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Reflections on the American Social Welfare State

The Collected Papers of James R. Dumpson, PhD, 1930–1990

This book had a long period of incubation. It began when I learned of the existence of what is now the James R. Dumpson Collection, housed at the Rose Hill campus of Fordham University, where Dr. Dumpson served as dean of the Graduate School of Social Service. It was in a casual conversation with Dumpson that I learned that he was troubled about what to do with the many boxes of papers he had accumulated over the years of his professional career. Subsequently, with the help of Bertram Beck and other close colleagues, funding was obtained from the New York Community Trust (where he served as senior consultant before his retirement) to support the costs of indexing and cataloguing the papers for the Fordham archives (Beck, 1992). This solved the immediate problem of preserving and finding a permanent home for the papers. However, relatively few people were aware of their existence and access to the papers was limited, even though they were an invaluable resource for doctoral students, scholars, social scientists, and public policymakers.

Interest in the book was further stimulated by my experiences teaching social welfare policy as faculty of the New York University Silver School of Social Work. Faculty who teach in this curriculum sequence know that it is sometimes begrudgingly taken by some students. Many, especially those whose interests lie in clinical practice, see this course work as having little relevance in their professional lives after graduation. Moreover, irrespective of teaching concentration, faculty and colleagues in agency-based practice are becoming increasingly aware of the challenges faced by schools of social work in turning out students who have an appreciation and commitment to the public purposes of social work, and as aptly stated by Jacqueline Mondros, the dean of the Silberman School of Social of Work, who are capable of being “good stewards of the founding principles of the profession.” Parenthetically, it was my sense that there was a diminishing knowledge among students about the significant contributions of social workers to the field of public policy. Although they were familiar with early pioneers such as Jane Addams and Mary Richmond, few knew about the work of early African American pioneers of the 19th century such as George Edmond Haynes and Lester Granger or the contributions of contemporary social workers such as Dumpson and his professional peers, Mitchell Ginsberg, Whitney Young, Wilbur Cohen, and Dorothy Height. Mitchell Ginsberg, similar to Dumpson, influenced social work education and social policy development in New York City during his tenure as dean of the Columbia University School of Social Work and commissioner of the New York City Department of Welfare. Whitney Young influenced social work education as dean of the Atlanta University School of Social Work, now named for him, and professional developments at the national level as president of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). During his tenure as chief executive officer of the National Urban League, Young had significant impact on advancing civil rights in the corporate sector and shaping the War on Poverty programs. Wilbur Cohen is nationally known for his work in shaping programs of the New Deal, New Frontier, and Great Society. Dumpson worked closely with Cohen, who is sometimes referred to as “Mr. Social Security,” in developing the 1962 public welfare amendments. Dorothy Height began her career with the New York City Department of Welfare and is nationally distinguished for her advocacy for the rights of women and girls as president of the National Council of Negro Women and for her role of leadership in the civil rights movement.

This book provided an opportunity to bring these interests together. The papers are given greater visibility and detail the breadth and scope of the contributions of an individual who happens to be an African American and a social worker—two groups whose contributions to the field of social welfare policy have not been given sufficient attention in the social welfare literature and in the broader public arena. I hope that the approach taken by the book will increase interest among students in the study of social welfare policy. There is consensus among scholars in the field that the subject cannot be adequately learned or taught in the absence of an examination of historical roots and the implications of these for subsequent developments. At the same time, it has been my experience that although the study of history holds little interest for some, most people are captured by events and personalities. Therefore, rather than giving a detailed historical overview of policy development, the book is episodic and focuses on critical events during key periods of policy development. It does this through the lens of the papers of an individual who brings a social work perspective to the work of policy making and implementation.

The approach is intended to promote an understanding that the problems of social welfare that have shaped the public discourse and that are encountered by professional workers in day-to-day practice are not solely the result of methodological and theoretical limitations, client resistance, or ineffective, wasteful bureaucratic systems—a view held by the general public and professional workers alike. Although these matter, most often these problems can be traced to flawed policy choices and the absence of a strong correlation between policy intent and administrative performance. Moreover, since the policy formulation process seldom starts from scratch, there is the tendency for past efforts to have continuing rippling effects over time. For the professional worker, the failure to understand this, and the policy context of practice, results in an unwitting complicity in perpetuating and contributing to the very problems they aspire to solve. For the general public, it diminishes the belief that social policies can be powerful tools for creating the kind of society that we want to pass on to future generations.

Social policy, much like democracy, is a process and not a final product. It is also an optimistic field, because it assumes that problems of the human condition can be solved or their effects on vulnerable populations at least mitigated. Democratic ideals and a sense of optimism are reflected throughout the Dumpson papers. Over the years of our relationship, which began when he agreed to serve on my dissertation committee, I was buoyed by his belief that the country can do better by its children and those who find themselves in difficult situations through no fault of their own. I have been in awe of his steadfast commitment to humanitarian ideals that validate the rights and needs of all individuals to participate fully in American society, which had enabled him to “stay the course” over periods of repressive policy development for the poor.

The papers more often than not assume a professorial stance, but also reflect his satirical wit, as reflected in his remarks in a salute to Mitchell Ginsberg at the 1981 Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) annual program meeting: “I remind Mitch that I preceded him as the head of the old New York City Welfare Department, and followed him as Commissioner of Social Services. And since he was sandwiched by Jim Dumpson, I would say that makes Mitch an ‘Oreo’” (Dumpson, 1981b). His authority is illustrated in his remarks at a Human Resources Administration (HRA) staff meeting, at the time of his second appointment as public welfare commissioner, when the humanitarian path he had set the agency on was challenged by some staff. “It is one and the same mission for me as for every employee of the agency . . . whether you agree with the procedures or modalities or not . . . these may not be modified by one or more staff . . . because the mission is the mission for the agency.” His compassion is depicted as he corrected racial stereotyping and demonizing of the fathers of children receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) benefits that began in the 1950s: “That much maligned program is a children’s program . . . and not a haven for beer-drinking, promiscuous, able bodied males as some would have us believe.” Finally, his enduring commitment to social justice is shown in his articulation of the components of a “caring society” as including “the responsibility to plan fully in the short and long term to build a society in which there is an equitable distribution of goods and services to guarantee equal access to basic necessities to all members.”

Dumpson died before I began the substantive writing of this book. Therefore, I did not have benefit of his feedback over the process of writing. My conversations with him over the years indicated that his thinking had evolved on some positions set forth in some of the papers. However, because the substantive body of his work was anchored in enduring moral imperatives, much of his thinking is as relevant today as at the time of his original writings and public talks. This is apparent in his following statements on the natural forces of societal change and progress that were given in an address at a 1980 Annual Program Meeting of CSWE:

The economic, social, and political forces that are buffeting us are controllable if there is broad understanding that they supersede national borders, and that there is inter-dependence among nations, which if not observed, will jeopardize the well-being and security of all nations. The United States is no longer all powerful; it no longer controls the economies of other nations or that of its own. No individual president or administration is responsible for that situation. It is the result of many large and small decisions by many people and governments over time and of constant technological innovations. (Dumpson, 1980)

Nor did he modify his vision of the central role of the profession of social work in supporting a change process essential for achieving and sustaining the goals of a good and just society:

The forces of change represent a challenge, a challenge which can be met by people who are as knowledgeable and competent as they are compassionate. Social work can influence the direction of the change forces by influencing economic, tax, energy, defense, and foreign policies. To do so, social workers must integrate the required knowledge and competence with the compassion that is the hallmark of the profession. I believe as a profession we have the capacity to do so and to lead the nation. (Dumpson, 1980)

Because of the durability of his thinking on those matters of concern to social welfare, social work education, and the profession of social work, the narrative of the book draws heavily on content excerpted from the papers in the Dumpson Collection housed in the Fordham archives and his extensive personal collection. Therefore, his is the dominant voice present throughout the book.

Dumpson was mentor and colleague to professionals across many fields in the human services sector over many years. He had established and maintained an amazing social network of acquaintances, colleagues, and friends who knew him in a variety of roles, and their perspectives on his work and the events that provide the context for this book may differ from the manner in which these are portrayed in the following chapters. Admittedly, this is not an objective review of Dumpson’s work, but a reflection of my admiration and affection for his generosity in contributing to my professional development. When he is not speaking in his own voice I accept that my perspectives on his work may differ from that of others who knew him well.

The James R. Dumpson Collection

Historical research is an effective study methodology for learning about the effects of past events on contemporary issues of policy and practice, tracking trends in social work professional interests, and analyzing changing policy responses to certain populations. The James R. Dumpson Collection housed in the Fordham archives, supplemented by oral history interviews, was the primary source for the narrative of the book. The Fordham collection contains 14 series with approximately 314 individual entries that illustrate Dumpson’s philosophical approach and how his thinking was applied as he was called upon to make difficult policy choices at various points in his public positions in government and in academia.

Individual entries illustrate his philosophical approach to social welfare policy development on issues that range from global concerns such as the role of social welfare in modern society, social welfare and social justice, administration in the health and human services, social planning in times of economic uncertainty, the nature of racism, public/private partnerships, and education for effective social welfare and administrative practices, to those that advocate fundamental reforms in systems such as public assistance, child welfare, and health care, and admonish the profession for veering away from its public purpose and founding principles. Others become more sharply focused on the problems and needs of special populations such as poor children, the minority elderly, the homeless, the physically and mentally disabled, and individuals impacted by HIV/AIDS.

The papers address issues of policy, practice, and administration in the social services from a social work value and ethical framework. The varied positions adopted by Dumpson illustrate that social welfare philosophy is driven as much by the larger societal forces as it is by the predisposition of those who are invested with the political power to oversee policy implementation, the capability of administrative structures, professional trends, and practice preferences of the individual social worker.


The book examines social welfare philosophy and resulting programs over Dumpson’s career, roughly a period from the 1930s to the late 1990s, with his partial retirement from public life. The content highlights the situation of special populations, including the poor, children, and ethnic and racial minorities, that were a focal point of much of Dumpson’s work in the field. Individual chapters begin with a discussion of the societal context that influenced social welfare philosophy and resultant programs developed at the national level and in New York City during a specific decade, while giving consideration to the situation of special populations, social work professional trends, and Dumpson’s professional and career pursuits. The summary highlights critical issues during the decade and implications for subsequent policy and professional developments. From Poor Law to Social Welfare State: A History of Social Welfare in American and Social Welfare (Trattner, 1999), Social Welfare: A History of the American Response to Need (Stern & Axinn, 2012), In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America (Katz, 1996), and The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare (Katz, 1989) were the primary sources for the discussion of the historical contextof policy development in each chapter. Presidential quotes included in each chapter were retrieved from the American Presidency Project Web site established by John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The introductory chapter provides an overview of the content covered and a context for those that follow. It examines the purpose of social welfare in complex modern societies from a Dumpson perspective, the evolving role of government as the United States transitioned from an agrarian to an urban society, the ambiguities that have characterized American social welfare systems from the colonial period to the present, the necessary social control function of social welfare, and social work’s struggle with the dual concerns for professional status and advocacy to promote social justice and human rights.

Chapter 2 previews events of the early decades of the 20th century that created a new role for the federal government in social welfare and led to the enactment of the Social Security Act, and examines the contributions of pioneering social workers. Corresponding with this is a discussion of Dumpson’s childhood and early years growing up in Philadelphia; his strong roots in family and religion, in which his future professional identification remained firmly anchored; his first work experiences as a social investigator for the Philadelphia Department of Welfare; and his first job in New York City as caseworker for the Children’s Aid Society working on a special project to place black children in adoptive homes.

Chapter 3 considers the 1950s as years of transition and solidification of social welfare gains, events that sparked the civil rights and human rights movements of the 1960s, and Dumpson’s first international social welfare assignment as a United Nations (UN) consultant in Pakistan, where he was involved in building social welfare infrastructures and social work education programs following the 1947 partition. Upon his return to the States he joined national leaders in encouraging social workers to strengthen their commitment to social activism.

Chapter 4 details the broad-based reforms occurring in the 1960s that were supported by a changing social welfare philosophy prompted by civil unrest that created a political climate for addressing the human rights and the promotion of social justice for oppressed and marginalized groups. Dumpson, appointed to head the New York City public welfare agency, oversaw the implementation of the 1962 Public Welfare Amendments and managed the agency through the crisis of the nation’s first strike of welfare workers and the welfare rights movement. Developments in the profession included the first New York state policy regulating the practice of social work, the establishment of the certified social worker (CSW) credential, CSWE’s publication of a 13-volume curriculum study in 1960, and the establishment of minority professional associations, including the National Association of Black Social Workers, the Association of Puerto Rican Social Workers, and the Association of Asian American Social Workers.

Chapter 5 considers the backlash against the poor and the beginning of a move toward a conservative social welfare philosophy and the attempts to roll back the programs established under the Great Society. During this period, social work became more closely tied to psychotherapeutic approaches, now practiced as private enterprise, and a segment of the profession became disinterested in the poor. As the commissioner of public welfare, Dumpson continues to be a strong advocate for the poor. In a 1976 paper entitled “Social Welfare and Social Justice,” he asserted,

The rich are no more deserving of their wealth, than the poor of their poverty. . . . The attack must be on poverty and the social and economic practices that produce it and not on the people who are its victims.

Dumpson was called back into public service in the 1970s when the city was in a deep fiscal crisis and oversees the downsizing of the nation’s largest public welfare bureaucracy. Wearied from the stress of attempting to salvage basic survival services for the poor, he resigns from government for a full-time appointment in academia and expands his role of leadership with NASW and CSWE.

Chapter 6 examines the social welfare philosophy underlying the conservative New Federalism policies of the 1980s, resulting in dramatic retrenchments in programs for poor children, the Contract with America that laid the foundation for reforms instituted under the 1996 welfare reform bill. Dumpson expanded his international work and continued his advocacy and activism from his post as vice president of the New York Community Trust; in academia, an endowed chair in child welfare studies was named for him at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service. Social workers became increasingly interested in independent private practice, with some claims that there is almost an exclusive concern for white middle-income clients who can pay for these services.

Chapter 7 focuses on the events of the 1990s, Dumpson was called back to government with the election of David Dinkins, New York City’s first African American mayor, to head the Health and Hospital Corporation, the nation’s largest municipal hospital system. With the election of Republication mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Dumpson returned to the New York Community Trust and focused on problems of community violence, HIV/AIDS, managed Medicaid, the minority elderly, and the changing needs of children and families.

The afterword is written by Edward Mullen, the Wilma and Albert Musher Professor Emeritus at Columbia University School of Social Work. Dr. Mullen was a long-term friend and colleague of Dumpson, with whom he collaborated on many projects. In keeping with the theme of the book that social welfare is both past and prologue, he asks us to consider the current issues of social welfare through the perspective of Dumpson’s philosophy on social welfare and social work and to reflect on how much has changed over the half century of Dumpson’s professional career and the extent to which we have achieved his vision of a caring society, which has been a consistent theme of his career.