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Miss Bailey Says…#6

“Miss Bailey Says…” – Practical Advice for Relief Workers in the 1930s #6

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.

Gertrude Springer, author, 
Survey Mid-monthly, August 1933, pp. 277-278.

What can an unskilled home visitor do when she finds that in families where relief is as adequate as conditions permit:

•  Children, under threat of parental whipping, are coming to the office to make special pleas?

•  Children and grown‑ups too are making a practice of begging?

•  Children are being permitted, even sent, to hang around restaurants and explore garbage‑cans?

– – – – – – – – – –

“It’s the little Rossi boy, Miss Bailey, one of Miss Wilson’s families, and he says that his father will whip him if he doesn’t see you.”

Miss Bailey impaled a figure firmly with the point of her pencil and blinked up at her young secretary.

Wife and children of a sharecropper in Washington County, Arkansas. (Circa 1935)
Wife and children of a sharecropper in Washington County, Arkansas. (Circa 1935)

“Rossi? Rossi? Oh, yes, it was the little girl he was going to whip last week, wasn’t it? Well, I suppose we’d better write him a note.” Regretfully she pushed aside the report that had to be finished by noon and thumbed the card‑file. “Here we are. ‘Rossi. Casual laborer. Eight children. Known to social agencies since 1917. See Confidential Exchange report.’ Um‑m. How well I know the Rossis. Take this, please:

Dear Mr. Rossi: We have already explained to you the reason why we cannot discuss your affairs with your children. Miss Wilson will call on you at the usual time this week. If you are in a difficulty that will not wait either you or Mrs. Rossi should come here. Please do not send the children. It is useless.

“Type that right away, please, and give it to the child.”

“Do you think he really will whip the little boy?” The secretary, who was new on the job, lingered a moment.

“I honestly don’t know, Miss Floyd, and even if I did I wouldn’t know what to do about it. He’s probably been whipping his children every day since they could walk and twice on Sundays, and I suspect that the social workers who have known him since 1917 haven’t been able to do much about it either. just sign my name, please, put the carbon on Miss Wilson’s desk and get the child out of the office.”

“And that,” she added to herself as she hunted for the lost figure, “is what they mean by hard‑boiled social worker.”

But the Rossis persisted in slipping in behind Miss Bailey’s concentration, She remembered the family now. She had gone over the record with Miss Wilson the week before when a glib‑tongued, shrewd‑eyed girl of fourteen had tried her best to stage a scene in the office. Always on the ragged edge of dependency, frequently slipping over, the Rossis had shopped the social resources of the city for sixteen years and then resisted them. Settlements, churches, clinics, family societies had been in and out of the Rossi tenement and were no longer interested.

FSA office, winter attire – A visitor to the office looks intently as the worker helps complete paperwork.
FSA office, winter attire – A visitor to the office looks intently as the worker helps complete paperwork. Library of Congress (1939)

“And then I expect little Miss Wilson to make a model relief family out of them.” Miss Bailey snapped off the point of her pencil and didn’t care. “Miss Wilson, who never heard of case work till last winter, and never set foot in a school of social work. But I expect her to pick up the pieces that our gilt‑edged social agencies have dropped. And she is just the kind of a girl who will wear herself out trying, Lord love her.”

Reaching for a memo pad she wrote hastily:

Dear Miss Wilson: Don’t worry about the Rossis. It’s of no real importance if the children come to the office. We can always send them home again. Be sure you take them their food order on the tick, let them talk as much as you possibly have time for, and make the children’s lives more bearable in any way you can. I know you’ll be kind, but don’t worry about them. A. R. B.

“Oh, Miss Floyd, please pin this memo to the Rossi note on Miss Wilson’s desk‑and try to give me a clear half‑hour on this report.”

There is no doubt that the emergency relief organizations have inherited from the private family societies a good many cases that, alas, are not emergency and never have been, families that have been “on the charities” for years, that have baffled case committees ever since those excellent institutions were conceived. Family societies would be little less than human if in times like these, with “hopeful” cases crowding their doorsteps, they did not shift over to the broad shoulders of emergency relief some of those problems which have denied their best efforts.


“I have no quarrel with the agencies that transfer their chronic dependents to us,” said the head of a city department. “I’m not saying that the patient, painstaking methods of skilled case work might not win out at long last, but as a practical person as well as an old case worker I feel that at this time we simply cannot afford to expend that kind of service on what we must admit are unpromising prospects. I do not propose that this department should be made a dumping ground for other people’s failures, but when about all anyone can do is to pity and to feed, probably it is our job.

“My quarrel is with thoughtless people who get hold of a story or two of charity-scarred rounders and generalize volubly about the ingratitude of the unemployed. For every family that is demanding, and what my mother used to call do-less, we have a hundred who are responsive and resourceful, incredibly patient with our poor fumbling efforts, and much too grateful for the little we can do for them. But it is the handful of old‑timers that the public hears most about. It is they who write letters to the mayor, or better to President Roosevelt, who pour their grievances into the ears of the newspaper sob-sisters and who dry up the milk of human kindness in the new investigator who hasn’t much experience in the infinite manifestations of human nature. “Take begging for instance. One of my good young workers came in yesterday ready to quit her job because two little boys in one of her families were making a business of begging on the street, and she strongly suspects the mother of a similar sideline with the added scenery of a babe-in-arms. She had argued, cajoled, threatened and extorted Bible promises. But the minute her back was turned they were at it again. And she didn’t know what to do about it.

Clients listen to a presentation about relief plans for their community.
Clients listen to a presentation about relief plans for their community. Library of Congress (1938)

“Well, neither did I. Every case worker has known such families. In the old days when community resources were less overtaxed than now, other agencies would have been able to help, but far be it from me to claim that we would have been a hundred percent successful. The best advice I could give this girl was to keep on doing her best, get all the help she could from other agencies, and not to give up. She found this family encrusted with habits which her brief contacts could not possibly change. The best thing she could do, it seemed to me, was to face the thing clearly but unrancorously with the family, to try to find out what they thought about themselves and their situation, and to be everlastingly opportunist in seizing on any opening to exert her influence. To withdraw relief would only make bigger and better beggars of them all and kill a contact which some time may count for something. To strike back at a family that resists us is to be as stupid as the man who kicks his car because it won’t start.”

The worker who depends on threats and scoldings to stop the exploiting of children by their parents is, supervisors agree, wasting her breath. “If you do that again I’ll have the policeman arrest you,” just makes the business more exciting. “We can’t expect the police to do our bullying for us.” To tell parents that “the society” will take their children away from them if they don’t behave is to set up a defiance that will frustrate future efforts. There are times when the law must be used, sharply and decisively — the supervisors know when and how –“but a threat of the law which we have no real intention of following up, as our clients probably know as well as we do, only belittles us and weakens our hand.”

“We have acquired a philosophy — maybe it’s a protective crust about begging,” says the supervisor of a midwest city district. “Honestly there is very little we can do about it except to keep on trying. As a matter of fact our most humiliating trouble is not begging but garbage-picking from the dozens of cheap restaurants round about. Here my immediate concern is less with garbage‑picking per se than with our inexperienced workers whose disgust and discouragement with one garbage-picking family is liable to harden their attitude toward all their other families. These people have no right to be classed as unemployed. They are the stubborn sediment of our city life, the perennial despair of social workers. To label them as ‘the unemployed’ and to mix them up even in our minds with the great mass of upright, cruelly hurt people whom we are trying to keep going is to do a serious injustice. I certainly won’t let these people starve, but I won’t spend too much time on them nor let them wear down the spirits of my workers.

“Of course, the relief we are giving these families is thin enough, but the fact remains that for everyone that is using its thinness as all excuse for begging and garbage picking, hundreds are managing with such decency and self‑respect that I bow my head before them. Perhaps if we could give more adequate food allowances ‑‑ perhaps if we couId make these families the special chage of our most skilled workers ‑‑ I’m sure I don’t know. Our past record with this problem is not very brilliant.”

A visitor to the office looks intently as the worker helps complete paperwork.
A visitor to the office looks intently as the worker helps complete paperwork. Library of Congress (1939)

In another district which reluctantly admits to a quota of beggars and garbage‑pickers, the supervisor urges the workers to keep on trying to do something about it. “Perhaps a little fresh imagination will get us somewhere,” she says cheerfully. “One of our visitors is sure that if she takes the line that the parents hate begging and garbage‑picking as much as she does, and keeps steadfastly on their side, trying to help them find a way to avoid it, that she’ll bring them around. And maybe she will. Another always drops casually into every interview a colorful story of someone poisoned by spoiled food, or of some sodden old beggar being dragged off by the police ‑‑ ‘Just think, he was once a nice little chap like your Johnny.’ A third is trying to work out a sort of visiting‑housekeeper arrangement among her families, getting a woman who manages particularly well on the grocery order to neighbor with the one who can’t manage at all, and to show her how to do it. It might work. It’s worth trying.

“These approaches seem to me much more hopeful than attempts to treat begging children by ‘running them in’ or by trying to stop garbage‑picking by removing the garbage. One of our visitors had a brief triumph when she persuaded a restaurant keeper whose refuse barrels were highly popular, to sprinkle them with lime before putting them out. But he was a soft‑hearted soul who made a virtue of his soft‑heartedness. A week later, passing that way, she saw him carefully topping a barrel of scraps with a wedge of quite inviting pie and a couple of not‑so‑very‑spotted grapefruit. And just around the corner were a couple of urchins waiting to pounce.”

Social workers came through long and painful experience to the realization that you can’t change people’s ways by order, by threat or by bribe. But to guide, to lead, to suggest incentives is a slow process which in the pressure of the moment is a practical impossibility even if the patient skills were available.

“We cannot keep people from exploiting their children in dangerous demoralizing ways, but we can try to find out why they do it and perhaps when we know why, we’ll be more helpful. We know it is not want alone that makes them so poor in spirit, dire as that want may be. It is something more that we must search for, but while we search we must keep perspective on our whole job of which this is only a small part, we must keep ourselves from getting either emotional or hard‑boiled and most especially we must not try to take the whole world on our shoulders.”

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

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