The social worker and agency administrator Grace Abbott (1878-1939) awakened many Americans to the responsibility of government to help meet the special problems of immigrants and of children.
Grace Abbott was born and raised in Grand Island, Nebraska. Her father was lieutenant-governor, and her mother was an abolitionist and suffragist. Grace received her bachelor's degree from Grand Island College in 1898 and taught for several years at Grand Island High School. She did graduate work in political science and in law at the University of Chicago, receiving a master's degree in 1909. The year before, greatly attracted to the pioneering social work of Jane Addams, she became a resident of Hull House in Chicago and collaborated effectively with Addams for over a decade.
She shared Addams' interest in the cause of world peace, and she worked effectively to advance women's suffrage. But very early she became preoccupied with the problem of immigrants. For over 20 years many Americans had been worried that the flood of immigrants—as many as a million in a single year—arriving from eastern and southern Europe constituted a severe threat to American life and institutions. These "new immigrants"—as they were called—seemed dangerously "different" in language, dress, religion, and their disposition to cluster in the cities (as most people in this era were also doing). Other Americans—like Addams and Abbott—believed that it was not the immigrants who were "new," but America—increasingly urban, industrial, impersonal; to them, the problem was how to help the newcomers find and maintain their families, get jobs, and learn to play a knowledgeable part in a democracy.
From 1908 to 1917 Abbott directed the Immigrants' Protective League in Chicago. Close personal contact with immigrants made her aware of how difficult it was for new arrivals from Poland, or Italy, or Russia to find the relatives or friends they depended on; how hard it was to get jobs that were not exploitative; and how tricky it was not to be abused by the political machines. A trip in 1911 to eastern Europe deepened her understanding of the needs and hopes of the immigrants. Abbott's point-of-view is eloquently summarized in her The Immigrant and the Community (1917). To Abbott, the "new immigrants" were every bit as desirable as additions to America as were the older arrivals. In modern American society, they needed help; and, while the states and local philanthropic organizations such as the Immigrants' Protective League could and should help, the federal government had an important role to play. It was wrong, she argued, to concentrate on restricting or excluding immigration; the government should plan how best to accommodate and integrate the newcomers. She was not successful in redirecting federal policy; the acts of 1921 and 1924 drastically reduced the number of new immigrants. But her writings and her work with the Immigrants' Protective League helped develop a more widespread and a more generous understanding of the difficulties the immigrants encountered.
In 1912 Congress established the Children's Bureau in the recognition that children were entitled to special consideration in schools, in the workplace, in the courts, and even in the home. In 1916 Congress passed a law prohibiting the shipment in interstate commerce of products made by child labor. It remained for the Children's Bureau to make the law effective. Julia Lathrop, the first head of the bureau, in 1917 asked her friend Abbott to head up the child labor division. She proved to be an exceptionally able administrator. However, within a year the Supreme Court invalidated the law as an infringement upon the rights of the states to deal with child labor as they thought best. Abbott resigned and for the rest of her life worked to secure an amendment to the Constitution outlawing child labor. To her regret, this effort, too, was frustrated by states-rights feelings and by the concern that the amendment would jeopardize the rights of parents and churches to supervise the rearing of children.
After a brief period back in Illinois, Abbott returned to Washington in 1921 as the new head of the Children's Bureau. Probably her most important responsibility was to administer the Sheppard-Towner Act (1921), which extended federal aid to states that developed appropriate programs of maternal care. Abbott had been appalled to find that infant mortality was higher in the United States than in any country where records were kept, and she was convinced that the best way to reduce that mortality was to improve the health of the mother, before and after childbirth. The Supreme Court rejected protests against this dramatic extension of federal government responsibilities for social welfare. Abbott, while seeing to it that the over 3,000 centers across the country met federal standards, showed herself sensitive to the special concerns of localities. Though Congress terminated the program in 1929, the act, as administered by Abbott, was a pioneering federal program of social welfare.
Abbott never lost faith that the American people would, when properly informed and led, support enlightened welfare programs. She was optimistic that the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt and of her old friend Frances Perkins would realize many of her dreams. She had the satisfaction of helping draft the Social Security Act of 1935 which, among other things, provided federal guarantees of aid to dependent children.
Ill health prompted her to resign in 1934. She became professor of public welfare at the University of Chicago, where her sister, Edith Abbott, was a dean. She lived with Edith until her death in 1939. Quiet and forceful, compassionate and efficient, singularly immune to cant or prejudice, Grace Abbott epitomized the enormous contribution made by her generation of women. She helped make America a more decent place.
There is an excellent summary of Abbott's life in Notable American Women (1971). Edith Abbott wrote three helpful articles about her sister in Social Service Review (1939 and 1950). Grace Abbott's role is clearly indicated in Clarke A. Chambers, Seedtime of Reform: American Social Service and Social Action, 1918-1933 (1963). Abbott wrote many reports, articles, and books. Among the most instructive are The Immigrant and the Community (1917) and two volumes of documents, with critical introductions, The Child and the State (1938).
Costin, Lela B., Two sisters for social justice: a biography of Grace and Edith Abbott, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.