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To Be Jobless In America
Being out of work in the old days usually brought shame and humiliation. How—and why—have we changed our feelings about unemployment?
December 1978 | Volume 30, Issue 1
But in the early twentieth century a more sophisticated understanding of the causes and character of industrial depressions changed the way unemployment was dealt with. By the late 1920’s, Great Britain, Germany, and a number of other countries had unemployment insurance, and others operated government employment offices, so that some kind of national assistance for the destitute was available nearly everywhere. Only the United States still left such matters entirely to local public and private agencies. Therefore, when the depression of the 1930’s struck and American unemployment soared from under 5 per cent of the work force to more than 20 per cent in little more than two years, President Herbert Hoover was reacting in the traditional American manner when he announced that “the principles of individual and local responsibility” would be applied. “Each community and each State should assume its full responsibilities for organization of employment and relief of distress with that sturdiness and independence which built a great nation,” Hoover told Congress.
Even the unprecedented severity of the unemployment of the Great Depression could not change Hoover’s mind, as everyone recalls. What is less well remembered is the extent to which the unemployed themselves remained prisoners of the old values and traditions. We know a great deal about how the unemployed felt and acted during the 1930’s because psychologists, sociologists, and public health officials, as well as journalists, political scientists, and novelists studied their behavior closely. While individuals responded in widely differing ways, nearly every survey revealed essentially the same pattern. When workers lost their jobs, the first thing they did, perhaps after a brief period of waiting for something to turn up, was to search feverishly for new ones. Then they became discouraged, sometimes also emotionally disturbed. Finally, after some months of idleness, the majority either sank into apathy or adjusted to an extremely circumscribed existence. Only the strongest retained their energy and determination unimpaired.
Nearly every investigator agreed that apathy and shame rather than anger or aggression were the most common reactions to long-term unemployment. New York City social workers noted this tendency as early as 1931, and in 1940 a sociologist who had studied fifty-nine New York unemployed families was still calling attention to the “deep humiliation” that the condition had caused. The psychologist Abram Kardiner also described jobless people as being afflicted by anxiety and shame and then descending into apathy. The writer Sherwood Anderson, who toured the United States in the mid-thirties gathering material for his book Puzzled America, noted a “profound humbleness” among the citizenry. “People seem to blame themselves,” Anderson wrote. The historian Ray Billington, who ran a New Deal relief project during the Depression, still recalled in the 1960’s the “bleak, downcast eyes” and “broken spirit” of unemployed people seeking aid.
These examples, culled from contemporary sources, make clear that Franklin Roosevelt’s unemployment and relief policies, although the antithesis of Hoover’s, did not have much effect on how the unemployed felt about themselves and their condition. During the years of the New Deal, Congress appropriated billions for direct relief and for public employment projects. By 1943 (when wartime demand had restored full employment) the Works Progress Administration alone had spent $11 billion and found employment for 8,500,000 people. In 1935 Congress also passed the Social Security Act, which provided unemployment insurance as well as old-age pensions for a large majority of the work force. The idea that mammoth outside forces rather than any supposed personal inadequacy were responsible for most of the unemployment of the era received from Roosevelt and his administration both lip service and huge financial commitments. These attitudes and actions gave essential material help to millions and restored the faith of millions more in American democracy and the capitalist system, as the New Deal sweep of the 1936 elections demonstrated. They did not, however, do away with the proclivity of unemployed workers to draw back into apathy and self-recrimination.
This strange effect of idleness goes far toward explaining why so few of the unemployed were radicalized by their suffering. Logically, as radicals of the period were quick to point out, the jobless had every reason to blame “the system” rather than themselves; the more than 10,000,000 idle people who had previously labored steadily all their adult lives could not all have suddenly lost their skills or their will to work. But when radicals and reformers went among the unemployed, hoping to recruit them for the revolution or to organize them to demand change, they received a rude shock. Sociologist E. W. Bakke attended a May Day meeting on the New Haven town green in 1934. A Communist orator delivered a powerful speech, but when, at the end, he urged the crowd to march on city hall to protest, only a handful followed him. Puzzled by such behavior, Bakke later posed as a Communist in talks with unemployed men. When he did so, he was told that Communists were either crazy or traitors. “In the face of Communism,” he concluded, “the most insecure American worker becomes a hero by defending American conditions.”