough to treat the ills caused by the unchecked capitalism of the Gilded Age, however, an age that brought tremendous wealth to some Americans and tremendous poverty to others. During the first depression occasioned by this split between the haves and the have-nots in 1890, private relief organizations could not cope. "In Mulberry Bend, the heart of the Italian district, one-third of all babies born in 1888 died before their first birthdays. Traditional agencies such as the Children's Aid Society and the Salvation Army were overwhelmed, incapable of meeting the demands placed on their services." (Huff, Social Work, 2000, Chapter 1, p.4) "The old shibboleths commonly accepted as the major causes of poverty, low character, indolence, and intemperance, were replaced with more systemic theories," that sought economic and social causes as the cure, rather than moral reform. (Huff, Social Work, 2000, Chapter 1, p.6)
During this time, Jacob Riis, the urban photographer, shook the consciousness of middle-class New Yorkers as he showed a photograph of a destitute Jewish man, celebrating the Sabbath in a filthy tenement. Despite his poverty, the man still lit candles and cut challah bread, his only meal for the day. This photograph summed up the 'scientific' studies of poverty that sought to understand why poverty occurred, rather than merely detail the dirty or immoral conditions in which poor dwelt. For example, one such study conducted in the city of New York found that "only ten percent of the city's poverty was caused by shiftlessness and intemperance. The most substantial causes were found to be unemployment, sickness and industrial accidents. In 1896, Josephine Shaw Lowell, stalwart leader of the COS movement and previously a staunch proponent of traditional charity organization policies said, 'it seems often as if the charities are the insults which the rich add to the injuries they heap upon the poor." (Huff, Social Work, 2000, Chapter 1, p.6)
These sentiments sowed the seeds for the beginnings of a profession of social work, as opposed to volunteer and missionary impulses on a private level. The case study or individualistic model as the sole mode of treating poverty was seen as inadequate and quite simply wrong. In 1915 Abraham Flexner delivered a speech, "Is Social Work a Profession?" At the National Conference on Social Welfare. (Foster, 1996) Social work had to address larger causes than simply individual moral blight, and needed to do so in as trained a fashion as the early social welfare activist and nurse Clara Barton treated the bodies of her wounded patients.
After the Great Depression, the federal government became increasingly involved in the lives of ordinary American workers, and attempted to provide a safety net for the poor, elderly, and the young through such long-standing programs as Social Security. Later, Lyndon Johnson would attempt to carry on Roosevelt's legacy, even during a time of American prosperity through such programs as the early educational initiative Head Start. (Foster, 1996) However, the federal government's increased involvement in the lives of needy American did not spell the end of private organizations of charity, nor of the individualistic case model for addressing social ills. Social workers as a profession, however, as paid individuals with ethical and professional rules to follow, would now attempt to aid and counsel, not to judge those individuals whom they helped. The poor were no longer labeled as deserving or undeserving, as they were in the eyes of the prototypical 'friendly visitor.' Today's social workers attempt to strike, rather a friendly balance between the moral impetus of the late 19th century, and the diagnostic model of social researchers seeking scientific causes of social ills. The needs of individual, culture, society, and political policy must all be taken into consideration, though the moral focus upon the individual may have dominated the field during its 19th century conception.
Murray, Jill. (1996) "The Social Work History Online Time-Line." The School of Social Work. Retrieved 10 Nov 2005. http://www.gnofn.org/~jill/swhistory/
Huff, Dan. (2000) Social Work: Progress and Reform. A Cyberhistory of Social…