Overview: The administration of Mothers' Pensions (MP) varied greatly across states. First, in some states it was called "Mothers' Pensions," in others "Mothers' Aid," and still in others "Widows' Pensions" (which was often confused with the contemporaneous program that provided benefits to widows of veterans by the same name). Besides differences in naming, the MP program was administered and funded differently in each state. Thus, the location of case files in each state varies. For example, case files from Minnesota are contained in juvenile courst whereas case files in Michigan are part of probate court records. In the data section of this site, you will find details on where to find records.
Children's Bureau and Mothers' Pensions: The 1928 Children's Bureau Public Aid to Mothers with Dependent Children provides an introduction to the Mothers' Aid movement and the differences in administration of pensions across states. The 1931 Children's Bureau Mothers' Aid report also provides a follow-up analysis of MP programs in each state.
The map above comes from the 1926 Children's Bureau report titled "Public Aid to Mothers with Dependent Children."
Mothers' Pensions in each state: In the text below, you will find a state-by-state account of the way in which pensions were provided as well as primary source documents which more fully explain the operation of the program. As the project progresses, new records and administrative histories will appear below. (*) Denotes the 20 states for which Mothers' Penson records are still extant. (The information below will be updated as soon as new sources are found.)
Arizona: The Mothers' Pension program passed in 1915 and was operated by the Board of Child Welfare. The following counties administered aid: Apache, Cochise, Coconino, Gila, Graham, Greenlee, Maricopa, Mohave, Navajo, Pima, Pinal, Santa Cruz, Yavapai, and Yuma. The First Annual Report of the Arizona State Child Welfare Board describes details of the provision of pensions such as the number of cases in each county as well as the characteristics of the average mother receiving aid. A follow-up Report on the Activities of the State Child Welfare Board discusses the administration of the law.
Arkansas: According to Deborah E. Ward's book titled The White Welfare State: The Racialization of U.S. Welfare Policy, even though the state passed Mothers' Pension legislation in 1917, it never provided aid to poor women.
California: Prior to the passed of the MP law in 1913, the state provided relief to orphans and half-orphans. The San Francisco Record of Orphans, Half-Orphans on State-Aid contains records from 1903 to 1910. Once the MP law passed, the Widows' Pension Bureau was established in the city to administer aid to poor women. The State Board of Control oversaw the provision of pensions. Alpine County Mothers' Pension Records available on familysearch.org are the only MP records that have been found thus far. For an example of the record, click here.
Colorado*: The Mothers' Compensation Act of Colorado passed in the state by popular initiative in 1912, and pensions were provided by March 1913. According to the law, there was no limit on the amount of pension an invididual could receive and thus the decision on amount was left to the juvenile court. In Denver, the juvenile court allowed the public relief department to administer funds to poor mothers. Gertrude Vaile's article titled "Administration of Mothers' Aid Law in Denver," which is found in the Debaters' Handbook Series - Mothers' Pensions on p. 80) contains a discussion of which types (divorced, deserted, widowed, etc) of mothers are most deserving of aid and how best to provide relief.
District of Columbia:
Georgia: No program had ever passed in the state.
Idaho*: Mothers' Pensions were administered by the probate court in each county in Idaho in 1913. The index to these records is available online.
Illinois*: In 1911, the state passed the Mothers' Pension law - one of the first in the nation. Aid was administered to poor mothers through the juvenile court. Passage of the MP law was supported by notable members of Hull House including the Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams and Sophonisba Breckinridge. The city of Chicago had a large program that is described in David Tanenhaus' 2001 article titled “Growing up Dependent: Family Preservation in Early Twentieth-Century Chicago” (Law and History Review, Vol 19, No. 3 pp. 547-582) in which he discusses MP case files at court and the administration of the program.
Indiana: Little is known about the MP program in Indiana. Perhaps the best set of information comes from the 1929 Monthly Labor Review article titled "Pensions and Insurance." Daily allowances of 75 cents per child were awarded to poor mothers who had female children aged 17 or less and male children aged 16 or less. Aid was awarded by in each county by the Board of Children's Guardians, who reported to the Board of State Charities.
Kansas: MP records were administered by the juvenile court. Unfortunately, juvenile court records are permanently restricted in the state and so little is known about the program in Kansas. What is known about the program comes from a 1929 book titled Three Laws Affecting Kansas Children.
Kentucky: Although the state passed Mothers' Pension legislation in 1928, no poor women with dependent children ever received aid from the state (source: White Welfare State by Deborah E. Ward).
Louisiana: Mothers' Aid was passed in 1921, but only a handful of counties ever provided pensions to poor mothers. In the 1930s, masters students of Tulane University's School of Social Work became interested in mothers' aid and many wrote their theses on the MP program. Elizabeth Worth Dinwiddie's 1935 thesis titled "History of Mothers' Pension in Louisiana" provides an explanation of the way in which pensions were passed in the state as well as the great difficulty in funding the program despite the implementation of a gas tax. Claire Lydia Moehlenbrock's 1936 thesis titled "The Administration of Mothers' Aid in Orleans Parish" outlines the ways in which the parish heavily relied on private charities such as the Family Service Society to provide government aid.
Maine: The Mothers' Aid program was passed in 1917 and Boards of Mothers' Aid were established to administer pension in 1919.
Massachusetts*: Starting in 1913, Mothers' Aid was administered at the local (city, not county) level in this state as was the case in other New England states. There are Mothers' Aid Relief Registers from the state's Department of Public Welfare kept by the Massachusetts State Archives in Boston, but these registers are restricted (they also do not contain the names or dates of birth of the children whose mothers' received aid). These records can be viewed by researchers if names and other identifying information are redacted. The 1994 dissertation of Dawn Saunders (Ph.D. Economics, University of Massachusetts at Amherst), who is currently a Professor of Economics at Castleton State College, contains an analysis of the records kept by the State Archives and discusses the determinants of differences in aid amounts across localities. Case files are not found at the State Archives. In the town of Lincoln, case files can be viewed at the Lincoln Public Library.
Michigan*: The probate court administered mothers' pensions in the state. Mothers' Pensions in Michigan have been the subject of a few academic articles. Susan Stein-Roggenbuck's work on the Aid to Dependent Children program, which was the successor of MP programs in the 1940s, shows that mothers' pensions were administered through the probate court and that, with the exception of a few counties, most MP records were lost in the early 1950s due to a fire at the state archives. The counties which have extant records are Allegan, Huron and Ionia. For further information on Allegan counties program, see Kay Walters Ofman's 1996 article titled "A Rural View of Mothers' Pensions.
Mississippi: Although Mississippi passed Mothers' Pension legislation in 1928, no poor women with dependent children ever received aid from the state (source: White Welfare State by Deborah E. Ward).
Missouri: The first mothers' pension program ever passed in the U.S. was in Kansas City, Missouri in 1911. Pensions were administered by the juvenile court mostly and sometimes by county courts. The book titled individual published by the Russell Sage Foundation in 1913 contains a discussion on the MP program in Missouri, and especially in Kansas City, as well as in other American cities.
Montana*: Mothers' Pensions were passed in 1915 in the state and were administered by the Superintendent of the Poor who provided a district court order. In Cascade county, case files can be viewed online here. (County clerks are often in possession of these records).
Nebraska*: Mothers' Pensions operated through the county court and granted aid to mothers or guardians of orphaned children. An example of the Clay county court order from 1918 shows that recipients of aid had to provide monthly statements to the court explaining how the funds were used.
New Jersey*: With the passage of the Widows' Pension law in 1913, the state of New Jersey began administering the aid through the Court of Common Pleas in every county. Complete records still exist for a few counties including Cumberland, Goucester, Monmouth and Morris. These records are restricted forever to all who wish to view them with the exception of those who can prove that they are related to the Widows' Pension recipients.
New Mexico: Although Mothers' Pension legislation did eventually pass in 1931, pensions were never provided to any women living in the state (source: The White Welfare State by Deborah E. Ward).
New York: The State Board of Charities oversaw MP programs (sometimes called Mothers' Allowance in certain counties), which were run at the county level by Board of Child Welfare. Annual reports of the State Board of Charities show that 32 counties had MP programs. New York City had the largest program. The New York City Board of Child Welfare Report of 1917 provides statistics regarding the type of occupations mothers had as well as the health of recipient children. (Minutes from the Board of Child Welfare are available at New York City Hall Library).
The map above is found in the 1928 handbook titled "Mothers' Aid in North Carolina," which provides a summary of Mothers' Aid cases as well as a discussion of the varying levels of generosity across counties.
North Dakota*: Mothers' Pensions were administered by the county court. Case files are found at the State Historical Society of the North Dakota State archives for Dunn, Divide, Rolette, Williams, Ward, McLean, Sargent and Emmons counties. An example from Williams county shows shows that mothers were awarded $15 per child.
Oregon*: The mothers' pension law was passed in 1913 and administered through the juvenile court in each county. Eligible mothers were those whose husbands had died, were confined to an institution, or incapacitated (mentally or physically). The program was paid for by county funds and no taxes were put in place to finance the program. To read more on the history of the MP program in Oregon, see Carlos Victor Sandoz' dissertation titled "Development of the emergency rural relief program in Oregon, June 1932 to January 1936" -- a thesis submitted for the degree of Master of Social Work at the University of Washington in 1942.
Pennsylvania*: The 1924 Department of Public Welfare Report provides a detailed analysis of the Mothers' Assistance program's operation in the state that includes an assessment of costs as well as aggregate information on recipient families.
South Carolina: No program had ever passed in the state.
South Dakota*: Mothers' Pensions were passed in the state in 1913. Records still exist in the following counties: Deuel, Hughes, Kingsbury, Lawrence, McCook, Mellette, Minnehaha, Union and Walworth. The MP records are part of the Women's History Collection at the South Dakota State Archives.
Utah: Widows' Pensions were passed in Utah in 1913. Initially, women could receive $10.00 per month, but this amount was increased to $15.00 by 1924. The Salt Lake County archives has lists of the mothers who received aid in 1924 and their addresses, but records relating to the children remain unfound.
Washington*: The Mothers' Pension program passed in 1913 in the state. A great source for information on the state's program comes from a 1934 book titled Public Relief in Washington, 1853-1933, which was written by Marion Hathway and John Rademaker. Marion Hathway was a student University of Chicago PhD student of Sophonisba Breckinridge and Edith Abbott, who later went on to become a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and president of the American Association of Schools of Social Work (read her bio: here).
Wisconsin*: The state passed a Mothers' Pension law in 1913. As Robert Lewin of the Milkwaukee Journal describes in his article on March 3, 1935, "As an experiment, on Mar. 26, 1912 - before the Wisconsin Legislature passed the law - the Milwaukee county board set aside $5,000 to be distributed by the juvenile court among the families of dependent children, who otherwise would be committed to the home for dependent children at Wauwatosa." The article goes on to describe the difficulties that counties faced when trying to keep providing pensions during the Great Depression. Lewin concludes by explaining President Roosevelt's plan to create a national social security program, which was the subject of debate in Congress in 1935. To read the article, click here. For a more complete discussion of the Mothers' Pension law in the state, please see the Wisconsin Board of Control's publication titled Aid to Dependent Children from 1918.
Wyoming*: The Mothers' Pension program, passed in 1915, operated through the district court. Case files still extant and housed at the Wyoming State Archives show that the program operated in the following counties: Big Horn, Carbon, Lincoln, Niobara, Park, Sheridan and Sweetwater. Since the records are permanently restricted, little is known about the way in which the program operated.
International: While research and data collection of MP records is currently confined to the United States, information of programs which provided aid to poor women has been compiled here.