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THE COUNTY UNIT AS A BASIS OF SOCIAL WORK AND
PUBLIC WELFARE IN NORTH CAROLINA

Howard W. Odum, University of North Carolina

This paper will be a clear-cut disappointment to all if it is expected to set forth the story of a system of county unit work which has made good in anything like an adequate coordination of social work agencies and resources. Our purpose is to discuss a concrete situation in order to approach a very important general problem. The paper, therefore, will present briefly a simple analysis of the situation, with its promise, its problems, and its limitations. The keynote, however, is one of considerable hopefulness. The North Carolina plan appears to offer one of the most hopeful experiments, both for the reason that those who work in North Carolina are fully aware that the experiment has only begun, and has yielded little of definite final value, and because it is an admirable system, well adapted to rural areas. The experiment is most promising, further, because it approaches the problem of governmental social work with a concrete plan, and because in the initial years there is ample evidence that a good beginning has been made.

We may discuss the topics briefly under four general headings. The first will include a brief statement of what the North Carolina county plan involves, or may involve, in terms of actual organization. The second will present a brief statement of some of the underlying principles and problems involved in social work as public welfare in rural areas. A third will raise the question as to how well North Carolina is measuring up to its opportunities, including favor and disfavor with general social work organizations. A fourth important aspect will include consideration of important study, research, and experiments which must be made before the system can be fairly tested by a necessary technique yet to be evolved. Growing out of these it is possible that we may find stimulating challenge and object lessons for the whole field of social work and public welfare.

Perhaps the first point of emphasis should be that the North Carolina plan provides pre-eminent emphasis in rural social work. No one, I believe, will challenge adequately the statement that rural social work has never yet been done successfully. Whether a county unit plan such as North Carolina has provided in connection with its governmental public welfare can become the basis for utilizing all resources, coordinating efforts, finding personnel, and adapting itself to the much needed tasks will depend upon a number of factors, some of which will be enumerated subsequently. North Carolina has one hundred counties. Each county with a population of 32,000 or more is required to employ a county superintendent of public welfare. He is elected jointly by the county commissioners and the county board of education. As an advisory group there is a county board of public welfare, of three, in each county. A state-wide juvenile court act creates a juvenile court in each county, with the clerk of the superior

court as judge. In the counties having a population of less than 32,000, the superintendent of schools may serve in the capacity of superintendent of public welfare where no full-time superintendent of public welfare is elected. The county unit system is a part of the state-wide plan of the State Board of Charities and Public Welfare which performs its work through a commissioner of public welfare and bureaus of county organization, child welfare, institutions, mental health and hygiene, Negro work, promotion, and publicity. In turn, there is a similar general division of activities of the county superintendents, including county administration and cooperation with the state board, general child welfare work, charities and corrections, probation and juvenile court work, school attendance work, community organization, and recreation. The large problem of school attendance work, while limiting the activities of the superintendent of public welfare toward community organization and coordination, may, nevertheless, become an admirable basis for cooperative efforts in child welfare and family case work.

Difficult problems which the North Carolina plan faces are many. In addition to the usual problems involved in rural situations with sparsely settled areas, isolation, bad roads, undeveloped attitudes toward social work, limited personnel, limited resources, and uninformed leadership, there are other problems to be faced. How coordinate other social work agencies and voluntary groups in the county? How effect cordial cooperation between town and country? How bring about both intelligently planned and executed work and cooperation on the part of social worker and farm and home demonstration agent? Public health nurse? County physician? Schools and teachers? Churches and social service? National social work organizations? How bring about effective social work and public welfare among Negroes? How interpret public welfare as the social work part of government? How overcome the elements of limited training and political habits? How, in fine, make social work and public welfare the great process of discovery, interpretation, adaptation, and leadership so essential in rural communities? Can the county be a county unit, or will it be only an approximate substitute for a unit? Will there be parallel systems and efforts in town and country? Will each of the separate workers in public welfare, voluntary social work, home and farm demonstration, public health, as technician, • perform badly only a part of the work?

The basis of the present North Carolina plan of public welfare is found in the legislation of 1919 with minor amendments in 1921. To what extent has North Carolina succeeded during these seven years, first in terms of actual numerical efforts, and second in terms of the larger beginnings? The last report of the Commissioner of Public Welfare shows that although only twenty-nine counties are required by law there were, nevertheless, fifty-five counties which had appointed superintendents of public welfare. Numerically, therefore, the showing is very creditable. There has been also a steady growth in the amount of work done, and a constant improvement in its quality. There has developed,

too, a steady professional spirit among the county superintendents of public welfare, and continuous improvement in their qualifications and methods. They now have a state-wide organization which meets annually with the institutes of public welfare held at the University of North Carolina under the auspices of the Commissioner of Public Welfare and the University School of Public Welfare. For six years now these institutes have been held each summer, with increasing effectiveness and with an average attendance of more than fifty. During the last two years Mrs. Johnson has provided regular lecture courses and examinations and has given certificates to superintendents completing the work. The superintendents themselves have joined in suggesting that standards of certification be set and that ideals be set continuously higher and higher. For this summer Mrs. Johnson has provided not only for the regular institutes, but also for a reading course to extend throughout the year as a follow-up to the main divisions of study at the institutes, and for work in the state and county departments. The University will provide the outlines and questions, and Mrs. Johnson and her staff will take care of the rating and classification. The main divisions of the institute work this year and of the manual of study will include modern social problems and trends, industrial social relationships, social and mental hygiene, child welfare, and family case work, together with organization and administration. Other specific discussions will include certain concrete problems relating to North Carolina.

The fact that the number of counties employing superintendents of public welfare has been continuously on the increase, and that such variations and fluctuations as have occurred have not affected the general progress of public welfare, is an acknowledged asset. An important factor in the development of public opinion both in the state at large and in certain counties has been the enthusiasm and influence of the state Federation of Women's Clubs, the League of Women Voters, and other women's organizations. A large number of concrete attainments might be cited as evidence that the North Carolina plan has achieved substantial and successful beginnings.

Nevertheless, it must be admitted that up to the present time there has been no county organized successfully on anything like a complete or satisfactory basis. There has been no county organization which has ample personnel and resources. There has been no county in which the work of town and rural areas has been adequately correlated. There has been no county with a satisfactory permanently going county council. There has been no county in which the work of the superintendent of public welfare has met the wishes and standards of all other social work agencies. There has been no county in which the county board of public welfare has functioned with complete satisfaction to all concerned. There has been no county in which the home demonstration community clubs, the work of the farm demonstration agent, the public health nurse, and the school folk have been satisfactorily correlated. There is no county in which rural case work can be satisfactorily demonstrated. There is no county which

the School of Public Welfare can use as a satisfactory type of field work. In other words, for the purposes of demonstrating a type of county unit of all social work such as would illustrate community organization, community councils, community chests, and other technical and theoretical aspects of the work, there is no North Carolina county which can be cited even as a reasonable example of success.

It must not be understood, however, from this that there are not outstanding examples of excellent work, or that there are not now many nuclei around which may be built in the near future more successful organizations. The very statement of limitations and of the partial achievements are but added to make of the county unit plan a more exemplary form of organization upon which to build rural social work of the future. Wake County has this year, through the cooperation of the State Board of Charities and Public Welfare and the FourCounty Demonstration work in public welfare, made remarkable strides. A new superintendent of public welfare has been elected, a new probation officer (a man on full time, graduate of the University) has been appointed, a supervisor of case work and a regular case worker have been utilized, a full-time Negro social worker has been employed, and the assistance of the head of the Bureau of Negro Work has been utilized continuously. In addition to this, a teachersocial worker has been employed by the Superintendent of Schools, and she has experimented with truancy cases and other cases alongside the work of the Superintendent of Public Welfare. She is a trained worker with the Master's degree from the University of North Carolina. There have been also meetings in the city in which county-wide invitations were extended; there have been efforts to establish a detention home, and in many ways beginnings have been made to interpret public welfare to the county.

In Cherokee County, a typical mountain community, there has been developed one of the most successful demonstrations of public welfare possibilities in recent years. This plan was initiated from the cooperative efforts of the local folks and the Commissioner of Public Welfare. The first steps were the preliminary weeks of residence and organization by Miss Lily Mitchell, supervisor from the State board of Charities and Public Welfare, and Miss Ruth Medcalf and Miss Elizabeth Smith, from the School of Public Welfare. Following the preliminary months, Miss Smith was elected superintendent of public welfare, and has since developed an admirable illustration of what can be done in a limited and practical way. She has had the cooperation of the state board and has exemplified to some extent the possibilities of the general utility social work leader in a county community which has not hitherto been acquainted with professional social work.

If, then, the county unit plan in North Carolina has in no sense demonstrated successful coordination of social work, and if at the same time, paradoxically, it is set up as an experiment of great promise, what are the considerations through which these conflicting judgments may be reconciled? Aside from the

time element, and assuming the constants and variables which have been ever present in all new movements for social work and education, what are some of the principles and tasks which must occupy the attention and efforts of social work for the next decade? And, assuming the normal growth and progress along present and traditional lines, what are added features which must be worked out?

The first task is manifestly one of study and research, although in many cases problems of research must go hand in hand with problems of experiment, which is the second large task ahead.

First, there is perhaps no greater need now than that of finding out a proper technique of approach to adult population of rural areas in matters of social work and in subjects and problems involving different standards and social conflict. Recently I was much interested to hear the most experienced specialist in rural work among the churches for the United States complain bitterly of the failure of ministers and social workers in all rural areas within his church domain. I have found unanimous agreement with this sentiment among social workers in mountain areas and extremely rural regions. But is the fault all the fault of the country folk? Our specialists admit that the major trend of the times is for the more energetic and better educated folk of the rural areas to move on to cities. There are left, then, the other groups of folk who have manifestly limited leadership, while the technique of all of our own leadership is aimed at the city, or more highly educated folk who have left the country. Added to this is the almost universal missionary emphasis, which ought never to be substituted for the scientific or social work keynote which is always essential to ultimate success. Some new studies proposed in the field of teaching adults matters related to social concern, therefore, ought to yield results in time.

Other important studies to be made are numerous. Taking a county, for instance, there are the following fields in which something more must be known before any final conclusions can be reached: genetic studies of marginal families, with all the varied possibilities and significance to social work programs and possibilities; comprehensive studies of the general topography and areas, with suitable maps of roads, communities, and resources; the plotting of centers of leadership and other community areas in these maps, with adequate studies of leadership resources; intensive and concrete studies of special communities within the county; concrete and special studies of school attendance and school delinquency; special studies and mental tests of groups of children; special studies of health and dietary conditions and practices; special studies of preschool children in the country, and their family relationships; special inquiries concerning home, school, and vocational adaptations and opportunities in the rural places; special studies of attitudes toward social work and cooperation, and of organizations available for social work; special inquiries into resources for voluntary social work and leadership; special case work studies of rural families compared and contrasted with other standard case studies; special inquiries

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