and the American Temperament
by Russell H. Kurtz
Contributing Editor, The Survey
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 handicapsor 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 assistancecall
it what you willthat can meet the needs of the excluded
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
THE time is ripe for a reexamination
of the whole systemits 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
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.
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."