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Mother’s Pension Assistance


The problem of caring for the downtrodden poor has plagued civic government in North Dakota since territorial days. The essential question was how to care for widows, orphans and elderly persons in poverty who had no family members to properly provide for them.

In the time of the Progressive Era, 1900-1917, state governments developed a new approach to caring for needy widows with young children at home. New legislation called the “Mother’s Pension” law intended to help young widowed mothers preserve their homes, prevent the break-up of families, and lift children out of poverty, crime, and delinquency.

In that era, when death came to the father of a young family, the mother would be forced to work, often at low wages, and the children could be farmed out to relatives or other caregivers.

Mother’s Pensions could be given to those moms who were the sole support of children, and the county would provide only enough money for food, clothing and shelter to keep the family together.

Lawmakers in Bismarck passed the Mother’s Pension Law in February, 1915, authorizing counties to provide a monthly “payment of from $5 to $15 for needy mothers [who were] supporting children of a tender age” – defined as below fourteen. A county judge would decide which impoverished women were eligible.

It was on this date that the Grand Forks Herald reported that a woman in Jamestown, Mrs. J. Harris, had been granted the first Mother’s Pension in North Dakota. Stutsman County provided her with $20 per month to care for her two children, the youngest being two years old, because she had been left penniless after the death of her husband. The county agreed to provide the aid for Mrs. Harris for twelve years, when the youngest would reach the age 14 cutoff. However, it was stipulated that if Mrs. Harris re-married or moved out of the state, she would lose her Mother’s Pension funds.

The law was challenged by Cass County officials in Fargo on grounds that judges lacked jurisdiction to decide who was eligible for aid, arguing that elected county commissioners should have the responsibility.

However, the N.D. Supreme Court ruled the law valid in January, 1917, because courts guarded minors’ legal interests; and so Mother’s Pensions aid for families became a vital child-support element within the county-welfare system.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.

Sources: “First Mother’s Pension Granted,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, July 3, 1915, p. 3.

“First Mother’s Pension,” Bismarck Daily Tribune, July 2, 1915, p. 1.

“Mothers’ Pensions In Controversy,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, August 7, 1915, p. 4.

“Mother’s Pension Act To Be Tested In Court,” [Valley City] Weekly Times-Record, July 29, 1915, p. 2.

“Mother’s Pension Law Is Now In Full Force,” [Valley City] Weekly Times-Record, July 15, 1915, p. 7.

“Mother’s Pension Bill,” [Valley City] Weekly Times-Record, February 18, 1915, p. 6.

“Pass Mother’s Pension Bill,” Bismarck Daily Tribune, February 17, 1915, p. 2.

“Judge Henry Neil Coming To Bismarck,” Bismarck Daily Tribune, August 6, 1915, p. 5.

“Mothers’ Pensions,” Bismarck Daily Tribune, July 6, 1915, p. 4.

“Mother’s Pension Act To Be Tested In Supreme Court,” Bismarck Tribune, November 22, 1916, p. 1.

“”Court Upholds Pensioning Of Needy Mothers,” Bismarck Tribune, January 16, 1917, p. 4.