Parent Category: Kansas State History Articles
Category: Kansas People
Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive

The neighborliness and hospitality of farmers is proverbial in every land and clime. Throughout much of the old world where farmers still live in village communities the poverty or distress of any family is at once apparent and the more fortunate members of the village in one way or another give such assistance as is possible. The more primitive the people the more binding is this obligation for mutual aid, and one cannot but feel that our so-called advanced civilization has failed to develop as keen a sense of responsibility for the unfortunate.

In rural America this is possibly due to the fact that our farms are scattered and the condition of needy families may not be noticed. The average rural community will usually inform an inquirer that it has practically no poverty and no need of a social worker. Yet investigation will almost always show that tucked away in some hollow, back on some hill, or even huddled near the outskirts of the village are a few unfortunate families, of whose needs the community is unaware. These families, for one reason or another are "disadvantaged," they do not commonly associate with others, they may be foreigners, or in some way they are "queer" and are more or less avoided, or possibly they are merely isolated and so are unknown. From the standpoint of the social welfare of the community such families, or individuals, have been called the "unadjusted"; they do not mix freely and are not up to the local standards of life. In short, such families or individuals are abnormal, and are a social liability of the community.

These "disadvantaged" or "unadjusted" people may be roughly grouped into four classes: the dependent, the defective, the delinquent, and the neglected. In one sense they may all be called the "community's dependent," for they all require some sort of assistance from the community if their relationship to it is to be satisfactorily adjusted.

Poverty.--In a narrower sense the "dependent" are the poor; those who are unable to support themselves and who must be aided by the community if they are to exist. If this condition becomes chronic they are paupers; but in most cases their dependency is temporary and has been due to some unusual drain on the family's resources, such as, sickness, fire, crop failure, or inability to secure employment. There is a very natural aversion on the part of the latter class against becoming stigmatized as paupers and of having to secure public relief, of "being on the town"; whereas the habitual dependents have frequently lost all pride in their social status and are quite willing to continue to receive all the help they can secure. In both cases, if assistance is to be of permanent value, the problem is not only that of furnishing immediate relief in the form of food, clothing, or shelter, but of ascertaining the causes of the dependency and giving such assistance and sympathetic encouragement as will enable the family or individual to again become self-supporting and regain a normal status in the community. Obviously this is a delicate task which requires the best knowledge of human nature as well as genuine sympathy which will inspire confidence and faith, and in so far as possible is likely to be more effective if it can be done privately. On the other hand, a large proportion of the chronic dependency also involves mental or physical defectiveness or moral delinquency which cannot be remedied by the mere giving of alms. Much of the poor relief given by rural communities is practically wasted because of a failure to ascertain the real cause of poverty or by lack of knowledge or means for its treatment.

Defectives.--In most cases the care of "defectives" cannot be undertaken by the rural community itself, because they usually require the care of institutions which can only be supported by the county or state. Furthermore, a family is usually able to take care of one of its members who is so afflicted or will assume the burden of sending him to an institution, so that only in the case of dependent families does the responsibility rest on the community. There is, however, a duty on the part of the community to see that the afflicted are given necessary care, so that they may not have to go through life so handicapped that they are unable to be self-supporting and thus may become wholly dependent.

The physically defective are largely cared for by state and county institutions. We have learned that the deaf and blind may become largely self-supporting if given the advantages of a specific type of education, for which the state maintains special schools. County and state hospitals provide for the care of those afflicted with tuberculosis and a beginning is being made in the provision of state hospitals for crippled children where they may receive necessary surgical and orthopedic treatment. Likewise the more helpless mental defectives, the insane, the imbeciles and idiots, are cared for in state institutions.

One of the most serious menaces to the social health of the rural community is from those mental defectives who are able to care for themselves but who are mentally incapable of rearing a normal family and of conforming to the customary standards of morality. These "feeble-minded," are far too numerous in rural communities and their proper care and education has been neglected because they have been commonly regarded as merely "simple minded" or "foolish"; to be pitied, and the subject of many a jest, but entirely harmless. A large number of the feeble-minded are so nearly normal that they are considered merely shiftless or stupid. Nearly every rural community has one or more families, and not infrequently a small slum neighborhood, who are ne'er-do-wells, more or less delinquent and frequently requiring aid from the town. Thanks to modern psychology, we now know that many of these adults have the intelligence of only a seven or nine-year-old child and that they are incapable of further mental development. Furthermore, carefully conducted studies in the heredity of these families show that feeble-mindedness is congenital; that where both parents are feeble-minded all the offspring will be so afflicted; and that when one of the parents is sub-normal that some of the children will be feeble-minded and that those who appear normal may transmit the defect to their children. Psychological tests have now been developed so that adults with a mentality of nine or ten years or less may be definitely diagnosed as mentally deficient.

It must be obvious that an adult with fully developed sexual desires but with the mind of a child is incapable of conforming his or her behavior to the standards of society and will be incapable of giving proper parental care to children. So a considerable percentage of our petty criminals, vagrants, prostitutes, and dependent are found to be feeble-minded. They are unstable, suggestible, easily victimized.

The farm and the village have a considerable amount of routine work which can be done by these sub-normal people and they therefore have opportunity to maintain themselves and to multiply to better advantage than in the city where the competition of life is keener. Although they are best off in a rural environment, when unrestricted and unsegregated they are a constant menace to the community and often involve it in considerable expense. As soon as farmers become aware of what the feeble-minded are costing the community, how they endanger its moral and physical health, and that when unrestricted they continue to reproduce incapables and thus perpetuate the burden, they will demand that some practicable and reasonable measures be taken for their control. The difficulty is that at present in most states there is no method whereby the feeble-minded can be committed to state institutions or be otherwise segregated unless they are paupers or unless they go voluntarily, nor is there any means of preventing their marriage and reproduction. Dairy farmers have learned that it pays to weed out the "boarder" cows from their herds and that if they breed from a scrub sire they will have scrub stock; but if the boarder cow was also inclined to become vicious and to corrupt the habits of the rest of the herd and the farmer knew this trait to be hereditary, he would invariably send such a cow to the butcher. I believe that as soon as farmers appreciate the biological significance of feeble-mindedness they will insist upon reasonable legislation for its control.

Delinquency.--The third class of abnormal citizens are the delinquents, both adult and juvenile. Almost every rural community has a certain number of adults and children who, although not definitely criminal, are constantly committing various misdemeanors, are vicious, or incorrigible, and there are occasional rural communities and neighborhoods which are as true slums as are found in the cities.[72] Drunkenness was formerly the greatest cause of delinquency, and the tavern and saloon were responsible for the prohibition movement whose staunchest supporters were rural people. The bootlegger and the illicit still continue the illegal traffic in liquor, but where prohibition has been in force for some time liquor has ceased to be an important factor in delinquency.

We have but few definite studies of delinquency in rural communities upon which to base any generalizations. One of the best of these is a study of the juvenile delinquents in 21 average rural communities in New York state, made under the auspices of the U. S. Children's Bureau in 1917.[73] In these 21 communities 185 delinquent children were found, 41 of whom were classed as "incorrigible," 68 were involved in sex offenses, and 75 had stolen, or were guilty of fraud. The number of boys guilty of incorrigibility and theft exceeded that of the girls by six to one, but among the older sex offenders 41 were girls and but 9 were boys. This study is of particular value in showing that almost every rural community, however prosperous and progressive it may be, has its problem of delinquency, and in its analysis of the responsibility of the home, the school, and the church, for wayward children.

The Neglected.--The fourth class which require the care of the community are the neglected. Although the aged occasionally require neighborly assistance, even though they have means for their necessities, most of the neglected are infants and children. Orphans and foundlings for whom homes must be found, children who are over-worked or abused, or who are living with dissolute parents, all of these must be given proper guardianship and a chance for healthful growth and education, or they are likely to become delinquent and thus become a permanent liability to society. It is true that in the country the home is at its best (see chapter II), but it is also unfortunately true that some of the most shameful and almost unbelievable cases of neglect and abuse of children are frequently found in out-of-the-way places in rural communities. Where compulsory school attendance laws are strictly enforced such cases may come to the attention of school officials, but in many instances no one seems responsible for discovering neglected children and ensuring their proper care. Most of the cities and larger towns have Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children whose agents investigate rural cases reported to them and bring them to the attention of the courts when necessary, but there is a need for some local agency in every rural community which will see that neglect is prevented or stopped.

Agencies for Rural Social Work.--When we examine the means for dealing with these "misfit" members of the rural community, we find that in most of our states there are few agencies either public or private, and that as a rule they are poorly adapted to render the service needed.

For the care of the poor there is the township or county poor officer, and the county poor farm as a last resort. But the poor officer, however upright and well-intentioned he may be, usually conceives his job as one for doling out sufficient groceries, clothing, and fuel to keep a family alive, and of keeping the cost to the taxpayer as low as possible. He feels little responsibility for furnishing sufficient aid to give the family a fair chance to get on its feet or for advising them or bringing such influences into their lives as will ensure their rehabilitation. He is charged with a most difficult task for which he has had no experience or training, which he must handle with the greatest economy and for which he receives little compensation either in salary or public esteem. Very commonly his election is due to political strength rather than special personal fitness. The case of the poor is commonly regarded as a necessary evil to be handled with as little trouble as possible, rather than as an opportunity to give such help to the unfortunate that further assistance may be unnecessary and that they may become an asset to the community.

Cases of delinquency involving only misdemeanors or minor offenses are tried before a justice of the peace or local magistrate. Usually these officials are men with no legal training and with little understanding of the causes of delinquency or of how delinquents should be treated in order to give them a fair chance to become normal citizens. The usual attitude is one of determining the offense and meting out just punishment for it. Furthermore, the local justice frequently avoids handling a case which may involve him in difficulties with his neighbors, unless he is forced to do so. Not infrequently juvenile offenders are sent to reformatories where they come into contact with worse characters and are hardened rather than reformed, whereas if they had been placed on probation under proper supervision and under satisfactory home conditions they might have lived decent lives.

In most of our cities juvenile cases are now handled in special juvenile courts, which have shown the futility of the old methods of legal procedure in the treatment of juvenile offenders. In this court the judge is assisted by probation officers who are trained as social workers and who investigate the home conditions and other influences surrounding the child for the information of the judge, who then handles the case in whatever manner seems best in order to get at the facts and to bring the child to a real desire to "make good." The case is heard privately, without the ordinary rules of legal procedure, and the whole attitude of the court is more like that of a father than of the ordinary judge who inflicts punishment according to the gravity of the offense. It must be evident that one person handling numerous cases of this kind will soon gain an experience with them which will enable him to act more intelligently and with greater justice both to the offender and to the interests of society than can be done by a local official who may have but one or two such cases to handle during his whole term of office. In several states legislation has been passed creating juvenile courts in each county, which have jurisdiction over all juvenile cases and which can deal not only with the children but also with their parents or guardians. The general adoption of such a system seems to be the most important step in the intelligent treatment of juvenile delinquents in rural districts.

Very often the first waywardness of a child is in truancy from school, which, if it cannot be handled by the teacher, is turned over to the local truant officer. In many cases the truant officer is appointed because of his availability for such work rather than his special competency, and the enforcement of the truancy law is handled in a most perfunctory manner, whereas an intelligent investigation of home conditions and an effort to gain the coöperation of the parents and the confidence and interest of the child are the only means of securing any real reform. In several cities truancy is in charge of what are known as "visiting teachers," who not only look after truants but visit the homes of those children who are not doing well in their school work, in order to determine whether home conditions are responsible and how they may be improved. Usually the country school teacher is more in touch with the homes of her pupils, but some of the more progressive rural counties are providing an assistant to the county superintendent of schools, who acts both in the capacity of truant officer and visiting teacher, assisting the local teacher in the more difficult cases which require a considerable amount of time to develop proper relations in the home. To be of most service such a person should not only have experience in school work but should have had the training of a social worker, so that she may understand the best means of dealing with the wayward child and with unfavorable home conditions. It seems probable that more may be done toward the prevention of delinquency through such social workers connected with the school system than by any other means.

In many states there seems to be no definite system for the supervision of children for whom the state is responsible. They may be boarded or adopted by families or placed in institutions by any one of several local officials having jurisdiction, but none of them have the means of determining whether the children are being properly cared for, nor does the county or state provide any agency for this purpose. In several states the registration and supervision of such wards of the state is placed in the hands of a state child welfare board or a state department of charities or public welfare, but in other states the supervision of their welfare is wholly dependent upon private philanthropy. Experience has shown that where a trained social worker is employed to look up the relatives of such children and to assist in finding homes for them and in visiting the homes and institutions to which they are committed, a considerable saving in the cost of their maintenance to the county is frequently effected. In order that all of the care of children may be centralized under one county office which can employ competent persons for its work, several states have created county boards of child welfare which are charged with the whole responsibility for the care of dependent and neglected children, which is then taken entirely out of the hands of local officials. In a few states, county boards of public welfare have been created which have supervision not only of children but of all dependents, defectives, and neglected, and in some cases also have charge of the public health administration. The centralization of such authority in a county board which can employ executives who have had special training and experience for such work is not only good business, but it is the only method by which the state can satisfactorily fulfil its obligation to those who are dependent upon it.

Usually the rural community has few if any private agencies or associations devoted to the assistance of its dependent. The churches and the lodges assist some of their own members. Here and there are isolated groups of King's Daughters or similar societies which devote themselves to the care of the poor and the sick, but they are comparatively rare in the country. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children often prosecutes rural cases, but it is usually a town or city organization and has practically no rural membership. Over the United States as a whole, the American Red Cross has probably done more to introduce the idea of social work into rural communities than any one agency. During the war the local chapters of the Red Cross were authorized to give assistance to soldiers' families in any way possible. This involved rural as well as town families, and the need of organized social work became apparent in thousands of rural communities. When peace was declared, the local chapters were authorized to extend the Civilian Relief work to civilian families in territory where there was no other organization doing welfare work, which meant practically all of the rural United States, providing the work was carried on by trained workers on a basis approved by the division headquarters. The family welfare work of the Red Cross was happily named "Home Service" and has been organized in many rural counties where its value has been repeatedly demonstrated. The work is directly in charge of a social worker employed by the county chapter but the local branch in each community is encouraged to form a Home Service Committee which looks after the local work as far as it is able, calls in the county worker when needed, and gives her all the assistance possible. Thus the work is localized and each community has a definite group of workers who feel responsible for looking after those needing the community's assistance and who are learning how to do this in an intelligent manner. No other agency organized on a national basis has attempted any systematic organization of social welfare work in local rural communities.

Social Education of Rural Opinion.--The primary need for the care of the dependent of the rural community is for a better understanding of their needs by its more intelligent and public-spirited people. It is a matter of social education. Social work so-called has had a rapid development in our cities to meet the situation caused by their sudden growth with large numbers of foreigners having different standards of living and unable to adjust themselves to strange conditions with congested districts where housing and sanitation is poor and with poverty due to unemployment, sickness, and with the many factors which result from the complexities of city life. The city slum first challenged the humanity of the better people and numerous philanthropic organizations grew up in an effort to give assistance to needy families and children. For the most part this work has been financed by the wealthy, has been carried on by social workers who have had special training for such service, and is commonly known as charity. What social work has been done in rural communities has been introduced by city organizations and has usually been fostered by organizations of as few of the more progressive people at the county seats and the larger towns or small cities which have worked out into the rural communities from these centers. Though the purposes and work of these organizations are excellent, they will never be able to effectively meet the needs of rural communities until their people appreciate the need for such work and actively support it.

Much of this sort of work is regarded by rural people as "uplift" and without local interest and support has little permanent value. The average rural community has little use for charity in the ordinary sense of the word. If relief is needed within its borders, it will provide, but it fails to appreciate that more than relief is needed to prevent the recurrence of dependency, and that punishment will not correct or prevent delinquency. The fact is that at present country people have not seen the social situation in their own communities and so are not concerned with it. Most of them are of the opinion that the less government the better, and have not come to realize that an increasingly complex society--even in the rural community--makes it no longer possible for the farm family to live to itself, but that for self-preservation it must look to the social welfare of the whole community with which its life is bound up.

The need, therefore, is for the education of rural people with regard to their social responsibilities, which must be largely accomplished through existing local rural organizations and local leadership. Any system of rural social work which is to be permanently successful must be one which is established by the people themselves from a realization of their needs, and progressively developed as they appreciate its worth. As Dean A. R. Mann recently said, "In dealing with rural affairs it has long been a common mistake to underrate the validity of the farmer's own judgment as to what is good for him." "Superimposed organizations are usually doomed to failure because they express the judgments of those without the community rather than those within whom they are intended to serve." "Ordinarily the most serviceable rural organizations will be built out of the materials of the community."[74] It is for this reason that the advance of rural social work will depend upon arousing an active interest in the welfare of the community's "disadvantaged" through discussion by such organizations as the church, the grange, the farm and home bureau, lodges, women's clubs, instruction in high schools, etc. The work of the public health nurse will reveal many family problems with which she is unable to deal and which demand the help of one experienced in social work, and the nurse will be of service in educating the community to the need of such work.

It seems obvious that by itself the rural community is too small a unit to employ a social worker who is professionally trained for dealing with the more difficult social mal-adjustments, and that it must coöperate with other communities for the organization of such work on a county basis. Experience has shown that trained social workers actually save the county the cost of their salaries and expenses, without considering the greater efficiency and permanent value of the work done. The social worker has been well termed a "doctor of domestic difficulties." Every county and community needs such a doctor who is skilled in treating social disease, but one of her chief functions will be to act as an educational director in promoting the study of local social conditions by the existing organizations in every community and in discovering and training leadership for carrying out a constructive program as it is evolved. In some way there should be a volunteer committee or worker in each community associated with the county social worker to advise concerning policies and to carry on much of the local work under her supervision and training. For it must be recognized that the economic resources of rural communities are limited and that they cannot afford several social workers for different lines of effort, as is common in cities. But more important is the fact that social welfare depends more largely upon a proper understanding of its problems by the local community and a willingness to grapple with them intelligently and sympathetically, than upon the remedial treatment afforded through professional workers, courts, institutions and other public agencies. Social welfare is like health, for which sanitation and hygiene are more important than doctors and medicines.

What is needed in the rural community is a transformation of the old-time family hospitality and neighborliness into a feeling of responsibility for the unfortunate within the community with whom there may not be immediate contact, but who nevertheless affect the moral and social life of all its people. It needs the spirit and devotion of the Good Samaritan on the part of the people, but it also needs the public health nurse and the social worker who, like the inn-keeper of the parable, can give adequate care to the unfortunate.


[72] See Charles E. Gibbons, "A Rural Slum Community." The American Child. February, 1922. pg. 343.

[73] "Juvenile Delinquency in Rural New York." Kate Holladay Claghorn. U. S. Dept. of Labor, Children's Bureau. Publication No. 32. Washington. 1918.

[74] "Social Responsibilities of the Rural Community," p. 129. Cornell Extension Bulletin 39. Rural Community Conference Cornell Farmers' Week. 1919.


powered by social2s