Simon Patten

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Simon Nelson Patten (1852-1922) was an American economist and social theorist. He is credited with inventing the term social work. [1] and with first expression of the idea of a society of affluence or abundance later also developed by another economist, John Kenneth Galbraith. Patten argued that "poverty could be abolished if (people) would accept values and restraints appropriate to an age of abundance - and discard (ideas) developed through centuries of scarcity." [2] Industrialisation, according to Patten, ushered in a new age of abundance that he termed the "new basis of civilization" (the title of his best-known book). [3] "Over the long run, he believed, economic advance would lead to cultural and spiritual uplife, as satiation with creature comforts and baser amusements would prompt the cultivation of higher aspirations and more refined tastes." [4]

Patten was one of dozens of members of the founding generation of U.S. social scientists who studied in Germany in the 1870s and 1880s and became the first generation of leaders in higher education in economics, sociology and other social sciences in the U.S. He studied at the University of Halle. Patten, like future colleagues John Bates Clark, Henry C. Adams and Richard Ely was strongly influenced by the group of German economists known as the Younger Historical School . After several years of teaching at the elementary and secondary levels and following publication of his first book, Patten was appointed in 1887 as an economist in the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where he remained until his anti-war stance forced his retirement in 1917.

From the 1890s to the 1920s, Patten made two types of important contributions to social work: His teaching, articles and books pointing toward a social work practice directed at adjustment to the new economy of abundance. He also played an important role in the education of national leaders of the field, including Frances Perkins, Edward T. Devine, Samuel M. Lindsey William H. Allen, and Benjamin Marsh. His central theme was that the goal of social action and the social work profession should be facilitating adjustment to a developing economy of abundance. Following his death in 1922, these ideas were increasingly downplayed in social work due, in large part to the growth of the Freudian psychoanalytic approach. [5] They eventually fell out of favor entirely and did not resurface again until the 1960s - and then from sources who seldom cited Patten.

Beginning in the decade after 1910, Patten's ideas were bitterly attacked by Mary Richmond, head of the Charity Organization Department of the Russell Sage Foundation and probably the most powerful social administrator of her time. Patten was defended by Devine, Perkins, Lillian Wald and others and a great debate over approaches ensued. Richmond and her supporters in the Charity Organization movement favored individualized approaches to treating poverty emphasizing moral and individual causes. Patten's approach was economic and broadly policy-oriented. [6] "By the end of World War I, it was clear that most social workers were more committed to social adjustment than to social change." [7]

Lindsay (2007) compares Patten's view with that of his much-better known contemporary Thorstein Veblen, and concludes "Patten took an altogether sunnier view." "It is an interesting question," Lindsay notes, "whether Veblen or Patten left the bigger mark. Veblen's name has survived, his famous turns of phrase remain in general currency, and his books are still in print. Patten, on the other hand, has faded into obscurity. Yet his legacy lives on in an institution he did so much to build: the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, the nation's first business school...."

Lindsay continues, "whatever his hand in the matter, it is inarguable that events broke Patten's way. The progress of industrialization exposed a fundamental conflict between the two great expressions of of the bourgeois Protestant ethos: the highly organized yet raucously competitive commercial order on the one hand and the religiously inspired repression of individual desire on the other."


  1. David M. French. Patten, Simon Nelson (1952-1922). 1970. In Encyclopedia of social work, ed. Robert Morris, 2:892-3. New York: National Association of Social Workers.
  2. ibid.
  3. Patten, Simon N. 1968. The new basis of civilization. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  4. Lindsey, Brink. 2007. The age of abundance : How prosperity transformed America's politics and culture. New York, N.Y.: Collins. p. 64.
  5. Lubove, Roy. 1965. The professional altruist : The emergence of social work as a career, 1880-1930. Publication of the Center for the study of the history of liberty in America, Harvard University. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  6. French, op. cit. p. 893
  7. French, op. cit., p. 893

Additional references

  • Boswell, James Lane. 1934. The economics of Simon Nelson Patten. Philadelphia,: Pub. by the author.
  • Nearing, Scott. 1925. Educational frontiers : A book about Simon Nelson Patten and other teachers. New York: T. Seltzer.
  • Patten, Simon N. 1916. Culture and war. New York,: B. W. Huebsch.
  • Patten, Simon N. and Rexford G. Tugwell. 1924. Essays in economic theory. New York,: A. A. Knopf.
  • Patten, Simon N. 1909. Product and climax. New York,: B.W. Huebsch.
  • Peterson, Houston. 1946. Great teachers, portrayed by those who studied under them. New Brunswick [N.J.]: Rutgers university press.