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Relief and the American Temperament

by Russell H. Kurtz

Contributing Editor, The Survey

May 1935

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"Our problem is to work out a social and economic organization which shall be as efficient as possible without offending our notions of a satisfactory way of life." — JOHN MAYNARD KEYNES

THE slow progress of the $4,880,000,000 works and relief bill through Congress prior to its passage April 5 gave the country an opportunity to think over its unemployment problem and to realize how complicated it is. This must be counted as a gain, for a few months ago when the works plan was first proposed there was a tendency to overrate its possibilities as a way out from all our troubles. Debate and delay have cleared the air somewhat.

We now are disposed to see the works measure as a preferred device in a group of relief procedures which will inevitably include some continuation of "the dole," local poor relief to "unemployables" and a variety of forms of social insurance and category aid. So far, the Administration has not conceded that continued outright relief to the unemployed (the dole) is going to be necessary even on a reduced scale, but public opinion has begun to evidence a more realistic attitude on this point. It has responded in large measure to the President's idealistic desire to wipe out relief and substitute work, but now questions his practical ability to do this completely. Moreover, there is insistence, and with considerable reason, that the work program is only another form of relief and will not bring about a bona-fide reduction of unemployment through the creation of full and permanent opportunities for self-support. In short, the American people have begun to see relief as a continuing problem and seem willing to face the issue as to how it can best be organized for the long pull.

The New York City Mayor's Committee on Unemployment Relief displayed this attitude clearly in a series of recommendations made a few weeks ago. "It is highly desirable," this body says, "that a maximum number of unemployed men and women should be placed on productive public work and work-relief projects rather than on a homerelief dole, which is demoralizing to the recipient and unproductive to the community.... However, no work projects as yet outlined can do more than absorb a small portion of the unemployed men and women in this city. Nothing less than the willingness of the government to enter into competition with private industry can achieve such a result....

This community must, together with other communities throughout the country, therefore decide whether the millions of unemployed families who are not reemployed in private industry or on public works shall be given just enough to continue their existence or shall be guaranteed a minimum standard of living which will maintain standards o f health and decency for themselves and the communities of which they form an important part.

In our opinion the latter choice must be made but it will have to be made with the recognition that it will involve a vast and increasing tax burden throughout the United States. This is a problem which concerns the city, state and federal governments jointly. It is their duty to work out a common plan under which adequate funds can be raised."

The Works Act is so phrased that the Administration may, if it chooses, change its mind about quitting the relief business and decide instead to reserve a portion of its funds for helping carry the inevitable burden of home aid which must remain even after the works program is going full blast. Such a decision may not come readily or soon and may never, in fact, be made openly. The President's dislike of relief and his determination to scotch it should not be underestimated. What is more likely to happen is that there will be a month-by-month continuation of federal grants to the states for direct relief on an emergency basis "until" the works program becomes fully effective. This may well go on indefinitely, through sheer necessity.

The alternative, a bold acceptance by the federal government of the need for an underlying long-time federal-state-local system of direct public assistance, is not popular at Washington. It is assumed to be an un-American concept, out of keeping with our traditions, and a potential breeder of all sorts of trouble. In refusing to accept it, the Administration undoubtedly feels that it is reflecting public sentiment, never friendly to the notion of investing relief with any degree of security.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003