Our Brothers’ Keepers


The one significant change in this period affecting the poor was the organization and professionalization of social work. The goodhearted but casual home visitor to the needy, who dispensed a little cash and a lot of homilies, gave way to the college- and university-trained full-time social worker. The founding ideology of the discipline looked both to helping the poor adjust to society and to encouraging society to offer more help. But not surprisingly, in the 1920’s it was the poor who had to do all the accommodating. Casework lost sight of social reform, focussing instead on teaching the lower classes to cope with their situation, to budget more carefully, tobe more industrious, to emulate those above them. Part of the severity of this vision reflected the inhospitable climate of public opinion. But it also reflected the impact of Freudian theory and the eagerness of social workers to become professionals. Using psychological therapy as a way to establish and exert their expertise, social workers insisted that many of the difficulties confronting the poor resulted from their emotional problems. The needy were not the victims of vice but of maladjustment, and careful and sympathetic counselling would teach them to achieve. But the net result of this new doctrine was to couch in modern terminology some very traditional ideas. The poor remained essentially responsible for their difficulties. Reformation and rehabilitation returned to the center of the stage, now rationalized in updated language. The “unworthy” poor had become the “emotionally deprived” poor. Hence, by the close of this decade, public programs and attitudes had rigidified. The nation was not well equipped to confront the phenomenon of the Great Depression.


Suddenly, the poor had more than enough company. The crash of 1929 sparked the most massive economic dislocation in our history, at its peak leaving 25 per cent of the work force unemployed. Poverty was no longer the exclusive fate of the ghetto immigrant or the migrant farmer but of blue-collar workers laid off the assembly line and white-collar workers dismissed from brokerage houses. The problem had unexpectedly become national.

At first, both powerful and ordinary Americans denied the magnitude of the crisis, insisting that recovery was imminent. Herbert Hoover, wedded to an older American credo and fearful of undermining the country’s moral fiber, refused to involve the federal government in relief. “I am opposed,” he declared in 1931, “to any direct or indirect government dole. … Our people are providing against distress from unemployment in true American fashion.” But true American fashion meant that local governments and private charities had to carry all of the burden, and by 1932 they were without the resources. Cities lacked funds and the taxing power to raise them. The Red Cross distributed bags of flour and the community chest armfuls of coal. Distress was everywhere apparent: migrants pitched camps at one water spot and then another, their life’s possessions piled on the back of a broken-down truck. The urban poor pasted together shacks in shanty towns in the parks and along the river banks. Those with some savings cut corners, awaiting a bank’s foreclosure or a landlord’seviction. Often unable to clothe their families decently, they kept their children out of school and shunned their neighbors.


New Deal legislation alleviated some of this misery. Less bound by tradition, Franklin D. Roosevelt plunged the national government into the business of relief. By 1936, with the passage of the Social Security Act and the establishment of the Works Progress Administration, Washington was providing the states with relief funds and the unemployed with jobs. New Deal legislation did alter permanently the character of public programs. To meet immediate problems, the unemployable (the aged, blind, and very young) received, after passing a means test, direct relief at home; at the same time, federally sponsored projects made jobs available for destitute but able-bodied workers. Unemployment compensation, funded by a tax on employers, provided incomes for the temporarily unemployed; and retirement pensions, paid for by employee contributions, gave the aged a new measure of security. The almshouse became a thing of the past, abolished through the effects of these innovations.