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The Altruistic Imagination

The Altruistic Imagination: A History of Social Work and Social Policy in the United States

John H. Ehrenreich
Copyright Date: 1985
Published by: Cornell University Press
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  • Book Info
    The Altruistic Imagination
    Book Description:

    Social work and social policy in the United States have always had a complex and troubled relationship. In The Altruistic Imagination, John H. Ehrenreich offers a critical interpretation of their intertwined histories, seeking to understand the problems that face these two vital institutions in American society.

    Ehrenreich demonstrates that the emphasis of social work has always vacillated between individual treatment and social reform. Tracing this ever-changing focus from the Progressive Era, through the development of the welfare state, the New Deal, and the affluent 1950s and 1960s, into the administration of Ronald Reagan, he places the evolution of social work in the context of political, cultural, and ideological trends, noting the paradoxes inherent in the attempt to provide essential services and reflect at the same time the intentions of the state. He concludes by examining the turning point faced by the social work profession in the 1980s, indicated by a return to casework and a withdrawal from social policy concerns.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-7123-0
    Subjects: History, Sociology, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-6)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 7-8)
  3. Preface
    (pp. 9-18)
    John H. Ehrenreich
  4. 1 The Origins of American Social Policy
    (pp. 19-42)

    Modern American social policy and the social work profession as we know it today were born in the Progressive Era, the two decades or so immediately preceding World War I.¹ To understand social policy and social work by examining them in their contemporary, “mature” form would require a difficult task of excavation. We would have to unravel their “true” natures from their self-descriptions and aspirations, to get under their surfaces to identify the functions they serve, the social forces they represent, the logic of their structure. To go back in time, however, to a period when the very idea of...

  5. 2 Casework and the Emergence of Social Work as a Profession
    (pp. 43-77)

    The new constellation of social needs, motives, and opportunities at the end of the nineteenth century produced not only a wave of reforms and a host of new occupations (including those that were to mature into social work) but also a fertile environment for the growth of new understandings of the ground on which social policy rests and in particular a new understanding of poverty. The old Social Darwinist explanations characteristic of the late nineteenth century, which saw individual physical, mental, or moral weaknesses as the source of economic disadvantage, went into eclipse, and the dominant modes of social thought...

  6. 3 The Construction of the Welfare State
    (pp. 78-101)

    By 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression, social work was approaching full professional status, surrounded with the standard paraphernalia of a modern profession: professional organizations, schools, journals, codes of ethics, and so on. More than 4,600 social workers belonged to the forty-three chapters of the American Association of Social Workers (founded in 1921); almost as many, in aggregate, belonged to three more specialized social work organizations, the American Association of Hospital Social Workers (founded 1919), the American Association of School Social Workers (founded 1919), and the American Association of Psychiatric Social Workers (founded 1926).¹ (These groups, along with...

  7. 4 The Crisis in Social Work, 1929–1945
    (pp. 102-138)

    At the outbreak of the Great Depression, the leaders of the social work profession were unprepared to deal with the crisis. In their preoccupation with treating individual woes, it was as if the “social” had disappeared from their profession’s name. Despite soaring unemployment rates, many social workers could still see only individual sources of economic discomfort. In words reminiscent of her Charity Organization movement colleagues of a half century earlier, one midwestern agency executive wrote: “Most poverty and financial dependency can be traced to wrong physical habits and mental attitudes. The work of a social worker is to find out...

  8. 5 Social Policy in the Affluent Society, 1945–1960
    (pp. 139-157)

    The New Deal’s zeal for domestic reform dwindled after 1938. The approach of the war drew politicians’ attention away from domestic issues. Even more important, rising war orders (and, with the outbreak of war, the transfer of millions of workers, employed and unemployed, into active-duty military service) finally brought unemployment under control. By 1941 unemployment had dropped to 9.9 percent and by 1944 to 1.2 percent, its low point for the entire twentieth century.¹

    During the war years, just as during World War I, the country experienced a surge of national unity. Unions agreed to a no-strike policy to ensure...

  9. 6 Kennedy, Johnson, and the Great Society
    (pp. 158-186)

    A systematic and conclusive account of a period so recent as the 1960s and 1970s is not easily written. For one thing, we do not yet have the perspective that only time can bring: It is easy to determine which of the social policies of the Progressive Era or of the New Deal were lasting and significant, which transient or peripheral. But because many of the social policies of the sixties and early seventies—the heightened concerns with poverty, the urban ghetto, racial and sexual discrimination, and the new programs and laws dealing with hunger, health care, reproductive rights, and...

  10. 7 A House Divided: The Second Crisis in Social Work, 1960–1980
    (pp. 187-208)

    The emergence of massive social disorder in the 1960s found social work completely unprepared. Just as in the twenties, during the two decades of apparent social peace that followed World War II, social work had retreated from its concern with social reform. The social work unions, built by the leftist rank-and-file movement in the thirties, were driven out of existence by McCarthyism. Prominent radical figures within social work, such as Bertha Reynolds, found themselves jobless, shunned, uninvited to professional meetings and conferences.¹ Once again, dissent and reform had become dangerous. In 1954, noting the very different perspectives of social workers...

  11. 8 The Next Phase
    (pp. 209-233)

    Social work and social policy have evolved through a series of crises. The social ferment of the Progressive Era, with its conflict between the individual approach of the old Charity Organization Society and the social-reform–oriented approach of the settlement houses, was “resolved” by the collapse of liberal social policy and the rise of professional casework in the twenties. The revival of social action in the thirties set off a new period of ferment: the limited social reforms of the early New Deal gave way to the creation of the modern welfare state. Within social work, the rank-and-file movement challenged...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 234-264)
  13. Index
    (pp. 265-271)