The Drought And The Dole


It became increasingly obvious that Hoover’s program was not working. His pleas had failed to dislodge loan money from private sources; rural bankers were already too deeply in trouble to extend more credit. Announcing public works was one thing; actually starting them was another, and they ordinarily conformed to plans made years before. New roads rarely seemed to run through areas where the drought was worst, and even when they did, contractors were reluctant to hire unskilled farmers. (That probably explained the trouble in Lonoke County.) Railroad rate reductions did some good, but they lasted only until October i ; the real feed crisis would come in the winter months. Drought victims looked to the Red Cross as their best hope, only to find, in the words of one high official, that the agency regarded it as “psychologically unsound” to intervene until local authorities could no longer cope.


Casting a weather eye toward the months ahead, the assistant director for Red Cross relief in the Midwest estimated shortly after the White House conference that “in some counties there will be a few dozen families and [in] others perhaps i oo or 200 families that will need food provided by some agency next winter. Thousands of families, of course, will need to skimp.” By the end of 1930 the Red Cross had in fact provided food and clothing to 50,000 families, at a cost of $500,000. That was an average of $ i o per family, a drop in an empty bucket and hardly a dent in the original $5,000,000 pledge. But money, and a great deal of it, was needed as badly as rain now. Harris Gaylord Warren, one of Hoover’s few reliable—and sympathetic—biographers, has put that need at $85,000,000 in loans for 330,000 farm families in the fifteen states hardest hit. To the balancer of the budget, the figure was appalling; to the desperate man on the receiving end, it could mean the two or three hundred dollars that would carry him through the winter.

Late in November, just before the three-month lame-duck session of the outgoing 71 st Congress opened, Red Cross officials, congressional leaders, and other interested parties met to discuss the drought situation. This conference, held at the Department of Agriculture, agreed to back loans for seed, fertilizer, tractor fuel, feed for animals, and—despite the predictable administration murmurings about the dole—loans for food relief. The estimated appropriation was $60,000,000, and there were tentative indications that the President would support it. But the administration proceeded to introduce an alternative measure, which asked for only $25,000,000 and which pointedly excluded food loans. To many, particularly those senators and congressmen from the drought states, the administration package was nothing more than another instance of the notoriously poor liaison between the White House and Capitol Hill. They treated it as an outright double-cross.

The President’s reasons were plain, but in this case words spoke louder than actions. At a press conference late in December, Hoover declared that if all the bills, “mostly in the guise of giving relief,” were lumped together, they would cost four and a half billion dollars above his budgetary recommendations. “Prosperity cannot be restored by raids on the treasury,” he said, adding with a touch of self-righteousness that he refused to play politics “at the expense of human misery.” His tormentors would not forget that unhappy phrase.

What the public did not know was that Hoover had finally tried to start a great voluntary drive for drought and unemployment relief comparable to his European efforts. But leaders of local relief programs had balked, expressing the fear that their own money-raising campaigns would be doomed by such a drive; Hoover’s visionary project died, unrecognized and unmourned. It was yet another splendid opportunity missed. From administration sources there came only the predictable invocation of the spectre of the dole: food relief, even in the form of loans, was perilously close to being one. Just before the Christmas recess Congress reached a compromise and agreed on a $45,000,000 loan appropriation for feed, seed, and the like, with the food provision left out. The matter seemed closed, though an undeniable residue of doubt and bad feelings lingered. As Joseph T. Robinson, of Arkansas, the Democratic minority leader in the Senate, commented during the debate, “It is all right to put a mule on the dole, but it is condemned, I see, to put a man on a parity with a mule.”