The English Poor Law legislation’s and related
developments provided the background for the
development of American systems of relief. The colonists
from England, who came in the early and midseventeenth
century, brought with them English laws,
customs, institutions and ideas and implanted them
Three Social Movements
During the last half of the 19th century, the US
experienced an increase in social problems as a result
of rapid industrialization, urbanization, and
immigration, together with the massive growth of the
population. In response to these problems, three social
movements began that formed the basis for the
development of the social work profession:
1) The Charity Organization Societies (COS)
movement, which began in 1877 in Buffalo, New
2) The Settlement House movement, which began in
1886 in New York City; and
3) The Child Welfare movement, which was a result
of several loosely related developments, notably the
Children’s Aid Society and the Society for the
Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which began in
New York City in 1853 and 1875, respectively.
Let us look at these movements in more detail as they
form the basis for future developments.
The settlement house movement and the child welfare
movement eventually made important contributions to
the development of the social work profession, but it
is in the COS movement that the origin of the
profession is to be found.
S. Humpherys Gurteen, an English cleric who had been
impressed with charity organization in London, founded
the first COS in the United States in Buffalo, New
York, in 1877. The Buffalo COS served as a model for
rapid development of similar organizations. Within 15
years, there were COS agencies in 92 American cities.
The beginning of professional approach to the problems
of human need can be seen in the philosophy of COS
movement. The “scientific charity” attitude adopted by
the COS enabled them to understand and cure poverty
and family disorganization rather than merely assisting
the poor. The charity organizations wanted to apply
science to social welfare in the same way that it had
been applied to medicine and engineering.
The COS leaders sought to replace chaotic charity with
a rational system that would stress investigation, coordination,
and personal service. Each case was to be
considered individually, thoroughly investigated and
assigned to a “friendly visitor.” The techniques used
by the friendly visitors consisted of personal attributes
such as sympathy, tact, patience, and wise advice. The
COS friendly visitors, most of them women, are the
true forerunners of today’s social workers.
Besides, the COS movement fostered the development
of the family service agencies of today, the practice of
family casework, family counselling, schools of social
work, employment services, legal aid, and many other
programs which are a part and parcel of social work
In addition to these contributions may be listed the
establishment of the first social work publication,
Charities Review, which was merged into The Survey in
1907 and continued publication until 1952.
Settlement House Movement
Another significant development of social services in
America has been that of the social settlement house.
Settlement houses in the United States began in the
late 1800s and were modelled after Toynbee Hall,
founded in England in 1884 by Samuel Barnett. Many
settlement houses were established in cities across
the country, including Chicago’s Hull House, started
by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in 1889.
The settlement house movement, which combined
social advocacy and social services, was a response to
the social disorganization that resulted from
widespread industrialization, urbanization and
immigration. Through group work and neighbourhood
organizing strategies, the settlement house workers
established neighbourhood centres and offered services
such as citizenship training, adult education,
counselling, recreation, and day care.
The settlement house workers were young, idealistic
college graduates from wealthy families who lived
among the poor as “settlers” and thereby experienced
the harsh realities. For the most part, they were
volunteers and community leaders and not employed
as social work professionals.
The settlement house leaders believed that by changing
neighbourhood they can improve communities and by
changing communities they can develop a better
society. The seeds of social work methods, namely,
Group Work, Social Action and Community
Organization, were thus sown in the settlement house
Child Welfare Movement
The Children’s Aid Society (1853) and the Society for
the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (1875) which
began in New York City formed the basic elements of
a child welfare movement. However, the beginnings of
the Child Welfare movement can be traced back to
1729 when the Ursuline sisters established an
institution in New Orleans for children of parents
massacred by Indians.
The child welfare agencies had limited aims. They were
basically concerned with “rescuing” children from
inadequate homes or from the streets and finding for
them wholesome living situations. Once their goals
were accomplished, the agencies considered their job
to be over.