From the days of the earliest settlers, the spirit of helping
others has been a key element of American society. As communities sprang
up and population grew, the church became an important social institution and
helpmate to those less fortunate.
The Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s witnessed the
development of the settlement house, one of the early examples of a physical
facility, other than a church, that served as a center of activity for
In the early 1900s, schools began to offer formal training in
the principles and methods of social work, which led to the birth of a new
profession. The great depression of the 1930s overwhelmed the nation's
communities, leaving churches and voluntary social welfare programs unable to
cope with the magnitude of the existing social problems.
The federal government stepped in to provide additional
retirement income through a new Social Security Program and to assist those
temporarily unemployed with the Unemployment Insurance System. It created
new banking and labor laws to strengthen the economy. A program to
provide "temporary public assistance" to widows and children of men killed in
industrial accidents also was created. Social workers were hired to
determine eligibility, advise recipients about how to use the money, and help
them obtain services necessary to get them off welfare. From the 1930s to the
late 1950s, state and local governments had much of the responsibility for
administering the programs created during the depression.
As the communications media expanded their scope across the
U.S., the American public became more aware of the problems of the aged, the
effects of segregation, of poor education, of health problems caused by
malnutrition and hunger, of the need to educate people so they might work, and
of the growing difficulties of the low-income population.
The American public soon believed that everyone could live "the
good life" and that society as a whole had a responsibility for helping people
overcome barriers that prevented them from sharing in the benefits of American
The U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1954 in Brown v. Board of
Education declared that separate schools for blacks and whites in Topeka,
Kansas, did not provide an equal education; i.e., that "separate was not
equal." This landmark decision led to an expansion of federal
policymaking into what had previously been a local arena, That decision
served as a catalyst in the area of publicly financed activity such as
transportation and licensed public accommodations, including lunch counters,
restaurants, and hotels. Citizens began to organize to guarantee their
rights, and the Civil Rights Movement expanded rapidly.
In 1961, President Kennedy's "New Frontier" included support for
programs to prevent juvenile delinquency with the focal point, the President's
Council on Juvenile Delinquency, chaired by U.S. Attorney General Robert
Kennedy. In NY City, the President's Council funded Mobilization for
Youth (MFY) with the Ford Foundation and the City of NY. MFY organized
and coordinated neighborhood councils composed of local officials, service
providers, and neighbors to develop plans to correct conditions which led to
juvenile delinquency. It also enlisted the aid of school board and city council
members to implement those plans.
It was called COMMUNITY ACTION, and it
looked like an effective and inexpensive way to solve problems.
The Ford Foundation was funding other projects, including one in
New Haven, Conn., which recruited people from all sectors of the community to
come together to plan and implement programs to help low-income people.
MFY and New Haven are often cited as the "models" for a community action
See our other sections...