Mothers’ Pensions

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1911

Early in the twentieth century, concerns about poor children led a rag-tag alliance of progressive politicians, early feminists, and dissident philanthropists to promote what they called mothers’ pensions—direct government aid to impoverished mothers of minor-age children. Mainstream organizations such as the Russell Sage Foundation and the National Conference of Charities and Corrections opposed the initiative, fearing that public relief would encourage dependency, invite political corruption, and deflate private anti-poverty efforts that involved extensive personal contact and behavioral counseling.

A group of Jewish philanthropists, led by Hannah Einstein of the United Hebrew Charities, dissented from these concerns within the charitable establishment, however. They pushed for direct government payments, and some activists like Jane Addams joined them. In 1911, Illinois passed the first statewide program of mothers’ pensions. Thanks to continuing pressure on legislatures, 40 states had approved their own versions by 1920.

Funding proved more difficult. Most of the programs focused on widows with children, as opposed to unmarried women, because they were regarded with the most sympathy. Critics also complained that the pensions were too stingy. The mothers’ pension movement cast a long shadow, though—providing the model for the Aid to Families with Dependent Children welfare payments created in 1935 as part of the Social Security Act, and establishing a precedent for the subsequent rise of a dense system of federal payments to individuals lacking income.

  • Theda Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States (Harvard University Press, 1992)
  • Social Service Review history of mothers’ pension movement,
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