The Origins of Public Welfare and Human Services in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania has a long history of involvement in public welfare and human services programs. Over the centuries, millions of Pennsylvanians have been affected by these programs, and they continue to play a major role in the operations of state, county, and local governments. Welfare has been in state news lately: the controversial elimination of the General Assistance Program, assistance and aid for Pennsylvanians affected by the opioid epidemic, and the recent decision of Luzerne County welfare officials to threaten parents with overdue school lunch bills with dependency hearings.

In order to better understand how welfare and human services in Pennsylvania got to where it is today, its useful to dive into the histories of four state agencies: the Departments of Human Services, Health, Aging, and Drug and Alcohol Programs. Each of these organizations has a unique story, and together they offer a wide and deep view of the real impacts of welfare/human services on the state.

As the official home for the records of Pennsylvania state government, the PA State Archives is the best source for historical records from these agencies. Below is a historical summary of each agency and a non-exhaustive listing of record collections from each related to welfare and human services. To learn more or to schedule a visit to the State Archives, please visit the archives website!

Female residents of Polk State School, one of the many state institutions operated by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (now Human Services). Circa 1915. Pennsylvania State Archives.

Department of Human Services

The origins of what is today the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services in 1829. Throughout the 19th century, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania built new state-run institutions in an attempt to reform conditions that were common in small county jails and poorhouses. In Philadelphia, Eastern State Penitentiary was built in 1829 in response to lobbying from the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons (today the PA Prison Society) to improve prison conditions and provide some sort of rehabilitation for inmates. The Pennsylvania State Lunatic Asylum (later known as Harrisburg State Hospital) was built near the state’s capitol after social reformer Dorthea Dix petitioned the state legislature to improve living condition and treatment for indigent citizens with mental illnesses or disabilities who often found themselves homeless or incarcerated in jails or workhouses. By the mid-19th century, Pennsylvania operated or funded dozens of facilities all across the state.

To monitor all of these institutions (most were operated independently by local staff), Pennsylvania created the Board of Public Charities in 1869. Its commissioners were charged with visiting every penal, mental, reform, and charitable institution in the state once a year, determine annual appropriations, and to report on the “causes and best treatment of pauperism, crime, disease and insanity.”[1] The Board’s activities quickly grew and in 1883 the state legislature established the Pennsylvania Committee on Lunacy to examine facilities that housed people considered insane. These small government agencies continued to grow through the end of the 19th century as more mental health and welfare institutions were built around Pennsylvania.

In the early 20th century, Pennsylvania gradually began to provide aid to indigent citizens at the state level (before this was primarily a local responsibility). The Board of Public Charities helped administer poor relief after the passage of the Mothers’ Assistance Act of 1913 and expanded this role in 1932 when the State Emergency Relief Board was created in response to the Great Depression.[2] In 1921 the Board of Public Charities was abolished and the Department of Welfare was created in its place to reflect this change in functions and was restructured to better coordinate and administer welfare programs. In 1923 the name of the Department of Welfare was changed to the Department of Public Welfare.

In 1937, the Department of Public Welfare created the Office of Public Assistance (known as Income Maintenance today) to provide financial assistance, medical care, and other services to Pennsylvanians who were impacted by the Great Depression. This office took over the functions of county poor boards and mother’s assistance funds. This office and the county boards of assistance that it worked with administered several types of regular assistance programs:

  1. Old Age Assistance- Persons 65 years or older
  2. Aid to Dependent Children- Children under 16 (under 18 if attending school) who are living with a parent or other relative but lack the support or care of one or both parents.
  3. Aid to the Disabled- Individuals were required to be at least 18 years old but under 65 and must be “permanently and totally disabled.”
  4. Pensions for the Blind: Must be 21 or older, maximum monthly pension was $60 in 1955.
  5. General Assistance- “This group includes all needy persons who are not covered by one of the other types of aid and who do not require institutional care. The State pays the entire cost of General Assistance.”

This office also offered several special types of aid:

  1. Employment counseling and placement
  2. Special services (The Public Assistance Law of 1943 stipulated that “when other funds or facilities for such purposes are inadequate or unavailable, to provide for special needs of individuals eligible for assistance, to relieve suffering and distress arising from handicaps and infirmities, to promote their rehabilitation, to help them if possible to become self-dependent, and to cooperate to the fullest extent with other public agencies empowered by law to provide vocational training, rehabilitative, or similar services.”
  3. Burial assistance
  4. Medical care
  5. School medical assistance
  6. Foster home assistance[3]

The Office of Public Assistance was absorbed by the Department of Public Welfare in 1958.

The Department of Public Welfare operated all state schools, hospitals, prisons/penitentiaries, and reformatory/industrial schools in Pennsylvania until 1953 when supervision over penal and correctional institutions was transferred in 1953 from the Department of Welfare’s Bureau of Penal Affairs to the Department of Justice.

The Departments of Public Assistance and Welfare merged in 1958 to form the Department of Public Welfare. In 2014, the Department’s name changed to the Department of Human Services. As the primary state agency concerned with the social welfare and financial needs of the citizens of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Department administers a wide range of services including public assistance, medical assistance, aid to the handicapped, mental health and retardation programs and institutions, and the licensing and inspection of nursing homes, day-care centers and hospitals.

Records at the Pennsylvania State Archives related to Department of Human Services welfare programs:

-Record Group 23.339: Minutes of County Boards of Assistance and Related Records 1915-2016.
-Record Group 23.758: Reports of the Board of Commissioners of Public Charities 1919-1921
-Record Group 23.349: Administrative Files of the Secretary of Welfare 1955-1958
-Record Group 23.915 Annual Statistical Reports of the Department of Welfare 1937-1954
-Record Group 23.968 Minutes of the Department of Welfare 1921-1946
-Record Groups 23.360, 23.361, 23.363, 23.364, 23.365, 23.366, 23.367, 23.370, 23.371, 23.460, 23.180 Records of the Department of Assistance 1935-1970 (several series of relevant records)
-Record Group 23.353 Reports on County Poor Relief 1932-1939
-Record Group 23.354 State Emergency Relief Board 1932-1937 (several series of relevant records)


Department of Health

For many years, Pennsylvania only had loosely enforced state laws and efforts by some municipal health boards (Philadelphia and Allentown, for example) to protect the public health of Pennsylvania. Unsurprisingly, public sanitation was often poor, especially in rural areas and deadly epidemics were common across the state. In 1930 one Department of Health employee recalled his childhood in the 1880s:

“There wasn’t much attention paid to the communicable diseases. Everybody, as a matter of course, had measles, chickenpox, whooping cough and mumps, and small boys use to boast, after school of how many diseases they had acquired…But diphtheria—well, that’s something else again. Not so many boasted about having it then, for not so many recovered.”[4]

Physicians, medical societies, and elected leaders had tried for decades to create a state agency to administer public programs.[5] But, opposition from many political, corporate, and local sources prevented legislation from passing in the 1860s and 1870s. In 1885, a deadly typhoid outbreak occurred in Plymouth (Luzerne County) and made national news as hundreds became sick and local health authorities seemed powerless to alleviate conditions. In response to public outcry, Pennsylvania established the State Board of Health, that same year. The Board was composed of five physicians, one sanitary engineer, and a secretary. Even though it had a tiny budget and few meaningful enforcement powers, the Board provide advice and assistance to many local health boards and enacted some significant state-wide public health reforms. The Board’s first test was after the devastating flood at Johnstown in 1889, and its members were able to work with local authorities to operate temporary medical camps, improve sanitation for survivors, and prevent the spread of disease that could have made the disaster so much worse.

Though the State Board of Health’s staff were passionate about their work, they were hamstrung by a lack of authority and resources. Small annual appropriations meant that the Board could not even afford a small research lab or to employ field agents to respond to new epidemics. Lack of political support also prevented the Board from creating any meaningful health law reforms or state-wide public health policies. Pennsylvania’s governors even vetoed several public health laws that the Board tried to pass in the early 20th century.

In 1905, another deadly outbreak of typhoid occurred in Butler (Butler County) and the Board of Health was unable to effectively deal with the epidemic or protect Pennsylvanians living in that area. Public outcry and increased pressure from reformers finally persuaded the legislature to establish a Department of Health that same year. The Department of Health was given a significant budget and broad powers to “protect the health of the people of the Commonwealth, and to determine and employ the most efficient and practical means for the prevention and suppression of disease.”[6] Among other responsibilities, the Department operated several tuberculosis hospitals, quarantine centers, and the Elizabethtown Home for Crippled Children (open 1925-1982). The Department also was heavily involved in vaccination efforts across Pennsylvania which contributed to a rapid reduction in the state’s mortality rates within a decade.

By the 1940s many deadly communicable diseases like smallpox and diphtheria were largely eradicated because of the Department of Health’s work. After that, the department’s efforts shifted to non-communicable diseases and it created new offices for the study and prevention of cancer and diabetes, and for maternal/childhood health. Nursing and nutrition educational programs were also created around this time and distributed across Pennsylvania. By the 1960s the Department of Health largely resembled the agency it is today.

Records at the Pennsylvania State Archives related to Department of Heath welfare programs:

-Record Group 11.15 Reports and Related records of the Department of Health 1886-2015
-Record Group 11.1 General Correspondence of the Secretary of Health 1930-2017
-Record Group 11.96 Annual Reports of the Board of Health and Vital Statistics 1885-1896


Department of Aging

In 1956, the Department of Public Welfare (Human Services today) established an Office for the Aging, the first distinct government organization dedicated to serve Pennsylvania’s elderly residents. Before this office was established, elderly Pennsylvanians in need of care or services were assisted by general welfare programs run by the Departments of Health and Public Welfare or were helped by local or county homes and aid programs.

The Office for the Aging was created when “the Department of Public Welfare demonstrated its deep interest in a rapidly increasing segment of the population and in the problems of the individual in this group. The Office’s objectives are to raise the standards of institutional care and to encourage communities to develop programs which will help elderly persons achieve or maintain an active part in community life.”[7]

After the Older Americans Amendment of 1973 was passed by the federal government, new emphasis was put on comprehensive social services, including the establishment of sub-state planning and service areas to develop a comprehensive system for social service delivery. Pennsylvania had soon after passed legislation creating the Department of Aging in 1978 and was charged with being an advocate for the interests of older Pennsylvanians at all levels of government. At the time of its creation, its goals were stated as advancing the well-being of Pennsylvania’s older citizens, affecting coordination in the administration of federal and state aging programs, and to promote the creation and growth of organizations designed to maximize independence of older Pennsylvanians.[8]

Since its creation, the Department of Aging’s functions, organization, and mission have remained largely the same.

Records at the Pennsylvania State Archives related to Department of Aging welfare programs:
-Record Group 76.2 Department of Aging, Administrative Files, 1960-2004 (includes transition reports from the creation of the department in 1978)
-Record Group 76.6 Subject Files of the Intra-Governmental Council on Long-term Care 1967-2000


Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs

The department of Drug and Alcohol Programs was formally established in 2012. Prior to this time, provision of drug and alcohol services were through several state agencies, mostly the Departments of Health and Department of Human Services. The Department’s mission is to “engage, coordinate, and lead the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s effort to prevent and reduce drug, alcohol, and gambling addiction and abuse; and to promote recovery, thereby reducing the human and economic impact of the disease.”[9]

Prior to the creation of the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, a Governor’s Council on Drug and Alcohol Abuse was created in 1972. At that time drug and alcohol programs were run by the following agencies: Public Welfare, Health, Justice, Labor and Industry, Education, Community Affairs, State Police, and Probation and Parole. The Governor’s Council was created to develop state plans to determine “the need for a variety of drug and alcohol program services, ranging from community education to medical treatment.”[10]

Records at the Pennsylvania State Archives related to Department of Drug and Alcohol Program welfare programs:

-The State archives does not currently have any records from DDAP, but id does have records from other agencies’ older drug and alcohol programs, most notably the Department of Health.
-Record Group 10.42, 10.43, 10.44 Governor’s Council on Drug and Alcohol Abuse 1963-1979


[1] Second Annual Report of the Pennsylvania Board of Public Charities, page iv.

[2] A Report of the Joint State Government Commission to the General Assembly on Public Assistance in Pennsylvania, 1951, page 9.

[3] “The Pennsylvania Manual” Volume 92 (1955-1956) page 786-787.

[4] “Not So Long Ago—And Now” by A.J. Bohl in Pennsylvania’s Health (bulletin of the Department of Health), 1930, page 18.

[5] “Under the Stimulus of Great Epidemics: Reformers, Epidemics, and the Rise of State Level Public Health in Pennsylvania, 1872-1905” by James Higgins Pennsylvania History Vol. 84 No. 2 (Spring 2017) page 214.

[6] “Milestones to Health in Pennsylvania: A History of Public Health Work in the State” by B.W. Kunkel (1963), page 60.

[7] “The Pennsylvania Manual” Volume 97 (1965-1966) page 423.

[8] “Department of Aging Transition Report” (1978) Pennsylvania State Archives, Record Group 76.2: Records of the Department of Aging.

[9] “The Pennsylvania Manual” Volume 123 (2018-2019) page 4-49.

[10] “Governor’s Council on Drug and Alcohol Abuse Final Report” (1973) Pennsylvania State Archives Record Group 10.43: Records of the Office of the Governor.


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