The Drought And The Dole


On the face of things Hoover could justify his stand: by March, 1931, the Red Cross announced that it had fed or clothed 2,000,000 persons in twenty-one states. But that figure was somewhat less impressive when broken down into individual cases. A man could live, but just barely, on a Red Cross handout of forty to fifty cents’ worth of food per week, with some cans of tomato and salmon—supposed to strengthen gastric tubes—thrown in if he was suffering from pellagra. Clearly private relief, even on this heroic scale, made only a dent in the problem. In Mississippi the Red Cross fed 150,000 drought victims that winter; nobody knew how many thousands more were slowly starving. The first Red Cross aid did not arrive until January; by then the need was so great that relief seekers walked barefoot for miles in the cold weather. A family of six in Bolivar County got $11.67 in groceries per month, or less than $2.00 a person, while a mule could receive $8.00 in feed for the same period through government loans, which was an example of life imitating a wisecrack. The state government had done nothing all this time: the governor, Theodore G. Bilbo, would not call a special session of the legislature because members refused to sign promises not to impeach him.

Arkansas remained the worst sufferer: as of the middle of February, the Red Cross was feeding 519,000 persons. The Times reported late in January that roads around the town of Marked Tree were “clogged with wagons and buggies, not automobiles, and men and women walking with sacks of flour on their shoulders and pails of lard in their hands.…” But Red Cross aid must never have reached the three members of one family in Hot Springs, who apparently died of malnutrition at about that same time. (The precise reasons for such deaths, recorded under a variety of related causes, from heart failure to pellagra, are impossible to trace.) Small jokes told a great deal: rabbits—scarce, too, that winter- were known as Hoover hogs, and there was the recipe for a turnip sandwich: “three slices of turnip and put one in the middle.” The humor was no thinner than the reality. Russell Owen of the Times noted the following exchange between a Red Cross worker and an old farmer in the relief station at Wynne, Arkansas. The farmer, a pale man with eyes a little inflamed, needed food, but it had been a struggle for him to apply for charity.

“I didn’t want to come around, but I heard the others were getting something, and we are pretty low at home,” he said.

“Time to pocket your pride?”

“Yes, that’s it.”

The Red Cross worker asked how much food he had left at home. A little flour, some meal, and a few potatoes, the farmer told him.

And meat?

“I haven’t had any meat in a year.” He seemed astonished, Owen said, to be asked such a foolish question.

A chairman of a local branch of an Arkansas unemployment bureau claimed that in his county alone 23,000 out of a total of 26,000 had to be fed: “From last March until this March,” he said, “we in these parts had but little over one inch rainfall, so made our fourth failure.…” His job was mainly to take over from the Red Cross in situations that it was not prepared to handle. For example, what was most needed in the spring of 1931 was seed corn, and he managed to obtain a freight car of surplus corn donated by friends in Iowa. (Why, people wondered, wasn’t the federal government this resourceful?) He paid for the carrying charges, $250, out of his own pocket; the Red Cross would only pay for corn used as feed for animals. He was also helping to provide free lunches for schoolchildren, both white and black. He wrote:


… The Red Cross has been allowing only three and one-half cents a day per individual, and that is being cut down now. Many of the county children were making their noonday luncheon out of hickory nuts picked up in the woods. We are now, through Red Cross and private donations, feeding over 75 percent of the children in the county one hot meal a day. This is the only meal many of these children get. There are so many ways we can use funds to help the destitute that do not come under the rigid Red Cross rules.…

Applicants were too often snooped on and lectured to, and had to submit to what amounted to a means test—a soul-destroying advance on the British, who did not initiate their version of such personal prying until the fall. In Kentucky, Edmund Wilson found that if a man owned two cows, no matter how dry they were or how hungry he was, he would probably be denied relief, on the theory that he could sell one. Wilson overheard the plea of a good-hearted lady relief worker to a hill farmer in such a fix: “Well, I’ll give you an order, but I don’t want you to tell anybody about it—please don’t mention it to anybody.”

In the end, rain did as much good as the Red Cross or the government, though its help, too, was insufficient. There were some heavy downpours all through the Ohio and Mississippi valleys in March and again in April. As a media fad at least, the great drought was over. In some parts of the country it was actually worse in 1931 than it had been the previous year, though it received scant notice since fewer people were involved. The Great Plains were entering one of their periodic dry spells, and it was no coincidence that by the winter of 1931-32 the sky would be blackened by the first dust storms.