NASW Foundation National Programs
NASW Social Work Pioneers®
Mary Austin (1894 - 1988)
Mary Austin’s career encompassed new and pioneering efforts at the local, state, and national levels of government as major social service programs were being created. Her most notable pioneering work was with the Bureau of Public Assistance in the Social Security Administration and various federal agencies such as the Federal Security Agency, and Health, Education and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services). She came to these agencies as policies and programs were being formulated during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and she was instrumental in organizing the first network of field services around the United States to assist states in administering programs for old-age assistance, aid to the blind, and aid to dependent children. She also established the first rules and regulations for the initial state grant and aid programs for public assistance. She eventually became Chief of the Division of Program Operations of the Bureau, and as such occupied a major federal position.
Austin organized these field sections into ten regional offices and she coordinated intergovernmental contacts between state agencies and the Bureau of Public Assistance. She worked closely with Jane Hoey, another pioneering social worker in the area of federal programs for children and the aged. She retired from the Bureau of Public Assistance in 1955 after a long and successful career.
Austin began her career in education and taught at Friends Select School followed by public schools in Wilmington, Ohio, from 1915-1919. She then taught briefly at college in Philadelphia and worked as a fundraiser for the Pennsylvania Committee of the Women’s Union Christian Colleges in the Orient, which had schools in India, China, and Japan.
Austin worked at the National League of Girls Clubs in New York for three years and was the director of an institution for fatherless girls in Pittsburgh. She also worked for the State Committee on Penal Affairs of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, where she served as Executive Secretary, from 1924-28. This was a private organization created by the Public Charities Association of Pennsylvania to promote an interest in and understanding among the citizens of Pennsylvania in proper administration of penal affairs. In addition to establishing the local office, she organized a board of citizens and raised the budget for work carried out in the area. She also established “cell industries” for 300 prisoners of the Western Penitentiary to help provide vocational rehabilitation by raising funds for instructors and selecting goods that could be made in a prison cell. While in Pennsylvania, she helped organize the Pittsburgh Girls’ Conference, which secured the cooperation of the Junior League in financing a detention home for young women that were temporarily stranded and without funds in Pittsburgh.
In 1928 Austin moved to New York and worked as division secretary of the newly-organized Welfare Council of New York. She was Secretary of the Division on Recreation, Education and Neighborhood Activities and was responsible for coordinating one-fourth of the social service agencies served, for a total of 232 member organizations. Specifically, she was responsible for the Section on Employment and Vocational Guidance; the Section on Girls’ and Boys’ Work (which offered recreational and educational group work with young people; the Section on Regional Organization of social agencies; and the Section on Recreation.
As part of her work at the Welfare Council of New York, Austin worked with students from the New York School of Social Work, supervising their field placements in community organization with the Council. She also advised district councils of social agencies on community organization including organizational policies, service inventories, program suggestions, and clearance on local projects.
Austin was a state organizer for the Gilford Pinchot for Governor campaign. She was a founding member of NASW, the National Conference of Social Workers, the American Public Welfare Association, and the Women’s Democratic Club.
Mary Austin was born in August 1894 in Wilmington, Ohio and died in September 1988 in the District of Columbia, spending her professional life participating in important developments in the social welfare field. She earned her BA degree from Wilmington College, Ohio, in 1915 and her graduate degree from Haverford College in 1920. She also attended the University of Pennsylvania for coursework in sociology and attended Columbia University and the University of Chicago.