In a career that spanned two centuries, Homer Folks (1867-1963) advocated on behalf of many of New York's citizens, creating a health care system that was groundbreaking in its scope and addressing many of the social ills of his day.
Among the social transformations wrought by the widespread industrialization of the United States during the nineteenth century was the population explosion within the cities and the acceptance of women and children as wage laborers in the mills and factories dotting the northern states. By 1900 child labor had become one of several social ills of concern to social reformers, who sought ways to address the increasingly widespread poverty, illiteracy, crime, and disease among the working classes. Settlement projects such as Jane Addams' Chicago-based Hull House and aid societies of various sorts quickly sprang up in cities around the nation as concerned individuals attempted to address such problems. In his position as an active leader in New York's largest aid society, Homer Folks was an advocate for social reform on a major scale. During his lifetime Folks became a preeminent spokesman for the rights of children, women, and the mentally ill.
Folks was born on February 18, 1867, in Hanover, Michigan, to farmer James Folks and his wife, Esther Woodliff Folks. After his graduation from a rural high school in 1883, Folks was offered the choice of a farm of his own or a college education. The young man chose the latter and enrolled at Albion College in Albion, Michigan. Graduating in 1887 but still undecided between a teaching career or a career in the church, Folks moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, with the intention of studying at Harvard University for a year in order to make up his mind.
While a student at Harvard, Folks was inspired by the lectures of Francis G. Peabody and George Herbert Palmer, both of whom encouraged service to the downtrodden members of society. While desirous of being of service to others, Folks also favored being actively involved in society. He wanted to participate in social change rather than simply encourage others to do so, and he determined to seek a career in social service. Offered a job as general superintendent of the Children's Aid Society of Pennsylvania after graduating from Harvard in 1890, he moved to Philadelphia, marrying his college sweetheart, Maud Beard, on December 22, 1891. Together the couple would have three daughters.
Established in 1882, the Children's Aid Society of Pennsylvania was founded on the premise that children whose parents were unable to properly take care of them should be moved to the care of foster parents rather than to a government-run institution. In his first year with the Society Folks had furthered that aim by organizing a child-care training system for potential foster parents. While he stressed the importance of involvement by both state and local governments and pushed for the organization of departments to handle child welfare and related social issues, Folks also encouraged volunteerism on the part of concerned citizens.
In February of 1893 Folks left Philadelphia for New York City, where he had been offered the post of executive secretary of the New York State Charities Aid Association (SCAA). Created by social reformer Louisa Lee Schuyler in 1872 in response to the deplorable conditions she observed in state-run hospitals and almshouses throughout New York City, the SCAA's self-appointed mission was to "bring about such reforms as might be in accordance with the most enlightened views of Christianity, Science, and Philanthropy" by promoting volunteerism and private financial aid.
With only two brief breaks—the first in 1902-03 to serve as New York City's commissioner of public charities, and the second during World War I—Folks would serve as executive secretary of the SCAA for over fifty years. During his tenure the SCAA made strides on many fronts. Children and families benefited greatly through their efforts, while the quality of life of the mentally ill, the homeless, and the unemployed were also improved. The SCAA was one of the first agencies that provided children with opportunities for "boarding out"—providing foster care. Adoption services were introduced in 1898. In 1925 the SCAA helped draft an illegitimacy bill which standardized procedures for proving paternity.
Folks focused his attention on young people. He advocated the use of preventative measures on behalf of dependant and delinquent children in need of a safe home, maintaining during a speech at the 1894 National Conference of Charities and Correction: "To accomplish the best results in preventative work, the fact must not be overlooked that character and habits in the young are not so dependent upon parentage and heredity as upon daily impressions received." Delinquency among young children was the result of a dysfunctional family, itself the consequence of sickness, one-parent families, and poverty.
"Empty hands are the Devil's plaything": this saying reflects the belief of many adults. While eight or more hours of enforced schooling would be the fate of almost every American child by the first half of the twentieth century, such was not always the case. Until the early 1800s, many schools met infrequently, their calendars subservient to weather, the limitations of their school building, and the needs of farm and family. When not in school, children would work in the home or in the fields. With the Industrial Revolution, work in a factory became another option, as children and their parents moved to the cities. The earliest laws to address the education of the young provided for only the basics: to learn reading and writing, receive instruction in rudimentary arithmetic, and attend church.
In line with his belief in preventive child care, Folks realized that lack of a good education would condemn children to lives of poverty. In 1904 he co-founded the National Child Labor Committee and five years later organized the historic White House Conference on Dependent Children. The 1909 conference, which lobbied the government to take action on behalf of the growing number of U.S. children living in poverty, gave rise three years later to the U.S. Children's Bureau. Folks's concerns eventually found their way into the Progressive Party's presidential platform in the 1912 elections. Incumbent president Theodore Roosevelt ran on the establishment of an eight-hour workday, a six-day workweek, and the prohibition of child labor. In co-founding the National Child Labor Committee-Folks served as its chairman from 1935 to 1944, helping to set in motion the organized political effort that would culminate decades later in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 that made child labor illegal.
In Folks's view, health and welfare were interconnected issues, and child welfare workers should address not only the child's well-being but also the economic and psychological stability of the caregivers. The consequence of this view could be seen in Folks's advocacy of improved care for the mentally ill, for improving public health, and for combating tuberculosis, then one of the diseases most threatening to the urban poor. Helping to found the American Association for the Study and Prevention of Infant Mortality in 1909, he served as that organization's president six years later. One of the first social advocates to support the creation of a widows' pension fund, Folks played a prominent role in its introduction in New York State in 1915.
By the late 1800s New York State had developed a reformatory system which provided room and board for young men running afoul of the law. When steady work could not be found, reformatories were often used as substitute homes by parents who could not afford to properly feed or otherwise care for their children. As Folks explained in 1891's Proceedings of the National Conference on Charities and Correction: "The temptations [such institutions] offer to parents and guardians to throw off their most sacred responsibilities [increase] in proportion as the educational and industrial features of these institutions are perfected." As replacement boarding schools, these institutions achieved the opposite effect on young men with no criminal experience, introducing them to what Folks called a "contaminating influence."
After aiding efforts to establish juvenile courts in the state of New York in 1907, Folks helped create the first probation commission in the United States. The commission, which he would chair for the next decade, provided a workable probation framework and attracted skilled men and women into the juvenile probation field. Under his leadership, the SCAA would expand its own involvement in this area; in 1915 that agency helped initiate an investigation of juvenile delinquency in rural parts of New York state.
Among the concerns of Folks was the increasing death toll caused by tuberculosis. He became an outspoken advocate of both early detection and publicly funded treatment. Also known as consumption, the cause of tuberculosis—a slow, wasting disease that was dubbed "the white plague"—was discovered by Robert Koch in 1882. Affecting the lungs primarily, the TB bacterium was spread by inhalation and contaminated food and drinking water, making the urban poor its most frequent targets. During his 1902-03 appointment as New York City's commissioner of public charities, Folks founded the first municipal tuberculosis hospital in the United States and sponsored the first major study of the disease. In 1904 Folks helped to create the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis, serving as a trustee for many years and as its elected president beginning in 1912.
Returning to his position at the SCAA, Folks organized education, reporting, and treatment campaigns against TB statewide. The SCAA clinics that formed were successful enough to become incorporated with the State Department of Health by 1923. Through the efforts of Folks and others, the TB death rate outside New York City had been cut in half between 1907 and 1928, and by 1946 it had reached an all-time low of 30 deaths per 100,000 residents.
When Folks arrived in New York City in 1893, the New York State legislature was in the process of passing a bill creating a hospital system for its mentally insane. Thirteen years later, in 1905, aftercare for patients released from this hospital came under discussion. In conjunction with the head of the New York School of Philanthropy, Folks developed a program whereby two students from Manhattan State Hospital would work with these "aftercare" patients, to ensure their safe return to society. This program was eventually expanded into a volunteer effort under the leadership of New York State and led to the formation of volunteer "aftercare committees" in all the state's hospitals.
In an effort to remedy another of his health-related concerns, Folks drafted what became the 1913 Public Health Law, a bill that modernized the New York public health system. Considered a landmark in U.S. health administration, the bill established the first state-run public health council, a small, nonpartisan administrative body with the power to set health standards. Folks became the first vice chairman of the council and held that position until 1955. By the time of his retirement the council had grown into the New York State Public Health Council, considered to be the most progressive health department in the United States.
In addition to his activities on behalf of the SCAA, Folks continued to remain active in many aspects of social welfare. Elected president of the National Conference of Social Work in 1911 and again in 1923, he also served as a director of the American Red Cross Civil Assistance department in France during World War I.
In 1930, as the nation suffered from the Great Depression, Folks was appointed secretary of a public health commission created by then-New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt to study ways to improve the state's health laws and institutions. A decade later he would chair a similar commission sponsored by Governor Herbert H. Lehman, this time to study ways to curtail the population increase of mental institutions in the state of New York.
By 1940 the seventy-three-year-old Folks had become legendary in his field. Passing up retirement due to U.S. entry into World War II, he remained on the job until late 1946, when he suffered a slight stroke. The following February he also retired from the SCAA. Not one to remain inactive, however, he served as director of the Agricultural Institute from 1959 until the end of his life. Folks died in Riverdale, New York, on February 13, 1963. Among the many commendations he received over his lifetime of social service was the 1940 distinguished service award from the Roosevelt Memorial Association, which heralded Folks as "a statesman and a man of action, [who] has brought to his own and other lands not destruction and heartbreak but healing and new horizons."
During his long career Folks wrote frequently on the issues about which he cared deeply, and many of his writings are included among conference proceedings. He also authored several books, including 1902's The Care of Destitute, Neglected, and Delinquent Children, 1920's The Human Costs of the War, and 1958's Public Health and Welfare: The Citizens' Responsibility. His papers are archived at the Columbia University School of Social Work; papers written under the auspices of the New York State Charities Aid Association remain in that organization's New York offices. Folks was also a contributor to Columbia University's Oral History Project, which is housed at the Columbia University Library.
Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 7: 1961-1965, American Council of Learned Societies, 1981.
Folks, Homer, Care of Destitute, Dependent, and Delinquent Children, 1902.
Liebowitz, Anna, "Homer Folks: A Study of His Professional Growth in Terms of His Contributions to Social Work and the Milieu in Which He Developed" (master's thesis), New York School of Social Work, 1950.
Trattner, Walter I,. Crusade for the Children: A History of the National Child Labor Committee and Child Labor Reform in America, Quadrangle Books, 1970.
Trattner, Walter I. Homer Folks: Pioneer in Social Welfare, 1968.
New York Times, February 14, 1963.
New York State Charities Aid Association Web site, http://www.scaany.org.