Welfare Politics in Boston, 1910-1940

By Susan Traverso | Go to book overview
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POLITICS AND PUBLIC WELFARE, 1920–1929

PUBLIC POOR relief entered the fray of municipal politics in Boston during the 1920s. Mayors and city councilmen discussed poor relief policy as they never had previously, and for the first time, the city's welfare program was debated within a democratic forum. By and large, the debate divided along ethnic lines. A mixed assortment of Irish politicians, by no means allies, began to champion the cause of the city's poor. Claiming to speak for all poor ethnic groups, they demanded an enlarged and politically accountable public welfare program. In contrast, Yankee politicians associated increases in public welfare spending with political corruption and patronage. In order to curb welfare expenditures and to reaffirm their political control over poor relief, they wanted to remove welfare policymaking from the democratic arena where Irish politicians enjoyed the majority. These contesting political agendas produced a disjointed public welfare program that was pushed and pulled between policies meant to enlarge the department and others intended to control its growth.

The debate over public relief spending and administration, however, affected the Overseers' two relief programs differently. After the passage of the Mothers' Aid program in 1913, the Overseers of the Poor began to divide relief cases into two categories, Mothers' Aid and Dependent Aid. Mothers' Aid provided financial support to poor mothers with dependent children. Dependent Aid was the “all other” category of relief, aiding the needy elderly, the intemperate, the unemployed, the sick and disabled, and poor mothers who could not qualify for Mothers' Aid. Between 1913 and 1919, Mothers' Aid accounted for most of the public welfare budget; however, after 1920, Dependent Aid grew to overshadow Mothers' Aid as expenditures on this program, particularly for unemployed families, surpassed the outlays for Mothers' Aid and pushed the Overseers' budget to unprecedented levels. 1

While neither Irish nor Yankee politicians set Mothers' Aid against De

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