The League in the ‘Roaring ’20s’

During the ‘Roaring ’20s,’ the Michigan League for Human Services was known as the Michigan Conference of Social Work, a name adopted in 1918 from the original Michigan Conference of Charities and Corrections.

The 1920s was a decade of growing economic problems in which both public and private agencies had to respond to increasing needs for social services and financial assistance. And the cultural momentum of the Progressive era was gone. Some evidence suggests that the Conference may have been forced to spend much of its energy during that decade into maintaining basic operations. It would be another 10 years before a full-time executive would be hired.

detroit-prohibitionEntry into World War I brought economic expansion to the U.S., but that came to an end in the 1920s. Michigan began to suffer hard times long before the crash of 1929. Employment and production fell across the Michigan economy. The value of Michigan’s agricultural products peaked in 1920, and the number of farms declinedduring the 1920s. Iron ore production also peaked in 1920 and then fell to a quarter its volume the next year. Employment in copper mining fell from over 12,000 in 1919 to less than 8,000 in 1929. The lumber industry was hit hard. For the auto industry, the 1920s was a period of turbulence, with frequent production slow downs and recurring worker layoffs.

Here’s a description of the 1920s from the League’s 50th anniversary project in 1962:

flappers2“The Great War was followed by disillusionment, the breakdown of social and moral values, and the accumulation of the quick buck. These were the days of Prohibition and the Jazz Age. People enjoyed living, and they thought they had no serious problems.

The Michigan Conference of Social Work Executive Committee and conference participants were not to be misled. From experience, they spoke of the need for revision of the township and county relief system, a statewide probation service, protection for the unemployed and ‘justice for the poor.’’’

1922 Conference program in SaginawThe Conference had a paid secretary, Grace Cone, and continued its annual meetings in cities across the state: Lansing, Ann Arbor, Saginaw, Kalamazoo, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Battle Creek, Flint and St. Joseph. It’s clear from the extensive agendas for the annual conferences that the role of the conferences was to make connections among organizations and with state and national officials and social work and public health experts.

Much of the policy work at the Conference involved vulnerable children and families. The first legislative committee formed in 1922 to address illegitimacy, unemployment relief and insurance, and “outdoor relief” (public assistance provided to people in their own homes, known as “welfare” today).

State Public School in ColdwaterA 1921 letter to Gov. Alexander Groesbeck urged a cottage style plan rather than a “congregate institution” for juveniles at the State Industrial School for juveniles, and a 1924 urgent telegram was sent to the same governor urging that the next Superintendent of the State Public School, a Coldwater institution for orphans and neglected children, have a background in social work.

The Conference supported a bill in 1922 providing a delay between the issuance of a marriage license and the ceremony. In 1923 the Conference urged support for laws to allow illegitimate children to inherit equally as other children from a father’s estate and to take the father’s name. A 1924 report urged the study of play in counseling children.

In 1926, the Conference passed a resolution assuring incoming Gov. Fred Green of its willingness to work to with the administration to find better delivery of public welfare.

The Conference meetings were not all work and no play. Minutes from 1921 commented that “exceptional entertainment was enjoyed in Ann Arbor” at an Ann Arbor conference where attendees were offered seats at a football game between the University of Michigan and Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University). A 1923 Kalamazoo conference included trips to local churches, the Michigan State Hospital and entertainment provided by what’s now Western Michigan University — the Western State Normal School Glee Club.

Organizational problems for the Conference were evident by the early 1920s. In a 1922 article in the Journal of Social Forces, Grace Cone, the group’s secretary, reported that recommendations to create a statewide structure adopted by the Conference in 1919 had still not been acted upon.

In the social welfare field in Michigan, the 1920s saw efforts to professionalize social services continued, along with efforts to integrate the many local welfare services across Michigan into a single state level department.

By the 1920s case work had become the professional social work standard in the U.S. and in Michigan. Legislation in 1921 created the State Welfare Department, but it did not integrate services in the way the proponents of a state welfare system wanted. Localism and the associated pattern of varied access to services and assistance prevailed.

In the 1920s hardships increased the demands on local welfare programs and private charities, particularly because workers in urban factories, of which many were immigrants, usually did not have land as a fall back for living self-sufficiently when unemployed. Apparently, as the need for assistance grew in the 1920s, the inability of private organizations to meet those needs led to an increase in public efforts.

By 1928 public funding for relief aid was greater than private funding in Michigan and public agencies served far more people than private organizations. As part of the response to harder times centralized fundraising was developed in some larger Michigan cities in the form of community chests and welfare leagues.

“The ideal of the ‘20s – poverty’s possible elimination – toppled in the face of the stock market crash. Business and industry were paralyzed…trade came to a near-halt…agriculture stagnated…and the number of unemployed soon ran into the thousands,” according to the League’s 1962 history project.

While still an organization centered around an annual meeting, the groundwork laid in the first 20 years of the Conference’s existence would soon be called into action as the Great Depression took its toll on families across the state and the conference worked toward a stronger system of public relief.

— Jim Lunday and Judy Putnam

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