Catholic Charities, Social Security, and New Deal America

"The Directors of Catholic Charities felt that the whole program of Social Security should be built upon the basis of benefits based on rights; that we should work towards universal coverage under Old Age and Survivors Insurance; that we should have a system of Unemployment Compensation based on good national standards which would insure the workers adequate protection against the hazard of temporary unemployment. They felt that the contribution of the Federal Government towards long-term unemployment should be through a flexible work program that readily picked up the load of unemployment."

--Monsignor John O'Grady on Catholic Charities and Social Security, unpublished memoirs, ca. 1950, p. 147, ACUA.

With the Great Depression and the election of Franklin Roosevelt as president, the leadership at the helm of the NCCC sought to ensure the continuance of the role of diocesan charities in the New Deal welfare state. Through the NCCC, the diocesan directors of charity could make their interests known. John O'Grady monitored affairs at the Capital, while diocesan directors such as Monsignor Marcellus Wagner of Cincinnati and directors from St. Louis, New York, Baltimore and Chicago worked locally to secure influence for Catholic charity. They adhered to the principle of subsidiarity, which held that matters should be managed by the least centralized authority competent to manage the situation as possible. By extension, the most central authority should perform only those tasks which cannot be performed at the most local and least centralized level.

The economic disaster of the Depression challenged existing notions of what governments--federal, state, and local--could and should do for the citizenry. How much could local Catholic Charities networks do if the ranks of the needy swelled to unmanageable proportions while existing resources remained the same or decreased? With an unemployment rate hovering in the 20-25% range in cities and towns throughout the U.S. in the early 1930s, local charity organizations were stretched to the limits of their ability to offer assistance. This fact, along with FDR's election and the indications of governmental change, caused charity directors to adapt their views on public welfare to the times.

NCCC directors and local Catholic charity workers were especially concerned with the emerging legislation that would become known as the Social Security Act. Here, Catholic charity leadership sought actively to influence the legislation and the dispersal of funds. O'Grady himself was in an advisory position to the Committee on Economic Security, which drafted the bill. He regularly reported on the progress of the legislation, urging diocesan charity directors to use their influence with their representatives. "We need pressure on the members of both House and Senate in order that our proposed amendments to the Social Security Bill… Section 203 and 703 may be adopted," wrote O'Grady to the Diocesan Directors of Catholic Charities in February 1935. Effectively organizing the NCCC networks to voice their interests to their representatives in Congress, O'Grady and the Catholic Charities network helped shape New Deal legislation. Arthur Altmyer, author of the 1935 legislation, called O'Grady "one of the most valuable supporters of the bill" and said that O'Grady "influenced a great many members of Congress to support the bill who otherwise would have opposed it." 1

The documents here illuminate O'Grady's efforts and influence, and illuminate the broader history of organized Catholic charity and the passage of the first Social Security Act. The site features documents and teaching resources intended to trace the influence of organized Catholic charity on the drafting of the legislation.


1John O'Grady, "Letter to the Diocesan Directors of Catholic Charities," February 9, 1935. NCCC/CCUSA Box 70, Series B, "Diocesan Directors of Catholic Charities (1932-1961), Folder "Continuing Committee (1935) (3), ACUA; Thomas Tifft, "O'Grady, John" in the Encyclopedia of American Catholic History (Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 1997) 1079-1080.