Ginsberg, Mitchell Irving

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Ginsberg, Mitchell Irving

(b. 20 October 1915 in Revere, Massachusetts; d. 2 March 1996 in New York City), practitioner and scholar of social welfare policy, commissioner of the New York City Department of Social Services and Human Resources in John Lindsay’s mayoral administration, and dean of the Columbia University School of Social Work.

Ginsberg was the son of Harry J. Ginsberg, a maintenance worker, and Rose Harris. He had two siblings, but his older brother died the day Ginsberg was born. When Ginsberg was less than a year old, his family moved to the Dorchester section of the Fourteenth Ward in Boston, an impoverished neighborhood where his father worked as the foreman in an automobile garage. Ginsberg later recalled that his father worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week, for very low wages. The experience of growing up poor profoundly influenced Ginsberg’s career choice. A disciplined student, he excelled at the Boston Latin School and earned a scholarship to Tufts College in Medford, Massachusetts.

Ginsberg was admitted to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. degree in history from Tufts in 1937. Upon applying to the School of Foreign Service at Tufts, Ginsberg learned he had little chance of successfully pursuing a career in diplomacy because he was Jewish. Instead, he earned an M.A. degree in education and psychology from Tufts in 1938. He received a national fellowship to the New York School of Social Work (now the Columbia University School of Social Work), graduating with an M.S. degree in social work in 1941. In 1942 Ginsberg entered the U.S. Army, where he served as a supervisor of a psychiatric social work unit at Camp Carson, Colorado, until 1946. After leaving the army as a technical sergeant, he held a variety of social work positions in Boston; Pittsburgh; Manchester, New Hampshire; and finally in New York City at the National Jewish Welfare Board. In 22 August 1948 he married Ida Robbins, an X-ray technician at New York’s Memorial Hospital. They had no children. Married for over forty-eight years, they lived in Manhattan until Ginsberg’s death in 1996.

Ginsberg joined the Columbia University School of Social Work faculty in 1953 as an assistant professor of social work. Specializing in community relations and group work, he became a full professor in 1956, an associate dean of the School of Social Work in 1960, and the dean of the School of Social Work in 1970.

Serving as the director of the Peace Corps Training Project at Columbia University from 1962 to 1964, Ginsberg initiated programs to instruct Peace Corps and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) trainees under the Economic Opportunities Act. He served as a consultant to the Community Action Program of the federal Office for Economic Opportunity in 1965 and was a member of the Steering Committee of the Head Start Program from 1965 to 1968.

Taking a leave of absence from Columbia University in 1966, Ginsberg accepted an appointment as the commissioner of the New York City Department of Social Services in Mayor John Lindsay’s first term. During what many considered a welfare crisis, New Yorkers welcomed Ginsberg’s appointment because of his excellent credentials, and he initiated several important reforms. He instituted an affidavit-like declaration to replace the expensive and often degrading inspections of female welfare recipients traditionally conducted in the middle of the night. Ginsberg experimented with a work incentive program that allowed welfare recipients to retain their benefits while employed. In addition he instituted liberal policies for the dissemination of birth control information and created district advisory boards composed predominantly of welfare recipients.

When the New York City Department of Social Services was brought under the auspices of the newly created Human Resources Administration (HRA), Ginsberg became head of this new agency. As HRA administrator from 1967 to 1970, he often dealt with controversy, underscored by growing budgetary constraints and mounting client demand. HRA was the subject of over a dozen investigations, and while most of the charges resulted from activity that predated Ginsberg’s tenure, he was held accountable. Ginsberg capably defended himself against the charges, improved the agency’s internal organization, and created auditing procedures to prevent similar problems from threatening the future of the agency.

During his tenure at HRA and later, Ginsberg was a strong proponent of a uniform national welfare policy. His plan emphasized job training and guaranteed employment, and it substituted a national family assistance plan for welfare means testing. He lobbied for these and other reforms in Washington and remained a strong advocate for the poor even after leaving government service.

Ginsberg returned to Columbia University in 1971 to serve as the dean of the School of Social Work and special assistant for community affairs to Columbia’s president until 1981. He retired in 1986 after over thirty years at Columbia, but he continued to teach classes and served as codirector of Columbia’s Center for the Study of Human Rights. Ginsberg helped create Columbia Community Services, a cooperative project with the university’s schools of dentistry, nursing, business, and public health designed to provide health services and social services to residents of homeless shelters.

In 1991 Columbia established the Mitchell I. Ginsberg Professorship in Contemporary Urban Problems, an endowed chair intended to further research on homelessness and other problems of the urban poor. Ginsberg was awarded honorary doctorate degrees from Columbia, Tufts, the University of Maryland, and Adelphi University, and he was the president of the National Association of Social Workers and the National Conference on Social Welfare. Ginsberg died of cardiopulmonary arrest in Manhattan at the age of eighty.

Ginsberg was an individual with strong convictions but a gentle manner. Tall, thin, and gray-haired, he walked with a stoop that made him appear less than his height of six feet, three inches. He was a serious collector of Lincolniana, filling his home with books and memorabilia. He was also an avid gardener and especially loved roses. A member of his college baseball team and captain of its tennis team, Ginsberg was an avid athlete and sports fan, and his childhood dream was to be a professional athlete or sportswriter. However, serious stomach problems and a congenital short esophagus prevented him from pursuing professional sports. Ginsberg’s wife noted that the only time she ever saw her often-sick husband run was to get to the stadium to root for his beloved Yankees.

Ginsberg was a welfare scholar and a leader in social reform. Passionate about teaching and devoted to his students, he also found his work in government and policy enormously gratifying. He was committed to the cause of social justice, and his lifework was dedicated to improving conditions for the poor.

For further information on Ginsberg see Current Biography 1971 (1972); Joshua Miller, “A Narrative Interview with Mitchell Ginsberg,” Reflections (summer 1995); and the Columbia University Record (1 Mar. 1991). An obituary is in the New York Times (3 Mar. 1996).

Nancy Markoe