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Miss Bailey Says…#3

“Miss Bailey Says…” – Practical Advice for Relief Workers in the 1930s #3

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 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.






Family of coal miner in West Virginia.
Family of coal miner in West Virginia. (Circa 1935)

By Gertrude Springer
Survey Mid-monthly , May 1933, pp. 182-183.

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

The family on relief that she “catches” filing into the movie theater?
The girl in the family who blossoms out with a new permanent wave?
The family that, at the morning call, was in rags and despair, and is all dressed up and going to a party when she returns at night with a food order?
The family that supports a man‑sized dog?
– – – – – – – – – –

“I saw them with my own eyes, Miss Bailey, every last one of them from Mr. Zimmerman down, filing into the movies.” Miss Bailey drew lop‑sided flower‑pots on her memo pad as she listened to the excited voice on the telephone. “They’re one of my best families I visit them every week. I just happened to be passing the movie – they didn’t see me. I’m in a drug‑store now. I wouldn’t have believed they’d lie to me about not having any money. What had I better do?”

“Did they really lie or did they just not tell you, and what had you thought of doing?” Miss Bailey fingered the Z’s in the card file on he desk and drew out the short and simple annals of the Zimmerman family. Mechanic, two years unemployed; mother, occasional cleaning jobs; four young children; no resources; weekly grocery order “No‑o‑o,” judicially, “I don’t believe I’d wait for them to come out Those shows run two hours, don’t they? Suppose you just go on with your work and we’ll talk it over tomorrow. Oh, by the way, your friend Miss Thompson left a message. Someone gave her seats for the McCormick concert tonight and you are to call her up if you can go Yes, it certainly is nice. Enjoy yourself.”

“And I hope some big hard‑boiled taxpayer doesn’t catch a fifteen dollar‑a‑week city investigator sitting in a five‑dollar concert seat,’ she added grimly after the receiver was safely up.

But the Zimmerman’s refused to stay in that compartment of Miss Bailey’s mind reserved for tomorrow’s troubles. Again she looked a the card. In six months the welfare had paid their rent just once, yet no one was disturbed because they kept a roof over their heads. The still seemed to have gas for cooking though the welfare paid no gas bills. “It’s just pleasure they mustn’t be resourceful about,” she mused.

It is often startling to an inexperienced investigator to discover that “the poor” still have a taste for pleasure and a considerable resourcefulness in finding it for themselves. Pre‑depression case work aware of the uses of recreation in sustaining family morale, encouraged initiative in simple pleasure‑seeking and counted an occasional movie as a necessary family expenditure. But shrinking funds and lengthening relief rolls have pruned away every expenditure not necessary to bare subsistence while the pressure for economy has spread public disapproval over even the appearance of indulgence. Hence a fifteen‑cent movie becomes a major luxury, a hair wave an evidence of deceit and the family dog a suspicious character.

A black mother and her children spending time together; one of the families who received relief amidst pervasive discrimination by color in efforts to aid those in need.
A black mother and her children spending time together; one of the families who received relief amidst pervasive discrimination by color in efforts to aid those in need. Library of Congress

“Our new workers,” said the head of a small‑city public‑welfare department with a long private‑agency experience behind her, “represent pretty definitely our community thinking, set in the old pattern of poor relief unadjusted to the present situation and to the kind of people who now come to us for help. At first they lean heavily on policies and want rules for everything. But as they become aware of how rarely rules fit individual cases they fall into confusion, afraid to give relief, afraid to withhold it, wanting to be kind but mistrusting their own judgments. Their next stage is, it seems to me, a reflection of the quality of their agency. I believe that new workers take on the character of the agency and the attitude of their supervisors. We can never transmit to them attitudes we do not have ourselves. If the new worker feels in the organization a warm and friendly interest in clients, tolerance and sympathy for people in trouble, she is pretty likely to feel the same way.

But the necessity for economy in the use of funds is so emphasized that it is small wonder that new workers get the idea that ability to keep relief down is the major criterion of performance. The lowest relief -‑ the best worker. This makes a worker afraid to recognize the full needs of families and to take cognizance of differing elements in differing situations. Somehow or other we have to help workers to face these needs frankly with their families even though we cannot meet them all.

“Ordinarily our petty tyrannies arise from fear or ignorance or both. The worker who is herself uncertain of agency backing is likely to reflect that insecurity by panicky and arbitrary dealings with her families. Here we get back to the supervisor and the need for a full measure of reassurance and backing from her. The supervisor should carry in her kit a sense of humor, a light touch and an ability to understand why a permanent wave might seem to a girl more useful in getting her where she wants to go than a payment on the rent. And of course friends will sometimes give a girl the price of a permanent when they won’t pay the rent, and I have even heard of practice permanents, though I have never had one. At least the girl’s version of how she got it is entitled to credence until other and more definite signs of opulence show themselves to our weather eye. If the first investigation was right in establishing the family’s need for relief, a stray permanent, unsupported by other evidence of affluence, seems unimportant in relation to the whole situation and nothing to make into an issue.

“Of course we have our troubles about movies. I remember a I flurry over a family that went regularly once a week, all eight of them, and were as regularly reported to this office by jealous neighbors. We were morally certain that the family had no hidden income of $1.20 a week for movies or anything else. The worker’s most tactful approaches to the subject were met by complete reticence. Finally she went to the movie herself on the family’s regular night and waited near the entrance. Sure enough, here they came, with bright and shining faces. She took a nearby seat, waved a cheerful greeting and at the end of the picture went out with them, chatting about the glamorous heroine. At her next visit to the home the story came out. The father had made a dicker with the theater management for three hours’ work a week in exchange for the family admission. Fearful of losing the privilege to competitive neighbors, he had sworn the whole family to secrecy.

“Of course it doesn’t always turn out that way. Another of on families, seemingly without resources, were such inveterate movie goers that we finally told them we should have to make a reinvestigation. Among other things, we discovered that the father was not only a relative of the house‑manager but that the manager actually owed him money on an old debt and was paying it off with free tickets. In both cases a knowledge of facts was the answer; in the one the facts showed the movie indulgence entirely justified and the reticence warranted, in the other the facts showed up natural resources which automatically removed the family from the relief rolls. Facts, all the facts, are the only foundation for fairness in relief administration.

Fantastic as it may seem in a big city, dogs are a real problem to small‑town relief workers. In a Massachusetts town the public‑welfare director issued a formal order that the unemployed receiving city aid must choose between their dogs and their weekly checks. “We’ve found that many dogs eat as much as a child, and the bigger dogs eat more than a child.”

“We don’t go as far as that,” commented a worker in a Pennsylvania mining town, “but we do try to persuade our families to give up all but one dog. Occasionally when dogs outnumber the members of the family we exert pressure, but I suspect that we only encourage a sort of dog bootlegging. The total dog population does not seem to decrease. We don’t set up a special item in the budget for the dog but generally we regard him as one of the family, taking his chances along with the rest and perhaps doing a little backdoor panhandling on his own account. I can think of no quicker way to lose the confidence of a family and to invite deceit than to use the power of the food order to force it to give up its pet, regardless of the size of his appetite.”

Professional doing a house visit with a couple and their young children.
Professional doing a house visit with a couple and their young children. Library of Congress

In the old days minor indulgences for families on relief were no problem to a case worker, public or private. She used them now and then for her own purposes ‑‑ a night at the movies for family solidarity, the makings of a modest party dress for youthful feminine morale. But with unemployment bringing to public relief thousands of families as habituated to movies and to silk stockings as to bread and butter, the whole matter takes on complications which call for a large degree of patience and understanding.

“Workers who come to us without any very wide experience outside their own circle are often amazed and a little shocked to find that the unemployed do not put in all their time being miserable,” said the supervisor of a city relief district. “We old‑timers have learned the enormous resourcefulness and resilience of people and we marvel and rejoice at the courage that will dress up for a party in the few decent clothes saved from the wreck of the past. Any spark of gay spirit that these people have preserved through the troubles and defeats they have undergone should, it seems to me, be blown on and not trampled out. To use the power of the food order to discourage normal sociability and pride in personal appearance is to beat down the family in its struggle to maintain its own standards.

“One of our visitors came in at the end of her first day in the district to report that a certain woman on relief was washing her curtains.

“‘We only allow her one bar of soap a week,’ she said. ‘I told her she didn’t have to use it up on the curtains, in fact she didn’t have to have curtains at all.’

“‘Was the woman herself dirty?’ I asked. ‘Were the children dirty? if she had taken down the curtains or left them dirty would the family have needed less food? No? Then why not let her have clean curtains if she can manage it all on one bar of soap? Pretty smart of her it seems to me.’

“Another young visitor was scandalized when one evening she found a girl starting to a party in a pink chiffon dress ‘every bit as good as one I have myself.’ The girl’s uncertain earnings of two or three dollars a week were the last vestige of income for a family of seven. The dress, it turned out, had survived from the days when the family income was seventy dollars a week, twelve of which the girl earned. If, burdened and discouraged as she was, she could find any release in dressing up in her old finery, more power to her. Certainly it did not change the family situation.”

A lively discussion between a worker and his client over lots of paperwork.
A lively discussion between a worker and his client over lots of paperwork. Library of Congress (1939)

Supervisors with a full measure of current experience say that dictatorial, censorious attitudes on the part of visitors toward small indulgences by families that have hitherto made their own choices in life inevitably result in a contest of wills and wits in which the visitor, even armed with a grocery order, is the fore‑ordained loser. A good worker will discuss with the family its own strategy and luck in getting these things for itself. She will not accept a permanent wave or an occasional movie spree as sufficient evidence to overturn her initial judgment on the family’s need for help. If the luck seems too recurrent or the strategy a little too good to be true, a new investigation is indicated with the family told frankly why it is made.

“The worker who travels along with her families treating them not with the blanket formula, ‘It’s against the rules,’ but with the candid explanations due to reasonable people, will seldom need to resort to an ultimatum or to use the food order as a club to knock out the few remaining personal choices that unemployment has left to its victims.”

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

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