Books, Arts & Manners

Did Social Work Kill Civil Society?

Health, Education, and Welfare assistant secretary Wilbur Cohen (at right) at the opening of a Social Security exhibit at the National Archives in 1964. (National Archives)
A new book makes the case.

If civil society is dead — and evidence of its decay abounds, from the derelict exurban brownstones that were once home to orphanages and industrial schools to the ever-dwindling numbers of community organizations — Howard Husock’s question is one worth asking. In his new book Who Killed Civil Society? he explores the confluence of cultural, political, and economic developments that destroyed the “mediating institutions” that once imparted “middle-class values” to the poor and destitute.

It is a story told through anecdote, first through the eyes of Husock’s orphaned father, on whose behalf “a private organization called the Juvenile Aid Society, staffed in large part by volunteers, stepped in and provided a solid foundation for his life.” The Juvenile Aid Society “sought to shape his values — to inculcate the norms that are sometimes mocked as ‘bourgeois.’” These norms have been abandoned, in his eyes, to the great peril of the poor.

The book chronicles the evolution of social services from the late 19th century to the present, using emblematic figures — philanthropists, reformers, and ideologues — as vehicles to chart its development. This is Husock’s means of personalizing what is, in part, an impersonal plot: Whatever the role of individual social-service agents, it was the whirlwinds of legislative and cultural revolution that would destroy value formation and civil society in turn.

Husock presents Charles Loring Brace, a 19th-century philanthropist, as a model of voluntary charity’s best features. Brace created a series of programs under the Children’s Aid Society umbrella that, by 1890, included “twenty-one industrial schools, thirteen night schools for general education, four summer camps, a typing school, a print shop, and three reading rooms.” While Brace received small contributions from local governments, he was almost exclusively funded by donors who embraced his mission to the poor, which included promoting bourgeois norms: “The principal value of our Enterprise,” Brace wrote, “is that our influence is moral and in no respect coercive . . . [aspiring philanthropists will] soon see how superficial and comparatively useless all assistance or organization is which does not touch the habits of life and the inner forces which form character.” Brace’s imposition of norms on impoverished children and insistence upon thrift and virtue might, to the modern ear, sound like “moralizing.” To Husock, if propagating bourgeois norms counts as “moralizing,” then our institutions ought “not shrink from just such moralizing because . . . it can actually empower people.”

Husock invokes the so-called “success sequence” to defend the importance of norms. The “success sequence” is a social-science concept that has seen various expressions spanning several decades, but its essential claim is thus: If an individual finishes high school, gets a job, and gets married before having children, he is highly unlikely to live in poverty. This basic schema has been confirmed by subsequent research, though it’s not without its dissenters, who charge it to be overly reductive and a means of blaming the poor for their poverty. Husock sidesteps these objections, insisting that the success sequence confirms the importance of norms for those in adverse economic or social circumstances. “In my father’s time,” Husock laments, “it was acknowledged that bourgeois norms were an essential key to upward mobility.” What would happen when society thought otherwise?

The success sequence is, if nothing else, practical, which is part of what attracts Husock to Brace’s approach. Brace had an Oakeshottian distaste for ideology, skeptical of those “with a pet theory of reforming the world in ninety days which he forces on all occasions.” It was “Brace’s goal,” Husock writes, “to help individuals acquire the personal tools to prosper within the system,” not to overhaul the system itself. Brace’s successors were not so modest; Husock contrasts Brace’s approach with later social workers who made “a pivot from the formative to the reformative, and increasingly to the ‘wholesale’ approach to social work, more and more tied to government action.”

The ascendance of professional social work was, to Husock, the death knell of civil society, though not the lone culprit for its demise. Husock identifies professional, state-contracted “social work” as something of a scavenger, picking away at what remains of the voluntary institutions between civilian and government. Social work began as “friendly visiting,” a practice made famous by the reformer Mary Richmond, where concerned members of the upper classes would periodically check in on poor households to engage, per Husock, in the “retail dissemination of social norms.” These “friendly visitors,” by the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935, had become the progenitors of the modern social worker, and things once reserved for civil society were farmed out to the burgeoning class of well-credentialed practitioners of what was once called “scientific charity.” Social workers became hyper-rational intermediaries between the federal government’s menu of social programs and the poor bound to receive them — “eligibility for aid,” Husock demurs, required that the recipient accept “individual counseling, provided by trained professionals rather than concerned neighbors and citizens.”

The professionalization of social work, to Husock, was the ultimate abdication of civil society. “Volunteers,” Husock says, “became a disadvantage as nonprofits sought to comply with government requirements to hire social workers with master’s degrees, whose education in many cases had been supported by the government itself.” More to the point, social work, by its nature, demanded responding to already-manifest social ills. The formative work that might prevent social ills outright, of the sort performed by Charles Loring Brace, would necessarily be lost. Husock accepts the value of the former but takes issue with those who would dismiss the importance of the latter. “It is this view,” Husock insists, “that this book disputes.”

One never gets the sense that Husock disdains social workers themselves — indeed, he readily acknowledges good work done by some in the field — but he does abhor what he calls the “scaling of the social service state,” where charity devolved from a personal act to one marred by bureaucracy and mechanization. Husock details the life of health, education, and welfare secretary Wilbur Cohen, the man who he claims “did more to steer the expansion of the social service state” than almost any public official in history. Cohen was “the consummate federal bureaucrat,” one who, unlike the other reformers that Husock details, spent most of his life in government, removed from the actual delivery of services to the poor. “Wilbur Cohen’s legacy,” Husock charges, “is based on public policy for the poor, not personal involvement with them.” Cohen was one of the principal actors involved in the passage of the 1962 amendments to the Social Security Act, a series of ambitious expansions of federal power that would, in effect, usurp services “once funded and delivered locally, and overseen by local citizens on local boards of directors who were accountable for the results.” And as governmental actors, the “formative” services of Charles Loring Brace were inevitably to be delivered in a supposedly “value-neutral” fashion. What, then, would happen to norms?

Husock does not provide much in the way of solutions; he in part resigns himself to lamenting what has been lost and the culture that now loathes the norms so instrumental in his father’s life. He hastily provides a series of modern actors who he feels are engaging in work that vaguely evokes Charles Loring Brace, but sees them as islands in a sea of bureaucracy and dispassion.

“What,” he dirges, “would . . . renaissance mean for the multibillion-dollar social service state?” This is the foremost question raised by his book, and it’s one to which he dedicates but a paragraph to answering. “That would entail returning social work to its roots of friendly visiting: exposing households to the idea that life choices improve life chances, rather than compensating them with services for being victims of an unjust social structure.”

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