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“Miss Bailey Says…” – Practical Advice for Relief Workers in the 1930s #8
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, October 1933, pp. pp. 347-348
Families with bank accounts, families with cars, families never before touched by social agencies, now figure large in the “relief population” of these United States. How the new problems they bring, rarely encountered by case workers of a few years ago, are being treated, how workers without extensive training are being prepapred to meet situations calling for quick and discriminating judgment, are the subjects of a series of Survey articles, of which this is the eighth, drawn from day-to-day experience in busy relief offices.
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”Well, all I have to say is that it’s a darned poor rule.”
The young relief worker, tense and a little defiant glared at Miss Bailey as though it were all her fault. “Why it just doesn’t make sense. Here’s this Martin family, just as nice a they can be, all ten of
’em, from Gramma down to baby. Three years there’s been no regular work‑just the measliest sort of odd jobs. And some way they got along till six months ago. And what they’ve done with the ten dollars a week we’ve put in there! That Mrs. Martin is a wonder. Then because 1, like a fool, get busy and turn tip that miserable little bank balance Of $23‑47, this rule says we’ve got to cut off relief till it’s used up. Well, somebody else can tell them, not me.”
Miss Bailey tapped her pencil meditatively on her desk pad.
“You didn’t think it was such a bad rule last month when you discovered what old Bud Simmons had been putting over on you. As $2000I remember, you were all for sending him to jail.”
“But Miss Bailey, that was different. That was more than $3000 and the whole family was out to do us and we knew it. But the Martins aren’t like that. This $23 is the last scrap of nearly $2000 they had saved up when Mr. Martin lost his job. Mrs. Martin says, ‘I think it’s kept me from going crazy.’ And what earthly good will it do to make them eat it up! It’ll only last two weeks and we’ll be right back where we are now. Oh, I think relief does terrible things to people.”
“And you’re Just finding that out?” Miss Bailey’s twisted smile was testimony to long and weary experience.
“But why do we have to have such iron‑clad rules? Old Simmons was a liar and a cheat. Mr. Martin is a square, self‑respecting man. Yet we have to treat them both alike. Why can’t we treat each cast, the way it deserves?”
“Why indeed!” replied Miss Bailey. “But given the rule, hadn’t you and I better be thinking how we can live with it instead of getting all hot and bothered?”
“Somebody else can tell them, not me. It just isn’t fair!”
“Granted. But surely it will be harder for the Martins to take this from a stranger than from you who know and respect them. And after all you don’t have to do it with a club. They got their food order yesterday, you say, so you have nearly a week to turn around in. Surely you can put it to the Martins that now is the time to invest that $25 in things the family needs that we can’t possibly supply. I’ll bet at least three of those children need shoes. How are their rubbers for the winter? Didn’t you tell me that gramma had broken her glasses? If they spend their money within a reasonable time on things like that I don’t see that we have any quarrel, do you? Why don’t you go to the Martins and have a straight business talk with them‑and for Heaven’s sake don’t get emotional.”
“And that I suppose,” said Miss Bailey to herself as the door closed behind her visitor, “is compounding a felony or being accessory to the crime — or something. Yes, relief does terrible things to people, even to social workers.”
There is something about the idea of families on relief having bank accounts, however vestigial, that the public cannot apparently endure. The rare case of some slick rascal who gets his family on relief while he still keeps his own sizeable hoard intact is always good for newspaper headlines if not for a public scandal. It is this occasional grafter who is responsible for the rigidity of rules which “just don’t make sense” and which, in the opinion of those close-in to their administration, work unnecessary humiliation on numbers of sincere, self‑respecting people helpless in the cogs of the great relief machine.
Take for instance the rule in an up-state New York city. If a family has “fraudulently obtained aid,” — and that literally construed means concealing any bank account whatsoever — the City Court will order the head of the family to reimburse the Department for whatever amount of relief the family received, but the head of the family may be given the alternative of serving time in the penitentiary. In either event, after the head of the family makes restitution in cash, which exhausts his resources, or if he goes to prison leaving the family without adequate support, the Department is still liable for the support of the family.
The application of this rule to the Martin family would have obliged Mr. Martin to hand over his residual $23.47 to the public department or go to jail, though in neither case would it have made the slightest difference to the status of his family on the relief roll. Its one accomplishment would have been to turn the knife in the wound of his humiliation.
“We do not quarrel with the principle that families should use their own resources before they ask for public aid,” said the supervisor of a big city district with twenty years of case work behind her. “We believe that the principle should stand and the application be a matter of adjustment to the individual case. If our families knew in the beginning that this was a principle to be applied reasonably and not as a rigid rule they would have much less incentive to lie about the last remnant of their savings and we should be able to establish a much better relationship with them. But since we have the rule on the books, the best we can do is to make the inquiry and the subsequent check-up on bank accounts as routine and business-like as possible.
“We try our best to have our investigators avoid pressure and veiled threats where they suspect hidden resources, while they explain that in the present situation relief cannot be given while resources remain and that just as an employer checks up on references or a store on its charge accounts, we must ask their statements. It’s all just as straight and simple and direct as we can make it, and nine times out of ten the client meets its on that ground.
“We check every application by virtue of a highly confidential arrangement with the banks — and that, if you please is an anomaly that I won’t dwell on now — and, though it goes against my grain, I’m inclined to think that, in a relief operation as wholesale as this one, it is a good procedure.
“Of course, the overwhelming majority of the applicants haven’t and never had a bank account, but this routine check-up has uncovered two or three instances of just plain intent to defraud, and a few more where the bank balance was still substantial enough to keep the family going a little while longer. There have been enough of these to indicate that the lists should be checked. The puzzlers, however, are the tiny balances, anything from two dollars up to fifty, according to the standard of the family, that represent a last shred of security and that are so blindly and often stubbornly clung to that to force them out is to put a family into complete panic.
“The attitude of the worker is, of course, the key to dealing with these situations. We had one girl who was certainly born to be a detective. The way she could run down a three dollar bank balance would have been a credit to a bloodhound. So far as any Construction friendly service to the families was concerned she might as well have gone around with a gun on her hip. Of course, such a relationship is just a battle of wits in which the worker is the foreordained loser.
“Then we had another girl who got herself all mixed up emotionally with the families whenever she had to deal with things like bank balances. I guess they all cried together. We had to let her go, too. She thought I was a hard‑boiled she‑devil.
“The good worker in such situations is, of course, completely objective and business‑like. Theoretically, she should in the first home interview or two so gain the understanding of the family that the reticent little bank account would come out of its own accord. But at a point where our most skilled workers may easily fail, I don’t hold it against the unskilled if the bank account stays in hiding. But I do hold it against them if they try to get it out by bullying or big‑sticking. Much better, let it come out by the routine check with the banks and then proceed without recriminations, but with a lot of common sense.
“People can be more hurt and their candor more completely quenched by a high‑handed attitude toward an insignificant bank account than by almost anything I know. In the cases we are talking about the amount is negligible in relation to the whole situation of the family, rarely enough to carry them more than a week or two. Yet there it is, and there is the rule. The fact that the client has lied to us has nothing to do with the matter. The need of the family and the best use of all available resources is what concerns us. Our good workers simply pass over the lie, assume that the few dollars left in the bank are a family resource and in a perfectly matter‑of‑fact way plan with the family to use them, so long as they last, for small necessities that our help does not provide.
“Of course, it doesn’t always work ‑‑ usually, but not always. We get men to whom a bank book is more than their religion, hysterical wornen who would see their children wither up and die before they would close out a ten dollar balance. I suppose sometimes we blink realities when Mrs. Jones shows us her cancelled book and we know perfectly well that that last $8.43 is under the paper in the bureau drawer and likely to remain there. But we just can’t and don’t keep arguing about it.”
One of the curious aspects of the great mass unemployment relief operation of the past three years, still euphemistically called emergency, has been the unwillingness of new relief organizations to profit from the experience of others. Social workers experienced in dealing with families in trouble have long known the futility of trying to apply rigid rules indiscriminately and have learned the high human cost of broken self‑respect. Yet as new direction has come forward, state after state has laid down rules and regulations that perhaps its very next‑door neighbor had tried and discarded. So the commissary came and went, but not before many thousands of people suffered hardship and humiliation while officials were learning that relief didn’t have to be given that way. State administrations with a year or two of experience have modified their original dictum that no one possessed of a car can get relief. Yet Kansas only last month ruled that no one who drives a car or goes to the movies is eligible for relief. Bank accounts are still subject to rigid rules, though little by little experience and common sense are modifying their enforcement.
A social worker translated last year from a large private agency into a still larger public department, summed up the conclusions of many of equal experience when she said:
“Agencies, public or private, must have clearly established policies in regard to all these matters of property, but they should be general policies and not detailed rules. Within these policies the individual worker must be free to operate to the best of her ability. She must have a policy to guide her, but it must have a certain degree of “give” in its application. And some way our American public must come to realize that the great mass of people now receiving help cannot and should not be regimented by rules that have their source in the Elizabethan concept of pauperism. It is inconceivable that in this day and age we should insist on relief that degrades before it relieves.”
Source: Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries: www. special.lib.umn.edu/