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Miss Bailey Says…#2

“Miss Bailey Says…” – Practical Advice for Relief Workers in the 1930s #2

Introduction: 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

Unemployed men marching for jobs during the Great Depression
Unemployed men marching for jobs during the Great Depression

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, April 1933, pp. 156-157.

What shall the untrained investigator do when she observes in homes such situations as:

Deserted wife with children on relief, living in sin with a lodger?
Father periodically drunk and (a) cheerful, (b) abusive to children?
Father demanding shotgun marriage for reluctant daughter?
– – – – – – – – – –

“I’m so disturbed, Miss Bailey, about something my daughter told me at breakfast. She’ll tell you herself of course, but it seems to me you ought to know right away, so I just rang up. I’m afraid there’s something seriously wrong with one of those families you sent her to yesterday. I’m afraid‑well, there seems to be a man in the case! Isn’t that terrible? My daughter said she never imagined such wretched children, but even if you’re poor, sin is sin, isn’t it?”

Miss Bailey wondered. Wearily she turned through the cards of the new applicants. Only yesterday she had sent out four new investigators to visit these families. Recalling her own long and careful preparation before she was entrusted with a first interview, she had had a qualm. But these four had shown themselves promising and intelligent in the three‑day training institute where, with her best discussion technique, she had tried to clear their minds of preconceptions and to establish bases for judgments. And now the very first day along came sin, which, Miss Bailey admitted with a sigh, she herself with all her training had always found difficult and baffling.

Yes, here was the card. Deserted wife, four young children, unemployed lodger, case reported by neighbor who says children are cold and hungry.

Miss Bailey wasn’t sure what she could do about sin with four children needing to be fed, but at least one thing was clear; “my daughter” had failed to take in the meaning of that “confidential relationship” with the client on which the institute instructor had dilated long and earnestly. “Because she probably doesn’t name names she thinks it’s all right to dish up family tragedies at breakfast. Well, I’ll have to try again.” And Miss Bailey made a cryptic note on her calendar for further conference with “my daughter.”

Two workers help a couple alleviate yearly expenses for their family of eight
Two workers help a couple alleviate yearly expenses for their family of eight. Library of Congress (1939)

Sooner or later the family visitor is bound to encounter sin behind the door that opens to relief. What to do about it, if anything, is not easy to decide even for the seasoned case worker schooled in tolerance and trained in detachment. Adjustments of intensely personal situations rooted in remote causes and complex relationships have always called for the highest skill with time as the essential tool of treatment. The new recruit, inexperienced in social work, driven by an overwhelming case load, is troubled and confused when situations counter to her own code are thrust into her view. In her quick preparation for her job she gained a general idea of community resources, of agency policies and rules and of the ethics governing her relationship with families, but ‑‑ “Isn’t this case different, Miss Bailey? Shouldn’t I do something about it?”

If one may judge from the practice of a considerable number of supervisors of newly recruited visitors with all manner and shades of background, the best answer to this query, if the discussion is to be productive is, “Well, what, for instance?”

“The futility of trying to make over morals in the brief contacts which the relief worker has with the family is better realized when a concrete case is discussed,” said the supervisor of a big‑city relief district where a case load of two hundred is not counted too heavy for an erstwhile young bookkeeper out of a job. “Just to set down on paper the cans and the can’ts, given the circumstances in which we are working, is usually enough to convince the most zealous moralist that, lacking the tongue of angels, she had better keep out of tangled personal relationships and direct herself strictly to her own job‑that is, to get food orders out on time, to keep her records up to date and to be sure that every family on her list is covered on regular schedule. With things as they are, even that is more than she will probably be able to do.

“In conferences with new workers I try to eliminate all general discussion of the right or wrong conduct of families on relief except as it relates to their eligibility for relief. We cannot be concerned with sin, either by your definition or mine. We are keenly alert to cruelty and sickness. Those are things we can do something about and promptly. But where codes of conduct are involved we discourage judgmental attitudes in the visitors.”

From another big city, from one who last year supervised a relief district and is now training workers for all the districts, comes similar comment: “The new investigator who can deal unemotionally with clients is of course very rare, no matter what her earlier experience may have been. We find that the thoughtful talking out of concrete problems with the supervisor with some discussion in a small group is the best way to increase a worker’s capacity for dealing with problems uncolored by our own personal reaction. It is fairly easy to teach newcomers the practices we follow in relief and the rudiments of the laws or policies that govern our rules; it is much harder to give them the mental slant that will free them of preconceptions and enable them to meet every issue on its merits, forever aware of the viewpoint of others and of how they got that way.

Worker looks on as family fills out application for government loan to alleviate economic difficulties.
Worker looks on as family fills out application for government loan to alleviate economic difficulties. Library of Congress

“Take bootlegging for instance. I see no reason why it should be approached by the relief worker as a moral issue. At the point where We touch the family life it is entirely a matter of finances. If bootlegging appears to be contributing to the family income to a considerable extent it should be investigated like any other resource. Perhaps it is so profitable that the family is ineligible for relief. Usually it is a small side‑line with such uncertain and negligible profits that they cut no figure in the family budget. In any case it has nothing to do with the basis of relief, which is need and not morals.

“Likewise with the woman ‘living in sin’ with the lodger. The worker’s concern with the lodger is only with his economic status in the family. If he is contributing to the household support and the family life seems reasonably normal he will be considered as a resource in the budget. If he isn’t, if he must be included in the food order, his status will need to be discussed, but as a matter of economics, not morals. If he is abusive to the children the problem is treated from that angle. I cannot imagine needed relief being withheld from a woman and four helpless children because of ‘a man in the case.’

“I do not see that the emergency relief worker has any place at all in the matter of a proposed shotgun marriage. It is possible that if she had time and skill a discussion with the father might clear the air. But given an overburdened and untrained worker I feel that unless the daughter appeals to her for help and she can send her to some organization equipped to give it, the worker should not enter into the situation at all‑indeed that she should avoid any involvement in it. just as sure as she takes cognizance of it she will find herself on one side or another of a family row, making new trouble for everyone and helping no one.”

The discussion of students in training of concrete cases involving lapses from the accepted code brought out a general opinion that the determination of need and the protection of children is about as far as the relief visitor can or should go. Take a drinking father for instance: “We should not feel qualified to attempt to reform him,” concluded a midwestern group, “but we should want to find out what effect his drinking had on the children. If it was depriving them of food or if we knew that they were subjected to abuse on account of it, then it would seem to become our business‑not because we are relief investigators but because we are good citizens who would not tolerate mistreatment of children. But we would not think that our function of dispensing relief gave us any more right to act than we should have anyway. If we felt obliged to act we should first find out the law in the case and then call in the proper agency with more time and skill and perhaps authority than we have. Certainly if the mother and children needed food we would not withhold an order because the father was on a spree, even if he smashed a few dishes or did a little slapping in the course of it.”

A group of volunteers went behind procedures to the discussion of the worker’s own adjustments. Said one: “We must forget our personal code of conduct and apply only the rules of the organization we are working for ….. But,” said another, “if we feel the organization’s code lower than ours, that is if we feel ourselves superior, will we be able to do our work happily and effectively?” “It isn’t a question, of lower or higher,” summed up a third, “but of the tolerance that each one of us has in herself. We can disapprove these things for ourselves but suspend judgment on other people. After all, what right have we to impose our standards of conduct on these helpless people?

Going into their homes armed with a grocery order makes it hard enough to establish frank, friendly relations. If we go clothed in righteousness, with a moral chip on our shoulders, we’ll never gain their confidence. It seems to me that we just have to take people as we find them and go on from that point.”

Old cliches die hard and in many communities public opinion even in these times would like to feel that all the “poor” are “worthy.”

An office visit by an Illinois client.
An office visit by an Illinois client. Library of Congress (1939)

“I don’t know whether we are policemen or not,” says a supervisor in a small city who recently took her long private‑agency experience into a public department. “We try not to be, though I suspect that the public would support us in a high moralistic stand. Perhaps for that reason we sometimes make gestures, call it passing the buck if you like. We usually report cases of bootlegging to the prohibition authorities. Nothing much seems to happen, but our consciences are clear as we continue to look after the families that need our help. Our bootleggers are not the prosperous kind. If we have reason to believe that a woman is living in sin we weigh the whole situation as it affects the children. If she is a bad mother as well as sinful we may refer the case to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. We are chary of this, however, for unless a good deal of time and skill can be expended we are apt to end with a situation full of resentment with nothing really constructive accomplished.

“In any case we urge our visitors not to get excited over moral situations but to stick pretty close to the limitations of the relief job. We urge them too to try to overlook father’s periodic sprees and unless the children are flagrantly abused to content themselves with making their lives as bearable as possible. Of course, if we catch father wielding the business end of a leather belt or find the children cowering under the bed we call in the S.P.C.C. at once.

“As a general rule we discourage moralistic judgments on the part of the workers and try to keep treatment at a pretty common‑sense level with need and not conduct as a basis of decision. We do not call this ‘case work’ but ‘planning that would seem to be helpful to the family.’ ”

By and large the supervisors and discussion groups of visitors in training agree that except in rare cases unseasoned investigators should keep aloof from a family’s personal relationships. Until the necessity for relief opened the door to the visitor these matters were, they conclude, settled within the family. They should be so settled now. The visitor who, in the pressure of work, can see a family not oftener than once in two or three weeks cannot possibly arrive at an understanding of family difficulties, much less straighten them out. To attempt to do so will weaken the visitor’s own emotional reserves, tempt her to use relief as a club to impose her own ideas on the family and sooner or later will cost her the confidence of the family and reduce her relationship to that of a futile and fumbling meddler in intimate situations which, but for the accident of unemployment distress, she would never even have known about.

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