Great Depression Social Work Story Has Lessons for Today


Dorothy Kahn | Photo via Women in Peace
Unemployment. Eviction. Poverty. Hunger.

These problems have appeared in the news frequently this year as the coronavirus pandemic batters the economy. They also are familiar to those who have studied — or survived — a different catastrophe: the Great Depression.

The stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing economic crisis left millions of Americans unemployed, unhoused and unfed. As unemployment levels reached nearly 25%, social workers and service agencies advocated for the creation of public welfare programs to meet the surging demand for relief.

Dorothy C. Kahn, a Jewish social worker who worked in Philadelphia for many years, was a strong proponent of those programs and dedicated her career to developing robust social safety nets.

After graduating from Wellesley College in 1915, Kahn was inspired by a family friend to pursue a career in social work. She became a case worker at the Jewish Family Agency from 1915 to 1918, attended the University of Chicago School of Social Work (now the School of Social Service Administration) and worked as civic director of Chicago Women’s Aid.

In 1919, she was offered a job at Hebrew Benevolent Association of Baltimore and worked there until 1928, when she became director of the Jewish Welfare Society of Philadelphia.

Kahn helmed this organization at a time when social work — particularly Jewish social work — was undergoing profound changes because of the Great Depression. Rugged individualism and private charity proved inadequate in the face of mass unemployment, poverty and hunger, leading President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to create the social welfare programs known collectively as the New Deal.

Kahn believed all citizens deserved relief. However, she knew that Americans’ desire to believe in meritocracy, or “the American success psychology,” as she put it, made welfare controversial.

“This is important because it has produced a set of mind which surrounds relief with emotional conflicts of enormous importance to those who would administer it wisely. For if relief represents frustration, failure and inadequacy, can it nourish and rehabilitate its recipients? And if it is too readily accepted as due recompense for lost opportunity, does it cripple initiative and undermine the spirit of independence?” she wrote in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

She used empathetic portrayals of people who sought public relief to argue that they were in need due to forces outside of their control and were entitled to support as a matter of justice.

“Kahn urged social workers and the social work profession to take leadership roles in developing and building an adequate national system for social welfare,” clinical geriatric social worker and author Joan Ditzion wrote in Kahn’s biography for the Jewish Women’s Archive.

With the expansion of public welfare agencies during the New Deal, Jewish social services, in particular, had to reckon with their roles in their communities and American society at large.

Beth Wenger, associate dean for graduate studies and Moritz and Josephine Berg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, said Jewish social workers struggled with the fact that they could no longer fulfill the Stuyvesant Promise, a colonial compact that had a strong influence over Jewish American charity. When the first Jews came to New Amsterdam (now Manhattan) in 1654, Gov. Peter Stuyvesant and the West India Co. admitted them on the condition that they would care for the poor in their community.

“This was something that Jewish social workers turned from a mandate that allowed their settlement in colonial America into an obligation that Jews ‘take care of their own,’ and the Great Depression really made that impossible,” Wenger said.

Despite the upheaval, Jewish social workers like Kahn saw the need for national public relief efforts and did not view their work in conflict with New Deal relief programs like the Social Security Agency and the Civil Works Administration. Many joined expanding government agencies, while others continued to address need in Jewish contexts.

“Jewish social workers and professionals continued to believe in the ideal of ethnic philanthropy as a kind of cornerstone of Jewish life. Even after the government assumed responsibility for many programs, they focused on things that were within their realm in Jewish employment services, dealing with Jewish families, vocational guidance, all sorts of things that they felt could still be done under Jewish auspices,” Wenger said.

Kahn’s career spanned the Jewish and non-Jewish social work worlds. She became the first executive director of the Philadelphia County Relief Board in 1932, served as president of the American Association of Social Workers from 1934 to 1936 and chaired the subcommittee on employment and relief of Roosevelt’s Committee on Economic Security.

She lived and worked in Philadelphia until 1945 and received widespread support from Philadelphians after she was fired from the local relief board, according to Ditzion.

She went on to work for the American Association of Social Workers as staff executive secretary and then staff president.

“In these positions, she developed professional standards for public welfare workers and helped the social work profession define its role in the development of social policy and social welfare programs across the country,” Ditzion wrote.

In the early 1940s, she served as director of Economic Adjustment and Family Services at the National Refugee Service in New York. After World War II, she became the executive director of the Health and Welfare Council of New York City. She was chief of the Social Welfare Division of the Department of Social Affairs of the United Nations from 1951 to 1954 and advised the Israeli government on social welfare legislation.

She died on Aug. 26, 1955 in New Hope.

“She believed that people were in need through no fault of their own, and that every citizen had the right to a minimum standard of living as a matter of human rights and social justice, not charity,” Ditzion wrote.; 215-832-0729


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here