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Our Brothers’ Keepers
In a society grown steadily more affluent over two centuries, the existence of the poor has raised some baffling questions and surprising answers
December 1972 | Volume 24, Issue 1
Still, the New Deal investment in relief fell considerably short of the nation’s need. Afraid to violate the sanctity of the balanced budget or the prerogatives of the states, and committed first and foremost to work relief, President Roosevelt insisted on funding relief through the states but would not set national standards. (Thus, the poor in Mississippi received about one third the support of those in Massachusetts.) The sums allotted to the aged were far below subsistence —nineteen dollars a month when forty dollars would barely do. WPA regulations required men to leave the rolls after eighteen months, no matter how grim their economic condition. Social security was not to take effect until 1942—and even then the pension sums were too small to support recipients. The states were no more generous. California, for example, packed migrant workers and the young unmarried unemployed wff to work camps that bordered on penal colonies. The states also tried to seal their borders by reviving stringent residence laws.
Despite the magnitude of the problem and the unprecedented government response, a very traditional attitude toward poverty persisted through the Depression. The new leadership continued to preach many ancient axioms, and the average citizen retained older beliefs. F.D.R. himself denigrated direct relief, keeping alive the term “dole.” To some degree this was a conscious strategy to swell public support for the millions expended on WPA. But it also reflected his inner conviction that relief corrupted and weakened the recipient. Those on relief, or who tottered on the brink, felt an acute sense of dread and guilt, a painful reluctance to take what they still defined as charity. Hence, just when one might have anticipated a public furor over real suffering, when widespread turmoil and vicious riots might have broken out, the nation remained remarkably quiescent. Most Americans remained silent, suffering alone.
In essence, poverty demoralized rather than activated the country. The unemployed insisted on blaming themselves for their misery, defining their problems as internal, not external. If only they looked harder or put up a better front, they would find a job. Instead of joining with others in faulting the system, they became immobilized and isolated. One after another they passionately and honestly told interviewers that before taking relief they would “rather be dead and buried.” Years later, when good times returned, they still vividly recalled these feelings. “I didn’t want to go on relief,” one small businessman remembered. “Believe me, when I was forced to go to the office of relief, the tears were running out of my eyes. I couldn’t bear myself to take money from anybody for nothing.” Their actions did not belie their words. Of nearly one thousand unemployed in New Haven, Connecticut, less than one quarter had asked for relief after being without a job for over a year.
Desperation also took more comic or pathetic turns in the Depression. The board game called Monopoly swept the country. If one could not eke out a living in the real world, one could accumulate a paper fortune in a fantasy one. Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People became a best seller with an overt message of doubtful relevance: confidence, grace, personal style, and sensitive shrewdness would bring success. Its latent message was also obvious: failures had only their own personalities to blame. Soap operas, which fastened themselves on the radio public in the 1930’s, provided a catalogue of troubles for the listener to compare with his own. But the serials usually blamed failure on personal and emotional inadequacy, rarely on external and social events.
Public-opinion polls during the Depression accurately gauged the degree of persistence and change in American attitudes toward poverty and the poor. There can be no doubt of the popularity of the federal involvement in relief among all the sectors of society. In March, 1939, a Roper poll indicated that three-quarters of the American public affirmed the government’s obligation to relieve all persons who had no other means of subsistence. Yet, at the same time, a majority of the public continued to think of the poor in hostile and pejorative terms. Reliefers could get jobs, they believed, if only they tried. The New Deal did institute new and important and widely supported relief programs, but the welfare recipient remained a target of suspicion, disparaged by himself and others. Even the Great Depression could not wipe away the stigma of poverty.
The legacy that America’s experience with poverty has left is a discouraging one. Public programs to eradicate and relieve dependency have not, on the whole, been successful and do not seem to point the way to new and effective proposals. With the rise in the overall population, relief rolls, especially under Aid to Dependent Children, have swollen almost to the bursting point; yet, some thirty million Americans, urban and rural, black and white, still suffer varying degrees of deprivation. Moreover, our attitudes toward poverty continue to be no more consistent than those of our ancestors. In November, 1964, according to public-opinion polls, only a bare 20 per cent of the nation believed that the government should spend less on relief, yet almost 70 per cent insisted that some or most of those actually on relief were there for dishonest reasons. The problem is not helped by the fact that a large proportion of relief recipients belong to nonwhite minorities, adding fuel to an already uncomfortably hot racial situation in American cities.