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Relief and the American Temperament

by Russell H. Kurtz

Contributing Editor, The Survey

May 1935

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WHAT is the American attitude toward relief and how has it been affected, if at all, by six years of unemployment? The question is not easily answered, for people react on this subject in a variety of ways. Not only are they influenced by class and personal interests, but there are conflicts in individual thinking which result in a confused response. We are generous, but fearful of the effects of our generosity; believers in social justice but uncertain as to how it may be achieved without getting a dangerous by-product of demoralization and pauperism. We cannot stand to see individual cases of need going unaided, but are inclined to balk at paying the bill for the sum total of such cases.

In the main, however, I believe we must be credited with a willingness to follow liberal leadership in the provision of public aid. We may grumble at the cost, inveigh against the administrative set-up, even express our belief that relief is degenerating into a racket, but we do not want it stopped until we have ample assurance that it is no longer needed. Not even the most conservative tories among us are willing to say that we have yet come within hailing distance of such assurance.

Public criticism of relief administration should not be mistaken for criticism of the provision of relief itself. As in the field of public education, where we may express our dissatisfaction with both the school system and the people who operate it while fighting for the principle of free education, so will the field of public aid we may at once condemn the methods and support the purposes of relief. Few indeed will rise to the defense of relief per se or will contend that it is beyond criticism as administered today; but an equally small number will be found, I believe, who would be willing to carry their denunciation of the program to the point of asking that it be summarily ended because of its faults.

A conservative newspaper provided an illustration of this in its phrasing of a recent editorial. "Relief is bound to be unsatisfactory," it said. "It is one long choice of the lesser evil. But there is little point in passionately belaboring the bad features of a system which must at best be full of bad features; what is wanted is a scientific and non-political inquiry as to how they can be reduced to a minimum."

The challenge, however, is really a dual one. Not only must there be inquiry and reorganization of the structure at its weak points but there is need for better public understanding as well. It is futile and silly to attempt to revamp relief by a pattern of fear, prejudice and popular misinformation. The public must be helped to get its ideas in order so that it will not expect the impossible from a system which, by its very nature, is bound to "offend our notions of a satisfactory way of life."

A large city relief administrator recently issued a defense of his administration in which he cited a list of "popular misconceptions" about relief. Many of these will be recognized by veterans in welfare service as old complaints; others are of a later vintage. Among them are these contradlctlons:

That you must be starving in the street before relief is granted. That anyone who can tell a hard luck story can get relief.

That the relief budget is on a starvation level. That relief is too generous.

That relief workers pamper clients. That their attitude is supercilious and insulting.

That clients often have property or an income on the side.

That small incomes prevent aid being given to families in need. That aliens get relief jobs when citizens can't.

That there is discrimination agalnst aliens.

That work-relief employes are lazy and inefficient.

That work-relief employes are terribly underpaid.

That relief should be granted without so much investigation.

That there is not enough investigation of those receiving relief.

That relief reduces the standards of living.

That persons are now better off on relief than they were before the depression.

It is clear from these illustrations how impossible is the task of the administrator who hopes to satisfy a misinformed and prejudiced public on the level of its misconceptions. The solution is not to meet it there but on a plane of fuller understanding of all that the job implies. This, of course, is more easily said than done; but until it is done a great deal more thoroughly than at present, misunderstanding and prejudice will continue to hamper sound administration.

While much of the criticism that is heard arises from an honest belief that something is wrong, not all of it has such healthy roots. Sharpshooting politicians, sensation-seeking or prejudiced newspapers and others have found abundant opportunity to distort the relief picture to suit their own purposes, and have not been slow to take advantage of the openings presented to them. Frozen meat has been played up as a scandal and quite inadequate retraction has been made after food experts have patiently explained that the freezing of meat for storage is standard commercial practice. "Chiselers" have been represented as infesting the relief rolls in hordes whenever a few scattered instances of fraud or misrepresentation have been discovered. Work relief has been attacked as a waste of the taxpayer's money because some of the projects, ingeniously devised to take advantage of the diverse skills of professional and "white-collar" people on relief, are set up in library or laboratory rather than in a muddy ditch. "Overhead" is assailed as extravagant while in the same breath it is charged that records and accounting procedures are so lax that if an audit were made, gross irregularities would certainly be uncovered. The soil is fertile for critics to whom the making of an alarming accusation is a mc.re urgent consideration than the determination of the facts in the case.

The nadir of hostile criticism seems to have been reached in the recent charge of a city alderman that social workers in the relief administrations are conspiring to keep the load large as a means of perpetuating their jobs. Untrained persons from other fields, not having this professional interest in self-preservation, should therefore be put in charge of relief he thinks!



Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003