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Relief and the American Temperament

by Russell H. Kurtz

Contributing Editor, The Survey

May 1935


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From another and official source comes this testimony: "Under the constant strain of inadequate funds and a mounting relief roll, a standard of relief has been pieced together which is inadequate to maintain the health or well-being of the community. The food budget is insufficient to maintain health standards. The physical examination of children entering school still shows malnutrition in almost one out of five children. Families on relief are living in homes that violate the housing laws, and in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. The failure to provide a regular clothing allowance, in addition to endangering health, is breaking down the morale and the employability of the men and women on the relief rolls. Such conditions might have been endured for a short period in a temporary emergency. However these conditions now affect one fifth of the city's entire population. Such a large group cannot be reduced to this level of life without inflicting serious consequences on the welfare of the whole community."

If relief is to be given in sufficient measure so that families dependent upon it may have what they need in the way of food, shelter, fuel, clothing, incidentals, recreation and medical care, it is obvious that cash grants are to be preferred to distribution "in kind" or by order. Not only does the cash relief method, now used successfully in a number of cities, save time and trouble all around but it conserves the pride and morale of those receiving it. Further, it has been found to be more economical in the long run as no system has as yet been devised which can match the workingman's wife in her ability to stretch a dollar to its uttermost limits.

Relief Roll
Even with the work program—"the biggest thing in the country"

At still another point should there be a change in our attitude toward relief families. Earnings on casual or part-time jobs, now rigidly deducted from relief allowances, should be more generously dealt with in the family budget. It is beginning to be apparent that our attempts to hew too close to the line have resulted in our putting a premium upon idleness and subterfuge. Other nations have learned the wisdom of allowing members of families on relief to keep for their personal use a part of such casual earnings, applying only the balance to a reduction of the relief grant. Thus initiative and resourcefulness are stimulated and the will to work protected.

The American temperament does not welcome the thought that relief, on a large scale, is to be with us for a long time to come. The prospect is depressing to a people who are tired of the whole "un-American" experience of doling out public aid to men whose only request is that they be allowed to earn their own way. Relief is defeatist: it chafes our national spirit and humbles our pride. "Surely there is another way" we tell ourselves. The work program should do much to make unemployment more tolerable; but it still will leave us with a relief problem. The sooner we face that prospect squarely, the better will we be able to organize relief so that it will offend as little as possible our notions of "a satisfactory way of life."

 

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