1933 Frances Perkins
Social work by proxy of social policy
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Frances Perkins was born in 1880 (sometimes erroneously 1882 is mentioned) in Boston on the north east coast of the US, but grew up just west of there in Worcester. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1902. In her later youth, Perkins was impressed by Jacob Riis and his photojournalistic publication How the other half lives (1890) describing the slums in New York. His work had already been inspiring Theodore Roosevelt (before he became president of the US) to close the worst rental houses and reform housing policies. Her other lifelong inspiration came from Florence Kelley, who founded the National Consumer League in 1899. This organisation aimed to raise awareness among consumers of the ethical background of the products they bought.

While spending time in Chicago in the years from 1902 onwards, Perkins volunteered for Jane Addams’ Hull House. It resulted in her wish to become a social worker. She became head of the New York Consumers League and lobbied for better labour circumstances. In 1910, she achieved a master’s degree in political sciences at Columbia University. Over the coming years, several jobs in New York established her reputation and by 1929, she was appointed Commissioner of the New York State Department of Labor by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, at that time New York governor. This position enabled her to improve working conditions by lowering the number of work hours per week and working towards ending child labour.

On the 24th of October 1929, the Wall Street stock market crashed and sent the world in a deep economic crisis. In a short time, unemployment in the USA rose to 25%. Panic soared as the Great Depression became a reality and private charities could no longer cope with the rising social needs.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s influence grew, and he aimed at becoming president to help the US out of this economic crisis. Perkins influence on Roosevelt grew as well. In July 1932, Roosevelt was nominated presidential candidate for the Democratic Party. At this time, he promised a new deal for the USA, which became the New Deal programme once he won the elections with a large majority. In March 1933, he became the 32nd president of the United States of America. He appointed Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labor. She influenced his political work for the coming decades. It wasn’t Mary Richmond’s kind of social work, but it sure was social work and having a huge impact on many lives!

Upon taking office early March 1933, Roosevelt initiated a number of policy changes that became known as the New Deal. This included temporarily closing all banks to allow for severe policy changes (which resulted in what we now know as ‘bank holiday’), an economy act (lowering of wages and veteran pensions) and the social security act. This included old-age and unemployment insurance, but excluded health insurance (hence the so called Obamacare some years ago). In that way, the New Deal basically created a welfare state that was to dominate the social work scene in the US for the next decades. It was important for its shift of focus away from individual moral shortcomings as causes of poverty towards generic social and economic influences. Since the turn of the century, we have seen the reverse shift of focus across Western society: more focus on individual responsibility.

After leaving political work, Frances Perkins remained active. Among other things, she wrote an influential biography of Franklin Roosevelt (who died in 1945). She also remained in close contact with his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, who played an important role in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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Additional information
  • Colman, P. (2010), A Woman Unafraid: The Achievements Of Frances Perkins. ISBN-13: 978-1450207737
  • Downey, K. (2010), The Woman Behind the New Deal, The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins. Nan Talese. ISBN: 978-0-385-51365-4
  • Perkins, F. (1948), The Roosevelt I knew. London: Hammond and Co.
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