The unemployed under the New Deal

<strong>Taken from The <em>New Statesman</em> 17 March 1934</strong>

During the Great Depression o

York, Pennsylvania, is a manufacturing town of 75,000 inhabitants, not untypical of the industrial east of the United States. Having recently a day to spend in it, I devoted my time to visiting the institution which caters for the unemployed of the city.

York has had some 10 to 20 per cent of its total number of families wholly unemployed during the past twelve months. It is claimed that the figure is now nearer the lower than the higher limit. These citizens, some seven thousand to fourteen thousand in number, are kept alive in the following manner. An institution known as a "commissary" (no one could explain the name to me) has been established. I was shown over this institution by its manager, a Mr Schmidt. He is not a government official as he would be in England, but a retired business man, working either gratuitously or for his expenses.

The commissary is supported by Federal, State and County funds, raised by taxation. Up till a few months ago it also received money subscribed by private charities. But private charity in York has now run dry. The commissary relieves the unemployed by issuing to each family a weekly food package. These packages are made up according to the number of adults and the number of children in the family. It has been calculated that so many calories of food are necessary to sustain life in an adult, so many in a child, and precisely this amount of food, per person relieved, is provided.

The commissary employees are not permanent State or local officials, but are either amateur, unpaid, social workers, or paid an extremely low weekly wage, on a purely temporary, week to week, basis. A large staff of investigators inquire into the circumstances of every applicant's relief, in a manner very similar to the Means Test investigations in England.

I witnessed a long queue of applicants for relief coming in to get their food package. They were not actually starving, but they appeared to be on a strictly subsistence level. I was informed by a newspaper correspondent, who had been in close touch with the unemployed, that they reported that the rations were just sufficient to maintain health while they were not working. But if and when any of them obtained work on one of the road schemes, etc, in the neighbourhood, they were unable to do any serious work until they had received their first wages, and were able to buy larger quantities of food.

This commissary system appears to be typical of the whole State of Pennsylvania, but endless variations of it appear to be in existence in other parts of the United States. In many places the main source of income to the relief institutions is still private charity, and in these places the amount of food given to each applicant does not depend on the applicant's need, but on the amount of money which the relief institution has available. Thus, if there is a sudden increase in unemployment, the amount of food distributed to each family has to be at once reduced.

I inquired of the administrators of the York commissary whether the present system was intended to be a permanent one. They were not able to answer this question. While not denying that unemployment would now be a permanent feature of their community, they were unwilling to consider the question of establishing a permanent relief system. The present system has all the marks of its temporary and emergency origin. I inquired whether there were not now in the fourth winter of the depression many families who were entirely without money of any sort. I was told that practically all the families which were being regularly relieved were in this condition. I at once inquired as to what happened to the rent. I was informed that it was impossible to evict some 20 per cent of the total population of the city, and that consequently the landlords of most of the working-class property were themselves bankrupt. As a result, the remarkable phenomenon has arisen that an agitation for relieving the unemployed by money payments, for a "dole" system, had arisen from the landlords!

At the moment the unemployed themselves appear to be passive. Last February, however, when the present system of relief by food packages was instituted, there was serious rioting in the town, and the distribution of food at the commissary had to be undertaken under the guard of State troopers. Up till that time, relief had been given by means of vouchers which could be cashed at the local grocery stores, so that the unemployed were at any rate enabled to choose their own food.

After visiting the commissary, I happened to meet a young Democratic assembly man who had just been elected, from this normally Republican town, to the State legislature. Hoping to obtain the views of a representative of liberal opinion as to the system of relief, I asked him whether he had favoured the introduction of the commissary system. He replied he had been against it. I asked him why? "It brings the unemployed together too much," he said. "They live in different quarters of the city, and if you leave them where they live they can't ever get together. But if you bring them all out to one centre to feed them, they begin to talk amongst themselves, and that's dangerous." During the Great Depression of the 1930s, mass unemployment affected the industrial state of Pennsylvania more than many others. John Strachey, a leading Marxist intellectual at the time and later a Labour government minister, visited the small town of York to see how those without wages survived. His restrained article showed how debilitating the lack of a proper support system for the unemployed was early in President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Abridged here, the article can be read in full at:

Selected by Robert Taylor

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Everybody out!