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Social Welfare and Visual Politics
The Story of Survey Graphic

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    Social Welfare and Visual Politics: The Story of Survey Graphic
    Cara Finnegan, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

    The Survey and the Progressive Ethos

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    Cover, Charities and the Commons
    Cover, Charities and the Commons, January 2, 1909, v21, n14.

    We chronicle developments . . . pool experiment and experience . . . afford a forum for free discussion . . . carry forward swift first hand investigations with a procedure comparable to that of scientific research . . . interpret the findings of others . . . employ photographs, maps, charts, the arts in gaining a hearing from two to twenty times that of formal books and reports. [ 1]

    Survey Graphic statement of purpose (1937)

  1. The journal that in the twenties came to be known as Survey Graphic was a child of the progressive era, with ties reaching far back into the social welfare practices of nineteenth century charitable organizations. The origins of the journal may be traced to the early 1870's, specifically to the rise of the "scientific charity" movement. For much of the nineteenth century, as welfare historian Michael Katz has observed, American charitable activity was closely tied to religious practices and beliefs, particularly among well to do Protestants. But by 1870, industrial changes in America had begun to produce strong divisions between labor and capital. The number of people requesting relief grew in both cities and rural areas, and capital responded by transforming how charity was conducted. Cities ceased giving direct moneys to the poor and advocated instead "scientific charity," a process that would involve not only helping, but studying the poor.[ 2] The foundation of scientific charity was the charity organization. The ideal charity organization, Katz explains, "would coordinate, investigate, and counsel. It would not give material relief." [ 3] Rather, the charity organization would function as a bureaucratic entity, a kind of clearinghouse for public relief administration. Applicants for relief would go to the charity organization, which would decide what type of relief, if any, was appropriate and the direct the family to the appropriate relief agency. The charity organization would also assign a "visitor," a precursor to the caseworker of social work, to work with the family.

  2. During the heyday of the charity organization societies, a small cadre of journals and periodicals emerged to help charity organization workers with advice and information. The New York Charity Organization Society (COS) founded the journal Charities Review in 1891. It offered advice and analyses of issues faced by charity organizations throughout the country. The journal was highly specialized and not widely known outside of welfare circles. In 1897 Edward T. Devine, the most prominent American writer on welfare issues, launched another publication for the New York COS called Charities, a monthly and then later a weekly "review of local and general philanthropy." Charities absorbed Charities Review in 1901.

  3. During the first decade of the twentieth century Charities reflected the basic assumptions of scientific charity outlined above: that what was necessary to reduce poverty was intervention into the lives of poor families by trained investigators who could, in a "neighborly" way, study the causes of the family's poverty and provide "'sympathy, counsel, and service'" but not "'groceries or coal or rent'." [ 4] Although Charities proclaimed itself to be an outlet for communication about the poor, it also dedicated itself to the proposition that charity organizations should promote programs to help the poor eliminate their so-called "personal defects." [ 5] The belief that the poor were poor because of "personal defects" (as opposed to oppressive institutional and economic structures, for example), strongly influenced thinking about social welfare during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

  4. Between 1902 and 1909, Charities embraced early developments in progressive thinking that conceptualized poverty not as the failing of an individual, but as the result of complex interrelationships among corrupt systems. During those years Charities published articles on progressive issues such as child labor, housing reform, immigration, black Americans' migration to Northern cities, and the settlement movement, which was transforming the ways in which the upper and middle classes interacted with the poor. Then Charities again changed names, merging with a popular journal of the settlement movement to become Charities and the Commons. The merger proved to be not only a sound business decision for two highly specialized journals with limited readership, but also gave recognition to the increasing influence of settlement movement thinkers such as Jane Addams and Lillian D. Wald.

  5. Social reformers such as Addams and Wald believed that poverty was not caused by an individual's personal "flaws," but by a complex set of social forces (including economic ones) that produced in the poor feelings of hopelessness and despair. Charities and the Commons reflected such beliefs:

    It believed in the efficacy of facts; it believed in the ultimate benevolence of an informed public; it asserted that government could be a great agency for the elevation of the human race; it believed that when the people really knew what the conditions were that stood in the way of social justice, they would take appropriate steps to root out evil; it insisted on open, "scientific" inquiry; it had faith in an elite of well-trained social analysts and practitioners. [ 6]

    Such beliefs not only reflected the editorial stance of Charities and the Commons, but more fundamentally represent the foundations of a type of progressivism that Sean Dennis Cashman argues was dominated by "efficiency experts." While some reformers in the early part of this century located their desire to change society in religious movements such as Walter Rauschenbusch's "social gospel," other progressives focused upon transforming social problems by managing them with greater efficiency.[ 7] These "efficiency progressives" were much more likely to be urban and of a professional class of college educated Americans.[ 8] Reform for this group was not found in application of the Christian gospel to contemporary conditions but involved a desire for reason and order. [ 9] The philosophy of social transformation to which Charities and the Commons and its later successors subscribed was grounded in this latter approach. Those who produced and read Charities and the Commons were professionals: journalists and social welfare experts, people who read and understood the tenets of "social invention" and "social engineering" of philosophers and activists such as Louis Brandeis and John Dewey. The influence of these men and other progressive reformers resonated in the pages of Charities and the Commons and its successors.


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