How Did the Debate about Widows' Pensions Shape Relief Programs
for Single Mothers, 1900-1940?

Abstract

      Public concern about the welfare of widows and orphans in the United States intensified during the Progressive Era. Because changing social values heightened concern over child welfare, reformers viewed widows' economic strategies as less acceptable in the industrial society of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than they had in the pre- or early-industrial eras. Previously widows with young families to support had relied upon a combination of their own and their children's labor. Fearing that children's lives would be permanently blighted by premature labor or inadequate upbringing, social reformers sought to keep them out of the labor force until they were fifteen or sixteen. They hoped to accomplish this end both through labor laws banning the employment of young children and the institution of widows' pensions, which would enable mothers to stay at home to look after their families. This document project examines the debate over whether to provide widows with pensions, and how that debate shaped subsequent programs to provide relief to single mothers.

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