and the American Temperament
by Russell H. Kurtz
Contributing Editor, The Survey
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
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.
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.
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."
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."
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:
you must be starving in the street before relief is granted.
That anyone who can tell a hard luck story can get relief.
the relief budget is on a starvation level. That relief is
relief workers pamper clients. That their attitude is supercilious
clients often have property or an income on the side.
small incomes prevent aid being given to families in need.
That aliens get relief jobs when citizens can't.
there is discrimination agalnst aliens.
work-relief employes are lazy and inefficient.
work-relief employes are terribly underpaid.
relief should be granted without so much investigation.
there is not enough investigation of those receiving relief.
relief reduces the standards of living.
persons are now better off on relief than they were before
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.
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!