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People Like Ourselves: Forecast for Survey Graphic

by Paul Kellogg

November 1935

Security, Relief, and Social Work

Lloyd George has fought a war and relapsed into an uneasy elder statesman since the years when he drove through that group of social insurance measures which successive liberal, labor, conservative and national governments in England have extended and fortified, and which today far outclass our social security act of 1935. It seems altogether likely that this history will repeat itself here; never again will we so completely let people down into the old insecurity. Coming at the problem decades later, spurred by a depression which found us defenseless by comparison, the Roosevelt administration has in three years set up measures of protection against unemployment and old age such as had been shelved throughout the years since the turn of the century. This is not to say they are finished work. Not only is cooperative action state by state called for, and sanction by the Supreme Court, but the provisions—many of them inadequate—need reinforcement through comparative experience and vigorous espousal.

The security act offers no immediate security. Emergency measures with that aim are again at loose ends in the midst of the present drive to shift unemployed wage earners from relief lists to works progress payrolls. On the one hand, the mass of projects jamming the hopper at Washington are challenged as unrelated to the real vocational make-up of the unemployed; on the other hand, the whole attempt to set up short-term jobs is discounted by those who hold to stimulating general employment through large scale investment in public works. Even such cross purposes are less damaging than the confusions between jobs and relief in which the recipients find themselves.

There is sanity in separating the two functions of supplying work and supplying relief, but unreality in the presumption at Washington that in this time of transition federal responsibility can leave off where that line is drawn, or in the wishful thinking among burdened taxpayers that private or local agencies are prepared to take over the relief load.

0ut of the welter, the work assurance program may be shaken down in the months ahead into something distinct, non-political, manageable; federal administration of relief may revert to federal grants in aid to the states based on standards and the matching principle; and, in the process, impetus may be given to the spread of city, county and state welfare departments through which our old Elizabethan poor laws will go out on the ebb tide of an excruciating experience. That would free voluntary social agencies for their tasks, poignant and pressing not only because of the human disintegration of these last years but because of the opportunity which the years ahead will afford for contributing creatively to the slow process of social reconstruction.

Meanwhile the underlying issue in mass relief may present itself in simpler terms. How much dependency will the tax-paying public carry indefinitely? Or in reverse: How long will the unemployed and under privileged wait for the rest of us to set the house in order so that livelihood is reasonably secure?


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003