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But the Children Are Earning
by Gertrude Springer, An Article in The Survey, February, 1935
Editor’s Note: In the depth of the Great Depression, the March 1933 issue of Survey Mid-monthly carried the first in a series of columns that would continue for a decade. The subject of the columns — Amelia Bailey — “Miss Bailey” to most people — was a 1930s-style virtual-reality public relief supervisor. She existed on paper only, created at the typewriter of Gertrude Springer, an associate editor at the Survey magazine in New York City. In what became a popular monthly column, Miss Bailey listened to and advised the inexperienced social workers faced with coping with the Depression’s desperate unemployed relief applicants. “Miss Bailey Says…” columns dealt with issues such as: “When Your Client Has a Car,” “Are Relief Workers Policemen?,” “How We Behave in Other People’s Houses.” She gave common-sense advice to questions such as what to do when the relief worker observes situations such as bootlegging, clients with a bank account, a family on relief seen attending a movie, the daughter of a family on relief sporting a new permanent wave. Below is one of her columns.
TWO hours of music had lifted Miss Bailey into blissful forgetfulness of the hard facts of life. But as she went out of the concert hall into the winter night reality descended on her.
“Pencil, lady, buy a pencil and help the unemployed.” He wasn’t more than ten, with a cheerful voice and gamin smile. His plaid lumber-jacket was strangely familiar. Four dozen of them Miss Bailey had requisitioned from the clothing bureau. As sure as she stood there this was one of “our” children, and, impulse to the contrary, she supposed she had to do something about it. “Just a social worker’s night out,” she told herself.
The boy, as wary as a rabbit when she introduced herself as from “the relief,” muttered something about, . . . “You can’t put the cops on me.” She didn’t get his name, she didn’t even try. But presently he walked along with her to the street-car, and agreed that it was pretty cold, and that it looked like snow. When she gave him her card and invited him to come to see her after school, she hadn’t the least idea that she’d ever see him again. Three days later, just at closing time a skeptical-faced secretary put her head in the door. “There’s a kid out here who says you told him to come. He won’t give his name. Shall I get rid of him ?” Miss Bailey, with a dozen things to be done before dinner, wished to goodness she had let sleeping dogs lie,—and had him in. He was curious but it took a good while to get him to talk. He knew all about the relief, what day the “grocery-order lady” came, and how long it took to get shoes and everything. The trouble was with his mother. She wouldn’t give him money for movies and she had a fit when he asked her for roller-skates though he was the fastest roller-skater in the block. She’d told him to go and find out how hard it was to get money. She bawled him out when he came in late—if she caught him. Sure he went to school, but the teacher bawled him out too, “Gosh, one day when I went to sleep in the arithmetic!” But business was pretty fair. The night of the snowstorm he made eighty-five cents but nights when the cops chased him he didn’t make a nickel. He was saving for the roller-skates, but what with movies and hotdogs and everything….
Before he left Miss Bailey had his name and he had her promise not to tell his mother about his visit.
“And now what?” she asked herself as she jotted a memo for next morning. “They’re Miss Tucker’s case. She can see his teacher and she’ll find out that he’s dull and droopy in school. She may—and she may not—be able to persuade the mother that the boy must have more regular sleep if he is to get along in school, and that running the streets at night at his age is dangerous business. She may be able to find a settlement or boy’s club where the child will find what he wants. And of course there’s the law, there are ways to stop it. But apparently he is in no immediate danger and sharp conflict with the law at this stage might do him more harm than good. Surely if we can avoid that and make his parents more responsible toward him, it will be better for him in the long run. But of course what the child wants are the things it takes money to buy. The parents have no money and the child has found out how to get it for himself. I know he should not be peddling on the streets at night or any other time. To permit him to do it is contrary to every principle I own. Yet, I can see his side of it too, and I know if we stop him by strong-arm methods we may be good and sorry. And to think that not more than twenty cents a week is at stake, yet there’s so little we can do about it.
EARNING children, relief-workers report, are a growing problem with their families, occasioning not only conflict within the family but conflict in the worker herself with her principles at swords points with hard reality. When the relief system dooms a family to grocery-order subsistence for months on end, when the adults can bring in no cash and a child can, it is not easy for the worker to see her duty clear.
“I’ve been a child-laborite all my life and I still am,” says a supervisor in a small industrial city, “But in the face of some of these situations I’ve had to shut my eyes and park my principles. We have a case right now that I hope won’t be held against me in Heaven. There are two children working, well grown and husky both of them, and bringing in enough so that we only supplement with a small grocery order. We suspected the children were under age but everyone concerned denied it stoutly. Then one day when ages were not under discussion the mother made the mistake of showing the visitor the family Bible with all the birth dates carefully entered. The record showed both children under legal age for working papers,—but the mother said the record was wrong.
“Now if we had been conscientious we would have checked with the school records and called in the attendance officer. But we haven’t. We have made sure that the children’s working conditions are tolerable, that they have a little share of their earnings for their personal use and we’ve shut our eyes to the principle involved. For this particular family—not all families mind you—it seems better to maintain the status quo in which the family has a considerable independence of action, than to upset the apple-cart and throw them 100 percent on relief with all the demoralization and resentment that that would involve. And if that’s treason make the…”
The problems raised by under-age earning children are, however, comparatively infrequent compared with those raised by children of proper age whose earnings are absorbed by the family necessity. In the beginning of the present situation workers were often troubled by boys and girls who assumed too much responsibility for their families, and denied themselves the normal and necessary expressions of youth. But now, they say, there is another temper abroad in the land, a new concept of individual responsibility that causes many young people to refuse to shoulder burdens.
“Every relief worker who read Coral Brooke’s “Youth Engulfed” in the January Survey knows a dozen Johns and Aprils,” writes the director of a relief bureau in a western city, “Young people who say, in effect, ‘I didn’t make this mess and I won’t carry the load. I’ve got my own life to live.’ Sometimes a boy just ups and leaves home and refuses to talk about it. All we can do then is not to quarrel with him, to try to explain him to the family and to keep the door open for him should he want to come back. Sometimes we find at the bottom of his discontent perfectly reasonable complaints which can be straightened out. The average youngster under twenty will, we find, return home and carry his share of the load if he has any hope at all that the home can hold the security and freedom that he wants.
“We had a case last fall that I’m afraid was too good to be typical, but anyway we like to talk about it. His name was Henry. He was just past seventeen and the oldest of eight. Shortly after his father died a year or so ago the family came on relief. The mother was a good manager and they got along pretty well. When Henry got a job at $80 a month she was in the seventh heaven, sure that they could soon go off relief entirely. As it was we budgeted the $80, allowing, as is our policy, $12 a month to Henry for lunches, car fares and clothes, and adjusting the family allowance accordingly. The next thing we heard was that Henry had gone to live with a boy friend on the west side.
“It was three weeks before the case worker could get him to meet her for lunch and it took three lunches before he talked. He’d had to share his bedroom at home with two younger brothers who wore his neckties and smoked his cigarettes and never let him alone. He didn’t like the old neighborhood. His friends lived on the west side and he knew a man there who would teach him boxing. Most of all he wanted to live with his chum who didn’t wear his things. No, he didn’t have anything against his mother, she was all right and had had a tough break. Maybe he’d go to see her but he wouldn’t go back to live.
“A month later Henry phoned. He’d seen a house on the west side that was for rent very cheap. What would we think if he took it for Ma and the kids. He could swing the rent, and pay a little board and if the relief would go on helping….We told him it sounded like a good idea, but that it would work only if his mother and the other children liked it.
“We didn’t hear any more for two weeks. Then a very proud mother came into tell us that ‘my boy Henry’ had moved the flock into a ‘swell house with a bathroom’, that he was paying board and that they could manage with less relief. The case worker went home with her and saw all the house except Henry’s room which was firmly locked. In the basement was a punching-bag. ‘And you should see the boys that come here at night. Such good times they have.’ When we figured out the budget we found that with the rent and his board paid Henry had left himself just $14 a month, only $2 more than the original allowance.”
ALTHOUGH the live-my-own-life youngster is often extremely trying to the relief workers the more thoughtful among them see his independence as a healthier symptom than complete docility. The young person who without protest gives every cent he makes to his family presents symptoms of delayed maturity and poverty of spirit that hold poor augury for his future as a human being.
“We have a girl now that one of our case workers, who knows her mental hygiene, is all worked up over,” says a supervisor in an eastern city. “She’s just too noble.
“We have a general policy on exemptions from earnings before budgeting begins. If an unmarried child is the wage earner and the pay is less than $10 a week we deduct twenty cents a day for lunches, whether bought or carried, car fare as needed, and $1.50 for clothing and incidentals. The rest is figured as family income. If the pay is more than $10 a week one third is left free to the earner and the rest is budgeted. But this girl Eva doesn’t accept anything as her right. She turns over her pay envelop intact to her father with a conscious virtue that makes you want to slap her. She’s eighteen, the oldest of six and makes $11 a week. She’s entitled to $2.75 of that to spend on herself. But she walls two miles to work, carries for lunch such scraps as she picks up and wears everybody’s leftovers. I’ll bet she hasn’t had a whole pair of stockings for six months She’s the little, unattractive one in a big, handsome, selfish family who give her no consideration whatever. Of course the reason for her attitude is plain—she wants the approval of her family and gives them everything in an effort to gain it. And she has no chance at all.
“That case worker is simply losing sleep over Eva. She’s been over and over the budget with the family and with Eva. She’s passed out sound doctrine on personality development and pointed out horrible examples of its lack. Everybody agrees with her, but nothing happens. She proposed at one stage that Eva live with a cousin, pay board and send money home. But not Eva. Maybe a good two-fisted suitor would bring Eva to,—or perhaps if she lost her job. But Eva has nothing to lose but her chains—and she loves them.”
In dealing with family situations created by earning children the best rule, workers agree, is one with the general characteristics of an accordion. Rigidity, with no leeway for varying personalities, will bring creeping paralysis to any cooperative working relationship with the family. “Earning children should always be consulted in making plans with a family,” they say. “Often their attitude may become the controlling factor in decisions. It should never be disregarded. We are pretty inconsistent about this whole business of shifting family responsibility onto girls and boys and of putting pressure on the filial relationship. If we’ll take time to examine some of our procedures in the light of what we know about personality development we’ll see them as almost calculated to destroy rather than to conserve values.”
Source: Springer, Gertrude, “But the Children Are Earning,” The Survey, Vol. 70, No. 2, p. 40 (February, 1935), http://newdeal.feri.org/texts/506.htm. New Deal Network, http://newdeal.feri.org (March 7, 2014)