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Relief and the American Temperament

by Russell H. Kurtz

Contributing Editor, The Survey

May 1935

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In view of all the obstacles in the path of winning public confidence, it is not surprising that government should long for the day when it can get out from under the relief load and let whoever will take it over. It is not only the federal government that wants to be so relieved; our cities too would welcome a return to the old system in which the private agencies had so prominent a part. There is an ingrained notion in the American mind, rarely expressed, that governmental aid is dangerous because it gets too far away from the concept of class-controlled charity. We are inclined to trust our upper-class boards, when all is said and done, more than our elected officials. Even government seems to share this poor opinion of itself and wants to lead the way back to the old order at the earliest possible moment. The astonishing thing is that it should think a resumption of the old system is within the realm of possibility.

Granted eventual recovery of our industries to a normal level of production; assuming the ultimate passage of legislation for economic security and the continued provision of mass public employment: by what reasoning dare we conclude that direct relief, supplied in part from the federal treasury, will no longer be necessary for considerable numbers of our people? The cards are all stacked the other way. Technological change is still going on, creating new unemployment. Many of those who have lost or are losing their jobs will not fit into the public work program because of age, sex, lack of proper skills, physical handicaps—or perhaps simply because they live where work cannot readily be made available to them. The three or four million jobs to be provided will be too few for the total need. It is only relief, "the dole," public assistance—call it what you will—that can meet the needs of the excluded millions.

The American people, with all their dislike of relief and their wishful thinking about its discontinuance, will do well to face this prospect squarely. They must make up their minds, as the New York committee insists, "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 of health and decency for themselves and the communities of which they form an important part." If we make the latter choice, should we not prepare to support the program wholeheartedly?

THE time is ripe for a reexamination of the whole system—its administrative structure, its service aims, its relationships with the community, and its costs. Those who are running the show have the first and primary obligation: to take advantage of every legitimate suggestion for its improvement. This may involve simplification at many points and the acceptance of more realistic notions as to what can and what cannot be effectively undertaken in the interests of the persons under care.

If the fences set up to bar illegitimate claims for aid are in need of repair, now is the time to mend them. If the conflicting philosophies of spending-for-relief and spending-for-recovery are muddying the waters of financial policy, a choice should be made now as to which should be given the right of way. Have "pressure groups" won concessions which cannot be defended as a part of sound relief policy? Now is the time to get back upon the firm footing of fair treatment to all with favors to none. Have the dignity and integrity of relief administration been lost in any degree? Now is certainly the time to start a relentless struggle for their recapture.

With the administrative house put in the best possible order, the next challenge is to raise the level of relief to those whose need for aid will then be the more clearly established. What will be involved in this?

It is to be hoped that public opinion can soon be brought to support the principle of security in relief. This does not mean that everyone who applies for aid should straightway be put upon a pension so that he may be relieved from the further necessity of struggling in his own behalf. But it does mean that those whose needs are clearly established should be freed from the uncertainties of the present hand-to-mouth system of extending assistance. The principle of regularization has been accepted in the field of mothers' aid and has more recently been adapted to the relief of the aged. Granted that general family relief presents problems not found in mothers' aid and old-age assistance, it must be conceded that "standards of health and decency" will not be attained while relief is sporadic and uncertain. Proof of a family's continuing need for aid can be secured through less ruthless devices than the constant threat of withdrawal of assistance.

The public employment service should be more closely integrated with the relief system so that, with every able-bodied person registered for work, it would be more readily possible to discover the malingerers. Improvements in the techniques of reinvestigation could easily be applied if caseloads were reduced and office procedures simplified. Better relations between the relief bureau and the community would reopen channels now clogged with indifference or suspicion and allow a fuller measure of intelligent public interest, that best of all controls, to flow back into the relief set-up.

NOT only should relief be made more secure for those whose continuing need for it is well certified, but it should be increased at whatever points it is now known to be inadequate. The calculation of budget deficiencies is a sound method of arriving at the amount of aid needed in each individual case but its value is too frequently impaired by an insufficiency of funds or other limiting factors. A protesting group of relief workers recently said of their agency's cash allowance for food: "This item is, in itself, adequate; but great stress must be placed upon the fact that with other items in the budget not adequately covered, the food allowance is partly used for other necessary expenditures." This going without one essential in order to have another is a familiar phenomenon in relief circles. The only way it can be avoided is to make the total allowance large enough to cover the full budgetary deficiency. Even then there will be difficulty in making it reach in many cases.

"Inadequate clothing," says the group of workers referred to above, "leads to withdrawal from social contacts; crowded housing affects health and increases tensions and irritability; failure to provide for incidental expenditures results in shattered morale and lowered standards of living; and the strain of insecurity affects both children and adults in ways unpleasant to contemplate."



Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003