Philanthropy and Historical Research

The Strange Career of New Careers for the Poor: The Challenge of Evaluating the Impact of a Great Society Program

Editors’ Note: This August, Claire Dunning published an article in the Journal of Urban History, “New Careers for the Poor: Human Services and the Post-Industrial City,” that touched on several key themes in 20th century U.S. nonprofit history. Dunning discusses several of them in this post for HistPhil.

As a scholar, I greet the current attention to data, outcomes, and impact in philanthropy with both enthusiasm and trepidation. I respect the value placed on measurement in grantmaking, but also know how difficult it can be to select and collect the right data points to accurately assess what did or did not change. As a historian, I know from archival research how often past attempts to measure outcomes of various philanthropic or government anti-poverty programs created unintended consequences not visible at the time to the social scientists or program staff responsible for evaluation.

Though not intended as such, an article I recently published in the Journal of Urban History is, in many ways, a historical impact assessment of a 1960s era anti-poverty program. The article considers the theory of “new careers,” its translation into federal Great Society policy and grantmaking, and its eventual implementation on the ground. Little has been written about the theory and programs it inspired, likely because the official federal New Careers Program had a relatively small reach—likely a few thousand people nationally—and paled in comparison to larger federally sponsored experiments in community action, Head Start, legal services, and more. Yet, my time in the archives of government, nonprofit, and philanthropic institutions suggests that “new careers” actually had a far wider reach than could be captured by quantitative data alone.

My interest in “new careers” and the puzzle my article sought to solve, emerged from an obscure reference in an archive. I was examining the records of one of the first community health centers in the country, the Tufts-Columbia Point Comprehensive Community Health Center, which opened at a public housing development in Boston in 1965 on a series of federal anti-poverty grants. Having reviewed the balance sheets for the health center, I knew that none of the line-item funding programs had to do with employment or training, but I also knew from organizational records that the health center maintained a commitment to hiring and training local residents from the public housing development and that they did so for many years. A group of ten women went through a full training program at the health center and worked as Family Health Aides, assisting doctors and launching a number of public health campaigns at the housing development. The administrative records for the center and the training curricula included numerous references to “new careers” and a book by two social scientists, Frank Riessman and Arthur Pearl. Quick research suggested that the federal New Careers Program was quite small and did not begin until 1969, but here was a health center following federal guidelines that suggested grantees adopt a new careers model in 1965. In short, something was happening on the ground, something that would not have been captured by federal tracking that only counted official enrollees in the New Careers Program established several years later.

While the majority of federal policy and policymaking in the 1960s sought to bring back manufacturing and industry to American cities, Frank Riessman and his co-author Arthur Pearl saw a different future. “The most distinguishing feature of the modern economic scene is that unskilled labor is ceasing to be a necessary component of functioning society,” they wrote in their 1965 book New Careers for the Poor: The Nonprofessional in Human Service.[i] Instead, they proposed an approach to poverty that targeted the fields of health, education, and welfare as holding “the greatest promise for employment opportunities in the future.”[ii]

Pearl and Riessman’s assessment that the human services sector would constitute the future economic engine of American cities informed their theory of “new careers.” They critiqued the 1960s-era federal job training programs both for their attention to industrial work, and for putting job training before employment. The two social scientists reversed this order, arguing that unemployed people ought to be hired first into entry-level positions as a first rung on a “new career” ladder in the human services that would enable a worker to advance from an aide or “nonprofessional” to a professional role with subsequent on-the-job training and experience. Such roles would help solve the labor shortage of trained professionals by encouraging those at the top of the wage ladder to siphon off the more menial parts of their work to entry-level aides, and allow the professional to focus on the truly skilled portion of their work. Poor people would benefit from the creation of these new positions, Pearl and Riessman argued, and would be uniquely positioned to improve service delivery by performing a translation function between elite professionals and the poor people they aimed to serve.

Years before they published a book on their theory, Pearl and Riessman successfully promoted their ideas among an elite networks of public and philanthropic funders, and policymakers during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Grants from the Ford Foundation and the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime enabled demonstration projects at Mobilization for Youth, Howard University, and Lincoln Mental Health Hospital to hire aides for human service roles. Despite the limited size and scale of the experiments, Pearl and Riessman touted them as clear evidence that an expanded human services sector could be a structural response to rising poverty and deindustrialization. Not until 1969 did the Department of Health Education and Welfare create an official New Careers Program, but new careers-esque language had for several years appeared in legislative amendments and in the publications of federal agencies tasked with implementation. Guidelines from the Office of Economic Opportunity, for example, listed New Careers for the Poor on a recommended reading list for grantees, and the 1966 Allied Health Professions Training Act allocated funds to develop new training and positions for health aides.  New career’s chief advocate, Frank Riessman, testified several times before Congress and continued to be a regular presence on federal task forces starting as early as 1963.

The range of estimates of people in federally sponsored new careers roles reveals the difficulty of counting the number of jobs created in the human services with federal funding. One year of New Careers programs sponsored 4,000 jobs, another report found 20,000 persons in the United States had been hired in new careers positions; other estimates included 131,000 nonprofessional aides, and as many as 250,000 to 400,000 positions over the course of the War on Poverty. While my research cannot produce a more precise number, there is evidence that the federal estimates at the time likely undercounted the number of people hired into aide level positions often financed by federal grants.

Yet even producing a more precise number would continue to obscure another level of impact that is evident from the archival records. The mere creation of jobs did not necessarily mean that they were routes out of poverty, free from discrimination, or a stable basis for growing the human services sector. The frequency of protests by new career aides—the majority of whom were African American and Latina women—point to the inadequacy of new career experiments that delivered jobs without the promised career ladder. As one new careers aide put it, “I’m not in poverty now. I’m not far from it.” Other research conducted at the time hinted at the pattern of new career aides getting stuck performing menial tasks without possibility of promotion or further training. The Family Health Aides at the Boston health center wrote letters to the Mayor, challenged the doctors on staff, and protested at a local annual meeting of the New England Health Consortium, but were kept marginalized and underpaid. Aides who were able to unionize—often those working in public human service agencies—found some power with which to ensure career ladders followed entry-level work, but they were more often the exception than the rule.

Those working at private nonprofit organizations, however, found far less success as their employers were small, isolated, and unresponsive to vague rules set by federal grant-makers. Even as some nonprofit employers expressed strong intentions or desires to promote aides, the limited organizational capacity of what were often small, under-funded organizations constrained their ability to do so. This pattern repeated itself and continued to become a standard tier of employment as Nixon-era funding programs—the 1973 Comprehensive Employment Training Act and 1974 Community Development Block Grant among them—expressly steered state and municipal governments to contract with nonprofits as a means of job creation because these private entities could pay lower wages than government work, and therefore support more jobs overall. As had been the case during the 1960s, these were not necessarily good jobs and the people working in them had little access to promotional ladders. Reflecting both on the support the Ford Foundation had given to early new careers demonstration programs, and on Frank Riessman’s ongoing efforts to promote the theory and conduct research, program officer Herbert Kramer wrote that while Riessman “has unassailable program concepts, he doesn’t understand their policy implications.”[iii]

Though the new careers theory and experiments with its implementation in the 1960s and early 1970s were not alone responsible for the service sector economy or predominance of nonprofit institutions as sites of labor and services in American cities, it did contribute to and helped link these patterns that came to characterize urban centers in the closing decades of the twentieth century. Quantitative data has demonstrated the growth in number and size of the nonprofit sector over the closing decades of the century, and captured the role of government funding in fueling that growth.[iv] What we have not yet fully appreciated, however, is the labor story tied to that growth. Instead of creating direct ramps out of poverty through entry-level opportunities and chances for promotion, the new careers theory and its implementation helped solidify hierarchies of race, gender, and credentials as a defining feature of human service provision at the moment of growth and transformation.

It is hard to imagine how observers at the time could have captured a more accurate assessment of the impact of new careers experiments. (Though observers could have been more receptive to the complaints of new career aides and responsive to the issues they raised). Now that we do know more, however, historical lessons about anti-poverty programs, about the possibilities of unintended consequences, and about the difficulty of capturing impact are clear. New careers had multiple impacts, positive and negative, on individual and structural levels. The theory inspired the creation of new jobs for people in poverty and the use of federal grantmaking to enable that job creation; it also failed to move people out of poverty and encouraged a two-track system of employment in the human services. History enables us to accumulate these impacts in their complexity and context.

This reflection on impact is not meant to deter private philanthropists and—to the extent that they still exist—government funders from seeking to channel funding to high-impact organizations. Rather it is to suggest that historians, and their methodology and sources, can provide valuable insight to ongoing conversations about poverty, inequality, and the nonprofit sector. As economists, political scientists, and sociologists find increasing utility in policymaking and philanthropic circles in designing impact studies, historians ought to have a seat at the table too.

-Claire Dunning

Claire Dunning is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, where she studies the history of the welfare state, urban governance, and grassroots activism in the twentieth century. Her current book project considers how changes in federal poverty policy and the growth of the nonprofit sector shaped urban neighborhoods in Boston from the 1950s to the present. She holds a PhD in History from Harvard University.


[i] Arthur Pearl and Frank Riessman, New Careers for the Poor: The Nonprofessional in Human Service (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1965), 7.

[ii] Pearl and Riessman, New Careers for the Poor, 9.

[iii] Herbert Kramer, “The ‘Riessman Operation,” box 86, report #2145, Ford Foundation, Catalogued Reports, Rockefeller Archive Center.

[iv] See especially, Lester M. Salamon, Partners in Public Service: Government-Nonprofit Relations in the Modern Welfare State (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

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