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Men off the Road

by Gertrude Springer

Photographs by Lewis Hine

September 1934


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The future of the whole transient relief program is anyone's guess. Unless a drastic change in the policy of the FERA occurs its continuance at least until mid-winter seems assured. Up to July 1 it had cost the round sum of twenty and a half million dollars and was then running to about $3 million a month. The number of persons for whom it has cared in one way or another, admittedly but a fraction of those believed to be on the road, rose steadily from 110,180 in February to 192,288 in June. The turn-over of cases runs about 33 percent.

At present the FERA foots the bills and lays down general policies while delegating administration to the states. Many social workers protest this decentralization of responsibility on the ground that the transient problem is national and that under the existing settlement laws only a national program, nationally controlled, can deal with it. State controlled programs cannot, they say, be freed from local politics and prejudice. The end result will be, they fear, that the transient will be thrown back on the road as a parasite and a menace to orderly community life.

The camps are still frankly experimental. Many thoughtful people see in them the logical beginning of a new kind of institution which they believe to be an inevitable sequel of the dislocation of people under the depression. They see farm colonies for old men, obviously unemployable under competition, so organized and run that the work of the men, slow-paced though it be, will contribute to their own support and yield measurable values to the community. They see other camps where men of broken work-habits may be built back to such psychological and industrial competency that they can stand up to competition and be absorbed by local industry or in public projects. And they see still others, following the experience of the CCC where youth without work, escaped from paucity of opportunity at home, may be conditioned and trained for a stable way of life.

Man in Camp Man in Camp

SEVERAL states are gradually shaping their transient camp programs within this framework, less from an articulated philosophy than from the lessons of experience. The point at which the camps—at least the half dozen in New York and New Jersey which I have seen in action—do not meet the formula is at their point of outlet. At the point of intake is a pretty clear basis of selection of the men whom the camps may reasonably be expected to benefit. The camps themselves are robust and realistic with a developing understanding of how to hold men long enough to influence them But what of the day when a man, his body sound and healthy, his initiative and self-confidence recovered, is ready to take hold of his own life again? At present he just goes—to such chance as he may be able to find for himself.

Every camp points with pride to men who have gone out and found thernselves jobs in the neighborhood but I found little evidence of purposeful planning of facilities for that integration into community life and occupation which is the desired end result of it all. This is not easy, for the settlement laws raise barriers, there still are not enough jobs for the folk with families who never left home, and in spite of the good showing made by the men in camps most towns are still resentful of transients. The root of the whole difficulty is that the transient is unattached to any unit that fits our social pattern. This very quality subjected him to exploitation when casual labor had a market. It now practically blocks him from employment and, except for the transient service, even from relief.

Until facilities for job-finding are open to the men for whom the camps have done all they can there is a weak link in the chain of reconstruction. The National Reemployment Service would seem logically to be that link, but in reality it is not. Even when it registers these men without established residence they go to the bottom of the employment ladder with veterans, local family men and local unattached men crowding the rungs ahead of them. However the job-cards are dealt the transient, so far, has drawn the joker.

As we drove away from the hill-top camp the boy whose folks are called po' white trash looked up from his planting to wave a cheerful goodby. What, I wondered, will become of him. No one knows, himself least of all. Probably the camp will not hold him much longer—perhaps it should not. Perhaps his new-found habits of work and personal responsibility will stand up and he will find a foot-hold in a world still grudging of opportunity to such as he. Perhaps they will not and the easy road to the jungle will call him back. But with health and initiative recaptured the cards are not as heavily stacked against him as they were. At least he has a chance, and I, as a common or garden taxpayer, am glad.

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