To Be Jobless In America


During the early 1960’s, Professor Paul Jacobs of the University of California, intent upon discovering “what life as an unemployed worker means,” passed himself off as a job seeker among unemployed miners in West Virginia, factory hands in an upstate New York town, and migrant farm laborers in northern California. He found that while being without work was a sobering experience (tending, for example, to make people withdrawn and uncommunicative), it was difficult to discover many substantial changes in the standard of living or personal attitudes of the unemployed so long as they were receiving insurance benefits. Jacobs saw no sign that the jobless preferred unemployment to working, but neither did he conclude that the condition was a traumatic experience for those who had to endure it. If the behavior of the workers Jacobs observed was typical, and there is every reason to believe that it was (recently an observer of the unemployed in Germany described their mood as “carefree,” and a New York Times headline read: MANY JOBLESS IN FRENCH CITY BUT FEW WORRY ), perhaps the current concern about high unemployment is somewhat exaggerated.

The concern, however, is serious and rooted in history. For the postwar era has seen a dramatic, indeed revolutionary change both in the way the United States deals with the unemployed and how the unemployed deal with themselves.

During the Great Depression of the 1930’s America suffered from unemployment on an unprecedented scale. At its peak in early 1933 somewhere between 13,000,000 and 16,000,000 people (about one-fourth of the work force) were idle, and throughout the decade, despite New Deal relief and recovery measures, the unemployment rate never fell below 10 per cent. But in this respect the Depression was merely the most profound and long-lasting of many such catastrophes. Although far back into the nineteenth century the United States had been rightly regarded as a prosperous country and the land of opportunity par excellence, periodic “panics” had caused much unemployment. The record reveals, for example, that as early as 1737 many “honest and industrious tradesmen” in New York City were “reduced to poverty for want of employ,” and that during the unsettled period at the beginning of the American Revolution, joblessness was so common that a group of citizens in that city founded the “New York Society for Employing the Industrious Poor.”

For many reasons, however, the federal government never provided any assistance for the unemployed until the New Deal period, and even local public assistance was very skimpy. In general, when workers lost their jobs they had to depend upon their savings and the assistance of relatives until they found new ones; these resources exhausted, they could turn only to charity and the municipal poor-relief agencies. When the requested assistance was doled out by either private or public bodies, it was always hedged about with demeaning restrictions, designed to separate the “deserving” from what were variously called “incorrigible idlers,” or “vagrants,” or “bummers.”

The chief concern was, as one charitable organization put it during the depression of 1857, to avoid “the injurious effects of indiscriminate aid.” During the depression year of 1894, for example, Denver was flooded with unemployed miners. A local clergyman established a relief program, offering them three square meals and a bed for a quarter, with the proviso that those without the quarter could work off their “obligation” by putting in three hours of labor in the clergyman’s woodyard. The work was essentially useless—with a hundred men a day chopping, the wood piled up faster than it could be disposed of. But it was assumed that only by exacting this labor could “idlers” be deterred from taking advantage of the clergyman’s largess. A social worker, Philip W. Ayers, described this view of most nineteenth-century relief organizations. Work relief, he said, “must be… so unattractive as to guarantee that, when other work can be had, the laborer will seek it.”

Such attitudes were common to all the industrial nations in the nineteenth century. They were reinforced by the prevailing dogmas of classical economics: that governments should not meddle any more than was absolutely necessary in economic affairs; that work was available for all who were willing to labor; that public assistance to the destitute only encouraged heedless reproduction. It was “very rare,” said the respected American economist Francis Weyland in 1877, that anyone who was “really anxious” to work could not find a job.

All these beliefs were so pervasive that they affected how the unemployed viewed themselves. At one level the loss of one’s job was frightening—it threatened not merely economic deprivation but also the possibility that the suspicious scrutinizers who alone could relieve the deprivation might refuse to do so. At another level it was psychologically depressing; to admit that one could not care for oneself and one’s family aroused feelings of profound inadequacy. And at still a deeper level, unemployment stirred guilt feelings—everyone has a somewhat ambivalent feeling about working, an urge to get something for nothing, so that when the authorities as a matter of course assumed that applicants might not really need or deserve help, many of the jobless at least unconsciously felt that they were correct in doing so.