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“Miss Bailey Says…” – Practical Advice for Relief Workers in the 1930s #7
Introduction: In the depth of the Great Depression, the March 1933 issue of Survey Midmonthly 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 Baily 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.
Gertrude Springer, author, Survey Midmonthly, September 1933, pp. 317-318.
What should relief workers do when:
• A waiting client suddenly throws a paper‑weight across the office and begins to scream?
• A client disrupts the waiting‑room with loud threats of what he proposes to do to the interviewer?
• A delegation with banners and baby‑carriages demonstrates noisily under the office windows?
• A large and voluble committee, with police hovering in the background, demands a hearing for its protest against the relief system?
– – – – – – – – – –
Dull undertones from the busy outer office were shattered by a crash and a shrill scream.
Miss Bailey, struggling with an unbalanceable budget, snapped to attention. She knew exactly what had happened. Some poor soul, worn out with the heat and overlong waiting had “blown up.” Thank goodness it couldn’t be ink this time. After Mrs. Sadowsky’s disastrous “spell” last week inkstands had been stowed out of reach. Silence now in the outer office, then the click of a typewriter, and Miss Bailey dared tell herself that this time the girls had kept their heads. Another moment and her ‘phone buzzed the signal from her secretary. “Yes, Miss Floyd. Waiting for Miss Hunt you say? What’s the name? Mrs. Bruno? Certainly, bring her in here.”
Miss Bailey, calm and collected, met a flushed and shaken Mrs. Bruno at the door. “I am sorry you were upset. There’s a little more air here by the window. This heat is enough to upset anyone. Here, let me lend you a handkerchief. Honestly, Mrs. Bruno, if I were you I would just cry it out.” Returning to her desk Miss Bailey busied herself with a heap of papers. Five minutes and the sobbing ceased. “I go now, Miss.” Mrs. Bruno, eyes cast down, deposited a damp wad of handkerchief on the corner of the desk.
“Feeling better? I’m sorry you had to wait so long. You see Miss Hunt is out visiting families and no one can be sure when she will be back. Don’t you want to tell me what is troubling you and I will give Miss Hunt the message?”
“And there,” added Miss Bailey to herself, “there goes my evening if that budget report is to be ready for the committee tomorrow.”
The most demoralizing treatment of excitement is excitement, say the supervisors of relief districts where excitement of one kind or another is part of the day’s work. After three years of strain and uncertainty frayed nerves are taking such toll among the unemployed that it is the exceptional relief office that does not have to deal with occasional outbursts.
“We have an ironclad rule for our staff when excitement breaks loose,” said the supervisor of a big city district. “it is simply this, ‘Mind your own business and keep on working.’ If a woman faints Is hysterical in the waiting‑room it is the business of the or become reception clerk to see that she is looked after and removed as quickly as possible to a quiet place. If the clerk needs help she asks for it. Everyone else goes on working. We used to have a good deal of squealing and jumping up‑but not any more. We have finally managed to impress on all our staff that squealing is just not done in this office. I have never been as proud of any thing as I was of the staff the day some poor wretch threw a brick through the window and not a typewriter in the room stopped. The office manager called someone to clean up and everybody else kept on working.
“When a client faints we give her simple restoratives, get her off by herself and persuade her to go home, sending someone with her if this seems advisable. If the hysteric calms down and wants to tell her story of course we let her, but if she remains excited we get her home too. In both cases we promise that a visitor will call that very day, a promise that we keep religiously.”
Familiar in many offices these days is the client, often a man, who vents his insecurity by noisy talk and threats of what he proposes to do. He’s tired of the way he’s been treated. He’s going to have his rent paid or somebody is going to be hurt. Who are these women anyhow? Here’s what he’s going to tell ’em … and so on and on until the whole waiting‑room is on edge.
“Big talk is just another manifestation of strain,” says a supervisor whose experience has shown her human nature in infinite variety. “We treat it as we try to treat everything else, with patience and common sense. Whenever the reception clerk feels that big talk is upsetting the other clients in the waiting‑room she takes the talker out of his turn and gets him in to the interviewer. Then she apologizes to the others, ‘Sorry to have put Mr. So‑and‑so ahead of you, but he is so nervous today that he is upsetting the office. It won’t be but a few minutes longer.’ Almost never does anyone object, in fact the patience, the docility, the simple understanding of these people is a never ending marvel to me.
“Once the voluble client gets into the interviewing room much of his excitement disappears. The interviewer gives him the floor and under no circumstances argues with him. If he runs on too long she brings him back to the point. His case of course is treated on its merits. Sometimes a client is so disturbed that no amount of patience will calm him. But only when he becomes actually violent and begins to smash things, when the work of the office can no longer go on, do we resort to calling the police to remove him. And we are not a bit proud Of ourselves when we have to take this final step.”
It is clearly a matter of professional pride with relief workers to keep their heads under provocation and to do their job without recourse to strong arm methods. Even in turbulent city districts where violent protests against the relief administration are a recognized phase of organized political propaganda the supervisors keep a clear line between police business and relief business.
“Demonstrations in the street or even on the doorstep are police business and we keep out,” says a supervisor whose big populous district has been marked by agitators for special attention. “Once a disturbance actually comes into the office it becomes our business and we prefer to handle it ourselves if it is humanly possible to do so. just the sight of a policeman, however admirable his attitude, is fuel on the flames of excitement.
“If a couple of hundred people with provocative placards choose to march up and down in front of our windows it’s none of our business. We go on with our work. Jumping up and running to windows isn’t done, and the girl who gets jittery is promptly sent out of the room. If the paraders get violent and begin to break windows it’s still police business. Happily the police handle these demonstrations not as riots but as traffic problems. They were stumped one day however when the paraders left behind them a squad of thirty women with baby‑carriages who took their stand in front of the office and set up a sort of keening. The worried policeman was ready to shoo them all into the building at once, but since there was plainly no room for thirty baby‑carriages we said, ‘One at a time please., The women refused to be separated and we stood our ground. By this time such a crowd had gathered that the women and baby‑carriages were moved along in the general business of opening up traffic, and that was the end of it.
“When the demonstrators demand a hearing for their representatives it becomes our business and we politely request the police to let us handle it. We used to receive whatever sized group the leaders sent in, rarely less than twenty‑five. The result was just a mass‑meeting with everybody out‑talking everybody else. Specific charges or grievances were completely lost in speech‑making against the general organization of society. Sometimes we’d have half a dozen delegations in a day, keeping the office in a turmoil. There just wasn’t time to keep our work going and sit in on all the speech‑making. So we insisted that delegations be limited to five, then to three, then to two‑but there was still too much oratory and not enough facts. We now receive one, just one, representative of an organized protest group and we are able to get somewhere. The police didn’t like the idea of a ‘lady’ closeted with a high‑powered agitator with fire in his eye, but we persuaded them that lady or no lady we got on better without them. It isn’t nearly as exciting to make a denunciatory speech to one of us as it is to a man in uniform.
“The worker who is defensive in her interviews with these representatives of organized groups makes a big mistake. In the first place there is plenty about this relief business with its uncertain machinery that is indefensible. On the general score that relief is inadequate, that evictions are intolerable, that relief in kind is demoralizing, there can be complete agreement. When it comes to charges of neglect, delay and inhuman treatment the worker should still not defend but should require specific facts. Sometimes these trail off into vague generalities and the worker ends the interview quickly and good-naturedly. But when the charges are definite and concrete, as they sometimes are, they should have exactly the same treatment as though they were made by a bishop or a bank president. If a family is getting bad treatment it is up to us to correct it no matter who reports the case. Let the agitators make a victory of it if they want to. The welfare of our families is our one and only concern.
“Workers who know only too well the clumsiness and the inadequacy of mass relief marvel, not that clients make so many protests but that they make so few. Close as we are to it all no one can realize to what strain the anxieties of long unemployment and the miserable business of mass relief subjects these helpless people. There is little enough we can do for the one who cracks up before our eyes or who takes the outlet offered by specious promises. But we can at least be patient and calm and give him a chance to tell his story quietly, without an audience and without a quarrel. If his demands cannot be met we must tell him so decisively and not put him off with vague excuses or promises that we know cannot be kept. If his grievance is well taken fault is ours we should admit it and lose no time in setting it right. There is a magic in promptness that in our hurried crowded days we too often lose.”
Source: Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries: www. special.lib.umn.edu/