People's History Lab
Francis Luis Mora, April 1918

Mothers’ Pensions

U.S. Social Assistance to Poor Mothers, 1911-1935

Mothers' Pensions, 1911-1935

Artist: Francis Luis Mora, April 1918.
Artist: Francis Luis Mora, April 1918.

The Mothers' Pension Project, led by Anna AizerSungwoo ChoShari EliJoseph Ferrie and Adriana Lleras-Muney,  is an effort to gather the individual records of the United States' first welfare recipients between 1911 and 1935. Mothers' Pensions (MP) were means-tested state-level aid programs which provided cash transfers to women with dependent children. The primary interest of the researchers associated with this project is to determine the long-run impact of these pensions on children's educational, earnings and health outcomes. However, since data collection has been conducted at the individual level and therefore traces the life events of MP recipients and their children, records may be of interest to archivists and genealogists. 

mp map
Source: 1926 Children's Bureau report titled "Public Aid to Mothers with Dependent Children".


The first state to pass the program was Illinois in 1911, and by 1931, all but four states had passed a program to aid mothers with dependent children. Mothers in need of pensions applied for them at the county-level. At present, 80,000 individual case files have been collected. For some states, the full universe of counties that provided MP benefits have been collected if found, while for others only a subset of counties have been found—but if a county has records, the universe of records has been collected by the research team. 

Records have been collected for the following 14 states: Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin. In some states, all or nearly all records are no longer extant due to short retention schedules set by states or privacy restrictions. 

Application for Aid

In order to apply for aid, poor mothers were required to show that they had dependent children to care for as well as no other means of support.  The application of Elizabeth May from Crawford County in Ohio appears in the image below.  Elizabeth had three children: Flossie, Joseph and Viola.  Applications contain the full names and dates of birth for the children as well as place of birth for each child.  In addition, information about the mother's spouse is usually contain on applications.  In the case of Elizabeth May, her husband William died on May 19, 1923, which is the very same date of her application for a Mothers' Pension. 

Ohio MP record
Ohio MP 2

Data Access


De-identified data download on the ICPSR



A. Aizer, S. Eli, J. P. Ferrie and A. Lleras-Muney.  American Economic Review, 106(4): 935-71, April 2016.


The Long Run Impact of Cash Transfers to Poor Families: New Estimates using Larger Samples and New Methods

A. Aizer, S. Cho, S. Eli, J. P. Ferrie, A. Lleras-Muney.  Working Paper (coming soon), 2023.


A. Aizer, S. Cho, S. Eli and A. Lleras-Muney.  Working Paper, 2021.


The Emergence of the Modern Welfare System: Evidence from the Mothers’ Pension Program

S. Eli, P. Fishback, A. Lleras-Muney, J. Uguccioni, Working paper (coming soon), 2023.