North Carolina Conference for Social Service

Written By North Carolina History Project

As part of the Progressive movement’s concern for children’s welfare, the state of North Carolina started the North Carolina Conference for Social Service in 1912.   

Each year, the conference identified pressing issues affecting the state’s children, formed committees and conducted research, and then made suggestions for reform to the General Assembly concerning a particular issue.  During its first years, the group explored issues such as child labor laws, compulsory school attendance, and orphanages, and it was influential in lobbying for the 1916 bill to create county welfare offices.  

From 1913 to 1929, the North Carolina Conference for Social Service, writes historian George B. Tindall, “sponsored measures for juvenile courts, a mother’s aid system, segregation of the criminally insane, compulsory school attendance, physical examination of school children, the establishment of a prison farm for women, a special camp for tubercular prisoners, and a school for delinquent [African American] girls.”

This conference was deemed necessary, in part, because North Carolina lacked government welfare services.  According to W. W. Finlator, not one county had a welfare department.  Also, youth offenders were sent to prisons with adults, and children could be sent to work at the age of 12.  The conference, it seems, worked to expand the definition of childhood and ensure of period adolescence.  

Nationalism, the interests of the state, and economic planning also influenced concern for children and the establishment of programs for their benefit.  Children were part of a larger plan.  Doing research for the National Child Labor Committee, Wiley Hampton Swift remarked: “The better thought of the whole country, in fact of the world, is largely directed at this hour to the conservation of things successful for man and to the preservation and proper development of all human resources.  The need for efficient man-power is forcing even those who are ordinarily thoughtless to think.  We are beginning to see that not on child can be spared, and that the failure to bring every child born, yes, begotten, to full strength and maturity is a loss not only to the immediate family, but to the entire country.  The growing of fit men and women, and enough of them, is coming to be held to be one of the chief concerns of a state.”  He went on: “The rights of the state rise above family rights in the child and there should never be any hesitation about invading the family circle when the best interests of the child demand it.”