The Common Human Needs Affair

"Social security and public assistance programs are a basic essential for attainment of the socialized state envisaged in a democratic ideology, a way of life which so far has been realized only in slight measure." -Charlotte Towle, Common Human Needs

When professor Charlotte Towle wrote Common Human Needs, it was to be a pamphlet advocating freedom, liberty, and democratic treatment of the less fortunate. Commissioned by the United States Social Security Board in 1945, Towle's work offered advice on understanding the individual and unique plights of those in need. In the words of past University of Chicago professor Phyllis Osborn, the text imparted to social workers an "...understanding with respect to the effects on the human spirit of...need, illness, old age...and the many social hazards to which all mankind are at least potentially liable."

Her efforts were sunk by one phrase at a time when the Cold War first turned hot. On April 17, 1951, not even six years after its initial publication, Federal Security Administrator Oscar R. Ewing ordered that all copies be destroyed. While he had agreed to the pamphlet's reprinting in 1949, Ewing fell under attack by the American Medical Association which demanded an explanation about why Ewing had approved the "socialized state" phrase. Ewing succumbed to the Association's pressure, branding the piece as "un-American", leftist, and supportive of international socialism.

What could have been a quiet action transformed overnight into a nationwide frenzy. The entire social work profession rose as one to stand against Ewing. Beginning with Towle's colleagues at the Crown Family School (then the School of Social Service Administration), and reaching to parties such as the American Association of Social Workers, colleges from California to Connecticut, state senators, and President Truman himself, the "Common Human Needs Affair", as it came to be called, pitted social workers and sympathizers from across the nation against the close-mindedness of the times.

Ewing defended his decision although he stood alone. Many of the hundreds of letters that Ewing received pointed to Webster's Dictionary, showing that "socialized" was merely a common and widely-accepted word in the social work profession, not just a communist catch phrase. They chastised Ewing for crumbling under the American Medical association's pressure, going so far as to compare his actions to those of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. 

Meanwhile, social workers and scholars across the country lauded Towle's work, praising how influential it had been in their jobs. Despite this overwhelming public opposition, the Federal Security Agency did not relent, and refused to reprint Common Human Needs. In subsequent years, the pamphlet went on to be published by both the University of Chicago and the National Association of Social Workers. Although the government did not back down, the ordeal demonstrated the tremendous effect that Towle's text had on the nation. For so many to come so quickly and overwhelmingly to her aid, Common Human Needs is a truly powerful work.

By Sheridan Lardner, LAB '07, AB '11, AM '13


Phyllis Osborn, "A Statement Regarding the Reported Destruction of the Pamphlet 'Common Human Needs,' April, 1951

Associated Press, "FSA Booklets Destroyed by Ewing's Order." Washington Post 17 April 1951. University of Chicago Library: Charlotte Towle Papers.

Helen Wright to Oscar Ewing, 20 April 1951. University of Chicago Library: Charlotte Towle Papers.

Freeman, Lucy, "Ewing Condemned on Towle Action." New York Times 18 May 1951, nat'l ed. : L+ 30. University of Chicago Library: Charlotte Towle Papers.

Charlotte Towle to Oscar Ewing, 22 May 1951. University of Chicago Library: Charlotte Towle Papers.