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Miss Bailey Says…#9

“Miss Bailey Says…” – Practical Advice for Relief Workers in the 1930s #9

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, November 1933, pp. 376-377

What shall the home visitor do about:

•  The unemployed son of the house who brings home an unemployed bride?

•  The girl who holds out her slender earnings from the family budget and takes title to a cheap fur coat the day the family is dispossessed?

•  The able-bodied youth who refused to go to a reforestation camp and who has since kept himself in cigarettes by bartering the tidbits of the family grocery order?

•  The mother who persistently and successfully connives to swap essentials of the food order for cream to satisfy the “weak stummick” of her 200-pound son?

•  The mother who supports her stalwart eldest in his refusal to take a job that requires him to get up at six o’clock in the morning?

– – – – – – – – – –

Just the way the tele­phone rang warned Miss Bailey of bad news. And yet, could such a joyous “‘Scuse me, Miss!” be a forerunner? “It’s Miz Muller, an’ I spend a whole nickel to tell you the news. My big boy Adolf gave us big surprise. A wife! Ja, ja, a wife. A lofely girl. She ain’t got no job poor thing, an’ you know about my Adolf, such bad luck, poor boy. But, my Got how they lof each other. An’ now,” in­terlude of giggling, “maybe some day I get to be gross­mama.”

By the time Miss Bailey had noncommittally wished every­body good luck she had found the Muller’s card. Husband deserted. . . five children headed by Adolf aged twenty. . . relief off and on for three years,-mostly on, occasionally off when Adolf picked up garage jobs, or Mrs. Muller got a little cleaning work. No security, no anything. And now, a bride — and everybody happy. What a world!

Female worker helping a client with government loan accounting matters.
Female worker helping a client with government loan accounting matters. Library of Congress

Before she could write herself a reminder to speak to the Muller’s home visitor in burst that young woman herself, fire in her eye. “Wa-ait a minute,” Miss Bailey stopped her. “If it’s about Adolf Muller I know it already and I think it’s just as unreasonable as you do.”

“Well, I’m going over there this minute, and what I’m going to tell that Adolf! I don’t care if he has been a good son. This is just too much. And if they think they’re going to get their grocery order increased for this hussy they’ve another guess coming.”

“Is she a hussy? Do you know her?” put in Miss Bailey mildly.

“Never laid eyes on her. But it stands to reason, doesn’t it ?”

“I don’t know. So few things stand to reason these days. Maybe she’s just a girl who has grown up in the depression, like Adolf. I remember what Jane Addams said, ‘Young people who have grown to thinking years since 1929 be­lieve that things will go on as they are and they are hope­less and bewildered.’ I don’t believe we can blame them very much if they begin to snatch at life. Do you?”

“But Miss Bailey, would you really increase the grocery order?”

“I don’t know. I might. I’d find out more about it first. Perhaps the girl’s family is on relief in another district, and one order can be reduced as the other is increased. But let’s get the facts first, and let’s remember that while the Muller’s economic life has been out of joint their emo­tional life has gone along naturally. Adolf has been brought up to expect to marry at twenty or twenty-one. He’s all ready for it. His mother is all set for a grandchild. It’s rather nice isn’t it, that in such a situation as this they can all be so happy. There’s something so normal about it, even if it isn’t sensible. Life just does go on.” :

The younger woman turned to go, but Miss Bailey had not finished.

“I remember a young couple — it was my first year in case work — they had been married a year, no children. He had no job and the only ­way their families would help was to take them back, but separately. I used the power ­I had to make them go — and I was terribly wrong. Let’s not use our power now to spoil what may be the salvation of Adolf, — just the incentive he needs — though I shouldn’t have prescribed it. And even if the girl is just a tiny bit hussy, that’s not our trouble. We don’t have to live with her.”

People with fixed ideas on the duties of children are hav­ing some rude shocks these days when every once in a while a girl or boy weighted down by the hopelessness of the home situation, reaches out and snatches at something to make life more endurable to him. The wandering young people of the road are recruited – in part from those who have escaped from family burdens too heavy for them. More often the rebellion comes in the form of personal indulgences which spell disillusion and irritation to those who are always sure of “what I would do in his place.”

A worker sorts out the application process with a family.
A worker sorts out the application process with a family. Library of Congress

“Young people are more and more restless as the depression drags on,” says the supervisor of a big city district who for three years has watched the gradual emotional ferment that relief as a way of life engenders. “The sense of duty of girls and boys whose slender earnings are swallowed up by their families’ necessities is beginning to wear down. ‘What am I getting out of it?’ they ask. ‘Three meals a day, if you want to call them that, and a dispossess at the end of the month. I’m willing to work, and I’m sorry for Pop and Mom, but gosh, is it going to be like this all my life?’ ­

“We are finding that we cannot put too much pressure on young people to pool all their earnings in the family budget. They just won’t stand it. They either rebel or else lose the incentive to work and quit. We had one girl whose nine dollars a week was for three years the only income of a family of five. We helped a little. Then a widowed sister and her baby came along and we put in a small regular grocery order. But the girl quit. We talked to her as sympathetically as we knew how but she was completely beaten. All she would say was, “Oh, what’s the use anyway?”

“Then we had another girl whose earnings were supposed to pay the rent, and everything but the food for a family of six. We weren’t just satisfied with the way things were going — but you know how it is these days, the workers have so many families to visit. Then, one cold day, word came that the family was dispossessed. The worker came back, fairly boiling over. The girl, the one earner in the family, had strolled in on the proceedings all done up in a new fur coat.

“I had the girl in here that night, fur coat and all, to talk it over. She was pretty sulky at first, but when she found that we weren’t disposed to eat her alive she finally talked. It seems that her boy friend had invited her to a football game. He was a very grand boy friend and she was none too sure of him. The family had been dispossessed before — that didn’t represent very much to her. But the boy friend, and the coat apparently would make her status with him secure, was her only hope of escape from what seemed to her a life sentence. Her story and her surprise at our willingness to listen and not scold, showed us what poor case work we had been doing. We had taken no account whatever of that girl as a human being. The upshot of it was that we worked out with her a new budget for the family, which left her with responsibility but not an un­endurable burden. The fur coat? Of course she kept it. The payments were part of the budget. And what’s more, she got her man.

“We have a diamond-ring in one of our families, such a little bit of a diamond, but it has a whole tenement-house by the ears. It belongs to a young widow forced to return to her family, none of them ‘in work.’ If that little ring has been reported to us once it’s been reported a dozen times. It’s gotten to be as big as the Kohinoor. The girl is bound to keep it and the neighbors are bound she shall sell it. Fortunately we have a worker on the case who realizes that the ring, which the family would eat up in a week, is to the girl the symbol of her whole emotional life, of the married status and of an independence which she once had and may have again. She still has her diamond, thank goodness, but a tigress defending its young has nothing on her.”

But the divine right of youth to some degree of self-ex­pression becomes sullied sometimes by what bears the marks of just plain selfishness. Doting mothers, as every one knows, can ruin children whatever their walk in life, and when dotingness is mixed with relief the home visitor, be she ever so objective, is apt to get into family situations that strain her patience.

“Mother love is fearful and wonderful,” said the super­visor of a city district with a large foreign-speaking ele­ment, “and it came out in its full glory when the boys were recruited for the reforestation camps. We didn’t blame the boys who refused to go — it was the mothers who wouldn’t reason an inch — just wailed, ‘My Abie can’t stand wet feet,’ or, ‘My Carlo don’t want to leave his mama, do you Car­lino?’ One of our workers came in the other day ready to commit mayhem or something because she had discovered that some Abie who couldn’t leave his mama was keeping himself in cigarettes by trading off the jam and oranges from the food order, and that some mama had been for weeks conniving with the grocer to swap parts of the food order for cream for the ‘weak stummick’ of her 200-pound Carlo. Well there just wasn’t anything we could do about it. In our hurried contacts we can’t make over the mamas and the Abies and the Carlos of this world. Maybe Carlo does have a ‘weak stummick’ — we haven’t time to find out. And probably Abie’s cigarettes bring a peace to the house­hold that is worth the tidbits they cost. Anyway the fami­lies have to work these things out for themselves. We can’t do it for them.”

Worker explains a potential relief program to a visitor in the local office.
Worker explains a potential relief program to a visitor in the local office. Library of Congress (1939)

Selfish sons and doting mamas would be a compar­atively simple problem of relief discipline were it not for others in the family.

“We have to consider the whole family and its needs, not just one spoiled member,” said a supervisor in a mid­western city, “and we must remember the constant factor of family loyalties. If a family thinks we’re picking on one of them, no matter how much they pick themselves, they stand as a block against our every effort. I remember when we landed a job for Mrs. Arden’s oldest, Wullie she called him. It wasn’t such a wonderful job, he had to get up at six in the morning for it, but a lot better than nothing. And would WulIie take it? He would not, nor would his mother turn a hand to make him. Said Wullie always had a head­ache if he got up before eight. We felt there was more back of it than that, but the whole family turned on us and we could never get an explanation. Of course if it had been just WulIie and his mother we would have let them figure out a way of living without us. But there was a half-blind father and four younger children, and we couldn’t punish them by cutting off the food order, could we? Even to reduce it by Wullie’s share would have hurt them more than it hurt Wullie. But some day a nine-to-five job will come along and then we’ll have something to say to Mr. Wullie. But I wonder if there’ll be anything we can really do about it even then.”

Social workers to whom mass relief has brought abun­dant evidence of the infinite variability of human nature are agreed that if there is one thing this old world needs more than economic security it is grown-up emotions. The long ordeals of unemployment and relief have revealed a world of family solidarity and devotion but they have shown up too many sins of undiscipline and unreason. “What we need to do as soon as we get the depression attended to,” say the social workers, “is to train up a whole new generation of parents who will neither exploit nor pamper their young. But just now there is very little we can do about parent-­child relationships except to be as understanding as God gives us to be and to let them alone.”

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