Skip to main content

Miss Bailey Says…#10

“Miss Bailey Says…” – Practical Advice for Relief Workers in the 1930s #10

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.

by Gertrude Springer
, Survey Midmonthly , Vol. 69, December 1933, pp. 406-407.

What can the relief worker do when:

•  Practically every relief family in a foreign-speaking neighborhood finds the price of a ton of grapes for its year’s supply of wine?

•  A family steadfastly refuses to give any information about a relative who regularly pays their rent and sends them occasional boxes of luxurious clothes?

•  The family of five which is suddenly augmented by three half-grown children who, it is calmly explained, have been visiting their “auntie,” hitherto unheard of?

– – – – – – – – – –

Client receives application assistance.
Client receives application assistance. Library of Congress (1939)

He was a very impos­ing gentleman and around him, even in Miss Bailey’s shabby little office, was a faint suggestion of limousines and protective secretaries.

“I think that’s all,” he summed up as he rose, “I was sure you would want to know about it. It was just an acci­dent that took me into that Italian colony the other side of the tracks. Most extraor­dinary thing I ever saw. Three truckloads of grapes and all these people singing and laughing. Quite like a festival of some sort. Yet I’m told that practically the whole lot of them is on relief. Well, we have to watch these people, don’t we? But I’m sure we can leave it in your competent hands.”

Only rigid control saved Miss Bailey from a derisive “Oh Yeah?” as the door closed on him. The card-file bulged with Rossis and Brunos and Angelottis and the rest of the plausi­ble, likeable tribe. Sure as fate they were in on the festival of the grapes and were at this moment elbow deep in wine­making. And how on earth could you expect substantial citizens in limousines to reconcile the purchase of a ton or ­so of grapes with the complete destitution connoted by being “on relief.”

It wasn’t reasonable and Miss Bailey knew it, and sud­denly she decided to take a hand herself. She’d go to the Ferraris. Only yesterday Mrs. Ferrari had made the office ring with the high tragedy of the general unblanketed con­dition of her family. If after all that the Ferraris were mak­ing wine — Well!

Booted and spurred with righteous indignation Miss Bailey descended on the Casa Ferrari with its hard-beaten little yard and scrabbly arbor.

Wild excitement “. . . the Mees, you come see ’bout the blankets. Queeck, Tonino, a chair for the Mees . . .” Spaghetti boiling on the stove, tomato sauce bubbling, dark-eyed children staring. “My Orlando? Oh, povero, povero! No work to do. Queeck, Ricco, call the papa.”

Orlando, the papa, appears, and now Miss Bailey puts it to him.

“I hear you are making wine.”

“Sure, Mees, it is the season of the vino. My vino very special like my father teacha me in La Puglia.”

“But grapes cost money, Mr; Ferrari, and your wife says you have no blankets.”

“But Mees, I maka de mon’ myself. All summer I cutta de grass. I save the soldi. My zio, my onela, he put in more. I make for him too. Grapes very cheap. My frien’s we buy big lot together, very cheap.”

“But it is almost winter and your family needs blankets.”

“An’ the vino very good in winter. My child feel bad I maka the vino warm for him like my father teacha me. My children very strong, Mees.”

Strong or no strong Miss Bailey insists that blankets would have been a wiser use of the summer earnings. With obvious reservations the Fer­raris admit that possibility, then draw a red herring across the trail by renewed enco­miums on the excellence of the family vino. “My father very smart man.”

Out in the street again Miss Bailey sought to rally her indignation.

“It’s outrageous — but Italian! To them wine is an article of diet, fixed by every tradition of race and family habit. We think of it as a luxury, unnecessary and, since they’re poor, just a shade sinful, and we give it a meaning that it doesn’t possess for them.

Woman Washing Clothes
Woman Washing Clothes

“After all we gave Mr. Ferrari grocery orders but no occupation. He found his own grass-cutting, saved his soldi and spent it on what was to him a necessity. We urge the unemployed to find odd jobs to supply the things we can’t give them and then we pick on them for what they buy. Honestly now, Louisa Bailey, if the Ferraris had bought tomatoes and canned them under the home economist’s direction, would you have been so excited? You know you wouldn’t. They’ve made one of those choices you’re always preaching about and you’re upset because their choice doesn’t fit your pattern.

“Just the same I think we’ll hold off awhile on those blankets. And who is this ‘onela’ that seems to have grape-money up his sleeve. Maybe there are blankets there too. Well, thank goodness, we’ve lost a lot of our Ferraris to the Civilian Works, and they spend their own money their own way. Their wine and their blankets and their ‘onclas’ . just aren’t any of our affair. There’s too much detecting in this relief business to suit me.”

If there is anything social workers hate more than mass relief it is the role of detective into which rigid rules and regulations have thrust them. With one hand they must make sure that the family that continues on relief does not rise above a state of destitution, while with the other they must fortify the self-respect of the unemployed and en­courage their initiative. So rigid have been the practices in many offices that families on relief fear that any windfall, however small and casual, may jeopardize their place on the relief rolls. Small wonder that they are close mouthed.

“I need no proof,” said the supervisor of a big city dis­trict, “that we help people most intelligently when we have all the cards on the table, theirs and ours. But how can we expect them to expose their last trump while we hold onto the ace, the power of the food order. We give these people grocery orders budgeted to their minimum needs, and then we watch for chances to shave that order. I’d like to know what they would have done these last years without the hidden resources that enabled them to get the essentials we did not supply. How many agencies budget thread and needles and safety-pins, hair-cuts and shoe-repairs? They do get these things, but our methods have often been such that they do not dare confide to us how or where.

“Often what seems like a resource isn’t one at all, but a casual benefaction that will fade out under the least pres­sure. I know people who make little presents of money to families but whose response to investigation is to say that their gifts are for extras and if the effect is to reduce the help given by the city they will certainly be discontinued. There are situations too where help comes from a source so complicated that the family feels it dare not confide it to the understanding of the visitor.

“I recall a family, nice people and no question of their need, who had a cousin who paid their rent but about whom they refused a single crumb of information. She might have been Mrs. Astorbilt for all we knew and we rather suspected she was. We were sure of it when one day the worker found them unpacking a box of perfectly extravagant clothes, chiffons and velvets and so on, all as good as new. When they stubbornly refused all information about them the worker lost her temper, said they could just try eating the clothes for awhile, and withheld their food and fuel order.

“I stood by the worker, but I wasn’t satisfied. In every other particular the family had been candid with us. After two weeks I stopped in myself to see what was happening. I saw all right. The rooms were stripped bare, the children huddled in bed for warmth, the woman looked like a ghost. My receptivity must have been high that day for presently the story came. The cousin worked for a temperamental actress and out of her wages helped regularly three fami­lies of kinsfolk. Occasionally the actress gave her clothes, absurdly inappropriate, with the dire threat of firing her if she sold them or told where they came from. The cousin in turn threatened to stop the rent money if an investigator called on her. So here was the family literally starving with a closetful of glamorous clothes that had all but destroyed them. What did we do about the clothes? Nothing. We renewed the food order, got the most necessary things out of pawn and let the family wrestle with the finery in their own way. It was certainly their problem, not ours.”

No one will ever know how great resource relatives have been to the unemployed in these troubled years. But now, say the supervisors, the situation has come to such a pass that not one relative in a hundred is in a position to give assistance that can take the place of regular relief. Yet hidden relatives remain a resource which must be explained.

“When we do discover fairly substantial kin these days,” said a supervisor of long and varied experience, “we also discover substantial reasons why the families have kept them under cover. Often the concealment sprang from some deep-hidden family sore that they dreaded to expose.

“One of our workers came in not long ago wild-eyed be­cause the Sullivan family had produced three children over­night, well-dressed, half-grown youngsters who had been, if you please ‘away for the summer.’ Five Sullivans had been on relief since May and no one suspected the existence of any others. We checked with school records and they were Sullivans all right. They weren’t ‘borrowed’ to get the food order increased. Oh yes, we have that too.

“The Sullivans admitted nothing. The children had been with their ‘auntie,’ and that was that.

Farm Security Administration: “Suppertime” for the westward migration. (Circa 1936)
Farm Security Administration: “Suppertime” for the westward migration. (Circa 1936)

“Well, we didn’t increase the food order, suggesting in­stead that the children go back to ‘auntie.’ They didn’t go back and the Sullivans didn’t starve — not quite. Then their priest came to see us. He didn’t tell us much, just enough to let us piece the story together. There was every­thing in it, religion, mixed marriage, children born in and out of wedlock, and a dying mother’s curse, which, curi­ously, was not laid on these three particular children. Therefore a fanatical old aunt took them to her down-state farm every summer and tended them like her own. But not so much as a potato for the rest of the tribe.

“Now what in the world could we do with a situation like that but go along with it. In theory the aunt was a positive resource; in reality she wasn’t good for a nickel more than she was doing. For the Sullivans to have told us about her, knowing that we would write to her, would have been to stir up a family scandal that they had quite successfully lived down. Of course they should have told us about the children but they hoped to have a job and be on their own before the children came home. Then of course it would have been none of our business. Do you blame them so much?”

Supervisors are clearly of the opinion that a complete check on the possible resources of families applying for relief is necessary and important, a proper protection to the public and its funds. But they hold that if the first in­vestigation is sound and a good relationship is established between family and visitor the later revelation of a small concealment or two should not affect the family’s relief status. Each revelation, they say, should be weighed for its material importance and for its indication of the family’s attitude. Naturally if revelations come too thick and fast a frank reinvestigation must be made.

“Judgement should be based not on what the family does, but on why it does it. The visitor must try to under­stand why the Italians would rather buy grapes than blankets, why some families would rather go hungry than reveal the name of a casual benefactor or an inimical rela­tive. Sometimes we cannot accept their reasoning, but we can never be just without an understanding of the human motivation behind the facts. And we must learn to accept many situations merely as the way human beings operate.”

Source: Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries: www.