Established during the early years of the Great Depression, the Passaic County Welfare Board, (since 1977, the Board of Social Services), was originally charged with providing financial support to aged, needy county residents, as well as constructing and managing the geriatric facility now called Preakness Healthcare Center. Much has changed in public administration and social work since December, 1931, when Welfare Board came into existence. Yet the question is asked: Why was it created, and what was its original mission? Hopefully, this introduction to the agency's formative years will provide an adequate response.

This essay is based upon official correspondence, minutes session laws, academic studies and other documentation in the agency's administrative archive. The reader will find complete source citations at the end of the essay; an additional section contains historic photographs and illustrations. Both the essay and illustrations will furnish an overview of programs and activities that proved necessary in easing the plight of needy men, women and children during difficult times.


In 1924, a state legislative investigating commission concluded that non-salaried county welfare boards should be established in New Jersey. Accordingly, the commission was given responsibility to "investigate, codify and revise the laws relating to the settlement and relief of the poor." A year later, the legislature acted upon the commission's report, and in conformity with Chapter 132 of the Public Laws of 1924, the Freeholders in each county could to appoint a non-salaried welfare board. A salient feature of the law enabled county governing authorities to construct and staff welfare homes for the care of indigent persons. Promoters of the welfare board envisioned even more ambitious objectives. As one historian stated, " [The welfare board] would become a logical agency to integrate probation, parole, aftercare health, school and other child welfare services, which were obviously linked and overlapping in practice."

Initiatives for overhauling the system came from the state. William L. Ellis, Commissioner of the Department of Institutions and Agencies (now the Department of Human Services), played a major role in changing the status quo. Ellis served from 1926 to 1945. He was a self-effacing, pragmatic administrator, who thought welfare services should be consolidated under local control. The Commissioner presented his ideas in a March, 1931 pamphlet, "The County Welfare Board: An Effective Instrument for the Administration of Local Public Social Work in New Jersey." In the introduction, Ellis asserted "The county is the logical unit for coordination of activity in this field. The County Board can link its work to the various municipalities of the county through district offices and district workers cooperating with local private agencies."

In 1930, the state legislature established a Pension Survey Commission, and its mandate was to study the problem of pensions and old age dependency. Ellis had served on the Commission. The panel found that municipal welfare officials, (still called "Overseers of the Poor"), were untrained and in most cases, worked only part-time. Moreover, their work was considered inept and wasteful. Ellis forcefully noted that "a County Welfare Board established the possibility for continuity in planning and policy making," believing "It lifts welfare work out of the realm of partisan politics or the vagaries of individual bias and gives it the vitalizing energy of a planful, understanding, unselfish administrative supervision." The composition of the board was of singular importance. Ellis observed, "A County Welfare Board provides for active participation on the part of philanthropic, interested citizens in determining policies and methods for meeting the problem of human need and human welfare."

Welfare Board established

On December 23, 1931, in accordance with the 1924 law, the Passaic County Welfare Board was established by resolution of the Passaic County Board of Chosen Freeholders. The board's first responsibility, according to the resolution, was to "establish a County Almshouse to be known as a Welfare Home for the care and maintenance of the permanent poor."

For decades, the city of Paterson had managed its own "poor house." Concern over the level of care furnished the "inmates" had been communicated to the Freeholders on various occasions. According to the minutes of the Freeholder's January 2, 1930 organization meeting, Freeholder-Director William H. Young reported, "The building of a County Welfare Home is a problem that has been giving the Board a great deal of concern...." Conceding that a properly equipped building was necessary, the Freeholders agreed it was time to take corrective action. Precisely a year later, at the Board's organization meeting of January 2, 1931, Freeholder-Director Edgar H. Ellis made a bold statement: "It is imperative that a County Welfare Home be built immediately to replace the antiquated structure now housing the poor of Paterson. This new home will be sufficiently large to take care of the needs of Paterson, Clifton, Passaic, our Townships and our Boroughs. Plans for this home are ready and I urge the Board to advertise for bids at once so that construction can be started as soon as the weather permits." At the end of the month, the Freeholders financed the project by authorizing a $50,000 bond issue, with interest at 6% per annum. Ground-breaking for the Passaic County Welfare Home was held that August.

Situated on county-owed property in Haledon and Wayne, the colonial-style building was designed by Wentworth & Vreeland, a respected Paterson architectural firm. The long delay in completing the project was attributed to the Depression, where a "lack of funds forced the county to a method of build-as-you-pay construction." When completed, the stately red-brick structure cost an estimated $1,000.000. The Welfare Home was dedicated March 22, 1936.

An additional, more pressing concern in those early Depression years was the worsening plight of the nation's elderly. The calamity had wiped out the savings of scores of elderly and unemployed county residents, leaving many on the brink of destitution. The state legislature addressed the problem by introducing "An Act to provide for the protection, welfare and relief of aged persons in need, and residents of the State of New Jersey, and providing for the administration therefore..." Approved April 24, 1931, Chapter 219 of the Public Laws of 1931 lodged responsibility for administering old age relief with county welfare boards, under state supervision. The board was to act as the "County Bureau of Old Age Relief" and accordingly, on December 23, 1931, the Freeholders passed the necessary enabling resolutions. (The members of the welfare board and old age relief bureau were one and the same.) On the morning of December 30th, at the county courthouse, Judge William B. Harley administered the oath of office to the new welfare board members. William C. Wollen, an executive of a Paterson chemical concern, was elected President; and Anna Hutton of Pompton Lakes, Vice-President. Alexander Patterson, active in labor circles, became Secretary-Treasurer. Other members included Anna Dobson, a Clifton resident, Lawyer Edward C. Vannaman of Passaic, County Adjuster Joseph Greene, and Freeholders Robert Worsley and William H. Young. Greene, Worsley and Young were automatically ex-officio members according to statute.

The law provided for the appointment of a qualified Director of Old Age Relief. On April 18, 1932, the Freeholders selected Joseph Greene, the County Adjuster since 1927, as director. The following month, the Board adopted its first staff budget, which totaled $4,322.28. The Old Age Relief Act stipulated that applications could not be taken before April 1st. According to the Act, the program was to commence July 1, 1932. (Greene, in reviewing his accomplishments before the welfare board in 1937, noted that "Passaic County did not start paying until October 1, 1933.") The Old Age Relief Act was New Jersey's response to the increasing number of people who had been victimized by the Depression, and it was only logical that the state would utilize, for administrative purposes, existing welfare boards for implementing this early form of categorical assistance.

Social Security Act of 1935

Nationwide, as the Depression deepened, it became increasingly evident that local government and private charity was ill-equipped to cope with the growing number of unemployed and impoverished. Congress responded by passing the Social Security Act. Within the New Jersey Department of Institutions and Agencies, a Division of Old Age Relief was created. On December 16, 1935, Old Age Relief Director Joseph E. Alloway advised Director Greene "The 1936 Legislature may revise the Old Age Relief statue in order that the State and counties may secure the benefits of the 50% Federal participation provided for in the Social Security Statute adopted August 14, 1935" (After 1936, Old Age Relief was redesignated Old Age Assistance.) The result was Chapter 31 of the Public Laws of 1936, "An Act to provide for the protection, welfare and financial assistance to aged needy residents of the State of New Jersey, providing for the administration thereof and prescribing penalties for the violation thereof."

Welfare Board made autonomous agency

The new law also stipulated that welfare boards would no longer be directly subordinated to the Freeholders. They became autonomous corporate entities. On March 27, 1936, New Jersey Division of Old Age Assistance Director Marc P. Dowdell told Greene it was "mandatory for each county Welfare Board ... to formulate a revised budget for the year 1936." The new funding arrangement was stressed. Dowdell wrote, "Your particular attention is directed to the fact that the state will make a contribution to administrative cost as well as to the cost of assistance," and alluded to the "new financial relationship between State, County Welfare Board and Board of Chosen Freeholders..."

The Passaic County Welfare Board, complied with the directive of the state, and in conformity with the provisions of the new law, adopted on April 20, 1936 a resolution which cited section five of the act, "Such Boards, whether already established or to be established, are hereby created corporate entities, with power to sue and be sued, to use a common seal, and make by-laws." The first budget submitted under the new administrative arrangement totaled $157,790, with the county share for Old Age Assistance calculated at 12 1/2%. Included in the budget were sixteen salaried positions totaling $12,776.69.

Over the years, the autonomy of the board has been reaffirmed. In January of 1947, Director of Old Age Assistance Marc P. Dowdell, in reviewing budgetary matters with Greene, wrote: "It has always been our interpretation that the Welfare Board, being a separate corporate entity, can act independently of the Board of Chosen Freeholders in making salary adjustments ... although of course we consider it a desirable policy that the Welfare Board shall so far as possible conform to the spirit of the Freeholders ..."

Although the majority of county welfare agencies in New Jersey functioned well as autonomous units, and carried out their programmatic duties under the supervision and audit of various divisions of the what is now the New Jersey Department of Human Services, the Freeholders, as elected officials, were concerned with a provision of the 1936 law specifying that "Funds ... shall be provided by the boards of chosen freeholders of each and every county, and by the state in the manner hereinafter provided."  As welfare caseloads increased, county freeholders cast a baleful eye at public assistance expenditures beyond their direct control. Freeholders viewed with dismay the expansion of government services over which they exercised little discretionary authority, yet were obligated to fund.

The stage for confrontation was set in March of 1958, when legislation was introduced to shift the burden of "Home Life Assistance" (the forerunner of Aid to Dependent Children, or "ADC" program) from state to county jurisdiction. Beginning in 1932, county welfare agencies administered Old Age Assistance. Later, the Aid to the Blind program was added. But the thought of assuming the state administered Home Life caseload alarmed the welfare board, and its counterparts in Atlantic, Essex, Hudson and Mercer counties. Greene and his colleagues intervened to prevent enactment of this pending legislation. On March 19, 1958, the welfare director wrote a two-page letter to the Freeholders, scrutinized the proposed law, and emphasized: "It is claimed that with the transfer of this program to county level there would be a saving of money. I am attaching hereto a copy of Assembly Bill 320 with a suggestion that the Board of Freeholders review this legislation. I feel, after reviewing the proposed legislation, that it will not only increase the cost of the county; but also would place a great deal of responsibility in administering this program. This legislation is supposed to integrate the welfare program with old age assistance and disability assistance programs, but from my analysis of Assembly Bill 320 it would disintegrate; for part of the Dependent Children's Program will be administered on a State level and part on a county level which will cause a great deal of confusion in addition to placing a great deal of financial responsibility on the county."

Correspondence, telegrams, newspaper articles and official communiqués document the campaign mounted by the major county welfare boards against the legislation. Greene enlisted the support of the Passaic County Freeholders. On February 18, 1959, the panel adopted a resolution which delivered a stern rebuke, asserting the legislature "would lower the requirements for obtaining assistance and welfare would open the door to many abuses, waste, and extravagance in the administration of assistance and welfare." The Freeholders feared the outcome of such legislation, believing it was" contrary to the best interests of the people and taxpayers of Passaic County."

Despite organized opposition on the county level, the legislation was enacted as Chapter 86 of the Public Laws of 1959, and each county in the state, particularly the most populated, was confronted with the task of implementing the new program. On December 31, 1959, "Home Life Assistance" terminated as a state program. Effective New Year's day, 1960, Aid to Dependent Children, or "ADC" became a reality for county welfare agency administrators and staff. It would continue as the major public assistance program for men and women with dependent children, until Congress, during Clinton Administration gave individual states a wide latitude in restructuring public assistance programs. Board objectives

The purpose of the county welfare board, from its inception, was to centralize public welfare functions, and create a system of uniform, effective administration. County welfare agencies throughout the state have continued to meet the difficult and challenging task of administering complex income support and social service programs for needy, eligible persons. It has not been an easy task. In 1938, Commissioner William L. Ellis of the Department of Institutions and Agencies commented on the role of county welfare agencies, and his observation continues to be relevant: "Again the welfare boards of the several counties have shown their ability to adjust to rapidly increasing demands," and "have endeavored sincerely to perform their task impartially, thoroughly and with genuine interest."