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How Far Have Social Welfare Considerations
Entered Into State, National, and Local Elections

c. May 16-23, 1923 — 50th Anniversary Session, National Conference of Social Work, Washington DC


When social welfare is to be measured in terms of practical politics, new standards of appraisal have to be devised. Politicians apply measures in terms of expediency. The measure is not what is abstractly good for the people, but what is concretely good for a candidate or a party in the sense of what will bring victory. Politicians must deal with applied policies. Social workers are prophets, the cranks of one generation moving the next to action. They see in terms of eternal aspects of great principles.

Politicians differ from the social worker, in that they possess that sixth sense which tells them when public opinion has brought about the time for the application of a program. Politicians cannot afford to be visionaries. They deal with actualities recorded in terms of votes. They deal in candidates elected or defeated. Movements, the joy of the social workers, proceed in a world of their own, swinging along in their own orbits. They pass first through the stage of agitation when the prophet and the misfit go from door to door peddling an idea and making a contribution and, at last, they ­­­cohere into a movement. Next, as the movement gains force, opinion comes into play and minority opinion becomes strong enough to be recognized by a fighting group. Whenever this minority opinion becomes strong enough to gather such momentum that it arrests the attention of the practical politician, the movement becomes ripe for a political platform. The mere fact that this or that part of a program of social welfare has not yet become apolitical issue is no criterion of values. Its failure to do so is undoubtedly due to the temporary absence of the motive power applied by public opinion.

Social workers have progressed from agitation to discussion, and then to the recognition of the importance of political action. Dealing at first hand with poverty, disease, and crime, they soon worked out the relationship to fundamental methods of government, and, with these realizations strong upon them, proceeded to the establishment of laws to govern and agencies to administer and enforce. When social issues predominate in a political platform, the history of American politics shows we then have the greatest amount of independent voting. Political parties rarely have a clear-cut cleavage in the larger units of political organization, and this independent voting constitutes an important and vitally decisive factor for both parties. First fruits of the inclusion of social welfare issue in political platforms were not so sweet. A pious resolve or two about labor and something about education, buried in the subcellar  of the platform, were considered an entirely satisfactory disposition of these theoretical dreams of the idealists.

Since this is the fiftieth conference of social work, it is comparatively easy to estimate that twenty-five or thirty years of social work went by without political effect, such as adoption in party platforms or other active participation in political procedure that can be clearly identified as such. In the platforms of minority parties such as the Socialist and the Single Tax, social welfare policies have played a major part for many more years than the scant ten that mark their adoption into the family councils of the major parties. Some of the single-tax proposals, such as the excess condemnation of land by cities so that the unearned increment might accrue to the benefit of the taxpayers has found political expression in many localities, and is today admittedly a vital part of any permanent solution of the housing problem. Both Single Tax and Socialist platforms carried universal suffrage, public ownership of natural resources, and abolition of child labor for a generation before recognition came from other sources.

In fact, it was not until 1912 that national recognition came. Then the great Progressive Theodore Roosevelt, sensitive to public opinion, strong of vision, seeing that the distinctive line of cleavage between himself and the old line of party managers had been found, sent for the leaders in social work to come to him, and presented the first major party platform recognizing human rights as at least coequal with the protection of property rights. There are probably in this audience tonight some who made the historic pilgrimage to Sagamore Hill, and heard the first presentation of the platform that bore social justice as its distinguishing mark. Never before had a national platform said, “The supreme duty of the national government is in the conservation of human resources through an enlarged measure of social and industrial justice.” And then follow the specific pledges for protective industrial legislation, prohibition of child labor, minimum-wage standards, prohibition of night work, and an eight-hour day for women, one day-s rest in seven, prisoners’ earnings for heir dependent families, workmen’s compensation, health, old age, and unemployment insurance, continuation schools, and improvement of rural education. That section of the Progressive platform reads like a volume of the Survey.

Following the lines of the national platform, the various state platforms of the Progressive party did not stop with reaffirming the national platform of social justice, but introduced also their own local issues of social importance. This produced the first thoroughgoing public discussion throughout the country of social justice. Whenever a candidate was elected on the progressive ticket he was pledged to the social program locally and nationally, and many local elections were won partly, or as a whole by Progressive votes The election of Mayor Mitchel in New York hinged on the Progressive vote, and his policies were deeply influenced by that group among his advisers.

Meanwhile, the issue of universal suffrage forged to the fore. Cleverly enough, the women, in campaigning for the suffrage, knew how to make social welfare issues their own, and in many instances the inclusion of universal suffrage as an issue in a campaign, sometimes local, sometimes state-wide, and eventually national, covered as a blanket many details of a campaign for social welfare issues.

It is true that the entrance of women into political life has forced the seasoned politician to pay closer attention to social welfare issues than was his wont. Women are an essential consideration now in political campaigns, and their tendency to independent voting makes them a problem to those who write platforms and consider party methods. They have dealt with social problems at close range and are quick to comprehend the significance of political action. Politicians will discuss policies with women more readily than any other form of political activity, and are eager to find the road to the feminine group of their constituencies. Some of the most striking political results in very recent elections have been largely contributed by educational campaigns on social welfare issues conducted by women independent of party affiliations.

In 1916 the Democratic party squarely recorded itself as favoring woman suffrage and prison reform, and set up standards of employment for the federal government, “both on its own account and as an example,” including a living wage, the eight-hour day, one day of rest in seven, safety and sanitation standards, adequate compensation in industrial accidents, prevention of child labor, and protection for women workers. The platform urged that these principles be also applied through legislation by the several states international problems and preparedness were pressing hard, and social problems received scant attention that year. But I 1920 the war was over and both parties faced the great task, of reconstruction. Both platforms turned again to the social issues, and Republican and Democratic platforms blossomed forth in provisions for maternity and infant care, prohibition of child labor, protection of women in industry, public health, and improvement of educational methods and standards. The Republican platform also dealt with housing, free speech, and immigration. How far these issues entered into a campaign centering again on international relationship it is not hard to say. Nationally, they were scarcely debated at all, while in New York State, in the same year, at least one party was making a consistent battle to establish a full program of social reconstruction as the basis for the party program in the state.

The effectiveness of these attempts to secure permanence for our social programs through political action can hardly be questioned. These great campaigns, with their attendant discussions, are never a total loss. Their educational value surpasses any other form of education of public opinion. Even when they are not enacted into legislation by the party advocating them, frequently the opposition party will steal them in a subsequent administration and enact them in order to gain party credit, and the public is the gainer.

Much has been said at the conference of the relation of social work to the schools, to international problems, to the labor movement, and to administrative agencies, but nothing as yet of its relation to politics. Social work has everything to gain and nothing to lose in learning to utilize the forces of political action. Vitalizing life comes through permanent legislative enactment. Workmen’s compensation, basic in the family life of the industrial worker, remains a vague aspiration until legislative actin makes it function. We struggle for recognition of the minimum-wage principle for women, and inch by inch establish it in a few states only to face rejection by the highest court of our land; a decision that will stir both major parties to political action in another year, and thereafter some way will be found to place it permanently in our scheme of American life. Our struggle to prevent child labor and to secure maternity and infancy protection is exactly similar and will have a similar outcome.

Social work underestimates rather than overestimates itself. It has become a part of the fabric of American life. Especially is this true since the war. The movement for democracy has not only bene pushed forward by the war but the content of the meaning of democracy has been deepened and the average man, having faced he vey foundations of the world in the last five years, is no longer content with a pre-war status, but feels himself entitled to a better deal socially and economically. Probably no stronger recognition of this has come to pass politically than the adoption by Governor Smith, in 1919, of the program of social reconstruction offered by the reconstruction commission appointed by him. Directly resulting from this policy in New York state three successive elections for governor have emphasized the social welfare program. Democrats, beginning in 1918, with emphasis on labor legislation, universal suffrage, and child welfare, continued in 1920 with an even more fully developed social program, based on the report of the reconstruction commission. It included housing, conservation of natural resources, minimum wage, eight-hour day, public health, cost of living, and educational proposals. But the climax came in this last year, when the Democratic platform contained, beside all these issues and a pledge to repeal the laws requiring teachers to pass loyalty task and private schools to be licensed, detailed pledges to strengthen by adequate appropriations the administration of labor laws and workmen’s compensation, and specifically advocated proper appropriations for the care of the state’s dependents in hospitals for the insane, the prisons and under child welfare boards. More than this, the whole campaign resolved itself into a running debate on these issues, with one candidate clearly established as the liberal advocate of these policies and the other hopelessly trying to establish himself as less of a reactionary than his party tenets made him. Restoration of the government to the people was the keynote of the campaign. Public opinion had done its work well and incidents of the campaign showed the issue to be clearly understood, even by the rank and file of voters. The ability to state a social issue in terms of everyday life, and a strong belief in human beings as the real assets of a commonwealth won out and recorded for governor Smith, idealist and social worker, the greatest majority in the history of the state. Even so seemingly abstract a program as the reorganization of the state government was clearly expressed in homely terms of human welfare when the economies it promised were expressed in terms of increased appropriations for child welfare, state institutions for dependents, and other social activities as contrasted with unnecessary expense involved in duplicating, wasteful administrative machinery.

Since 1912 many great social issues have been fought and sometimes lost in the nation, in the several states, and in hundreds of local elections. Sometimes we call them moral issues, when they succeed in arousing our emotions, as the Low campaign in New York city, when William Travers Jerome was elected district attorney to stamp out the red-light district, or certain similar elections in San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Certainly the presidential campaign of 1920, with its over-shadowing issue of world-peace, drew the lines clearly and firmly for or against the great human stakes that make a nation.

We may well ask, where are we heading? A new spirit stirs the world! We are less interested in our political rights, perhaps, because we feel we are secure in these and more concerned with the individual. We are searching our fundamental conceptions of democracy and demanding for the individual a larger measure of justice, a greater participation in the life of our democracy. Political parties are slowly learning that these awakened citizens want, not housing in the abstract, but homes for people that shall be within their reach; not a proper limitation of hours for working women, or a living wage, or protection for maternity and infancy, or the prohibition of child labor, as part of a program of a private organization voluntarily maintained, but as an integral part of the government of the several states and the nation itself. We are pas the stage where the tariff is an abstraction. Sugar prices tell the story day by day to the housewife who buys in the humblest grocery shop, and at least one of the political parties is telling her the truth about it. The monthly visit of the landlord teaches a lesson that some politicians have learned to apply, and, strange as it may seem, campaigns have been won or lost on workmen’s compensation insurance, as in Ohio, and none can deny the influence of the social issues in the last campaign in Pennsylvania, or in the most recent ones in New York state.

The social problem is in politics. Social workers can take great credit to themselves and their methods that this is so. Moreover, it is going to stay in politics as long as they conception of the state as an instrumentality for social welfare persists. Social workers with the record before them may well prepare for continued appeal to the major political parties. Social workers have a great mission imposed on them in the formation of public opinion on the great human issues of government. Standing midway between those who enjoy by privilege and those who should enjoy by right the social worker has the opportunity to maintain “sweet reasonableness” while guiding the way to liberal thought and progressive achievement.

America goes forward. Nineteen twenty-four will see the social welfare idea even more fully expressed in platforms of both major parties. That party whose platform and candidate most sincerely and adequately expresses the public yearning for genuine democracy, expressed in social ideals practically attainable, will carry the country forward on its great course of world leadership.



Source: Proceedings of the National Conference of Social Work at the Fiftieth Anniversary Session Held in Washington, D.C., May 16-23 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 1923, pp. 465-469.