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Report from Flint, Michigan, November 30, 1934

“Dear Mr. Hopkins”

Notes In the Fall of 1933, Federal Emergency Relief Administration director Harry Hopkins sent sixteen reporters to investigate social and economic conditions around the country. “I don’t want statistics from you,” the journalist Lorena Hickok remembers him saying. ” I don’t want the social-worker angle. I just want your own reactions, as an ordinary citizen.” (Bauman and Coode, p. 1) This is one such report by Louisa Wilson.

For a detailed account of the FERA Reports, see In the Eye of the Great Depression : New Deal Reporters and the Agony of the American People, by John F. Bauman and Thomas H. Coode. (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1988).

Flint, Michigan
November 30, 1934

This is a tough town and has been for years but for this reason some of the effects of relief are more clear because they are more exaggerated. I covered this section alone while Colcord went off to Grand Rapids.

The relief administration, which has a good lay commission, headed by a former general manager for General Motors in Flint, takes a terrible beating from the local political set-up and certain labor leaders. The present “non-partisan” city organization has a city manager faintly reminiscent of Robert Moses. He is a honest, able fellow who will wreck anything he can’t control. To protect his own position since the City appropriates so little for relief he constantly hammers the present relief organization. He welcomes complaints and has a form which he gives the complainants saying that the case of So and So seems to be having bad treatment not because of lack of funds but because of inefficiency. He gives the form to the complainant to be taken over to Victor Woodward, the relief administrator–you remember him, formerly field representative for T.E.R.A. To add to the troubles of the relief administration, the secretary of the local A. F. of L. was formerly employed by the previous political relief administration. Now that he is out of a job he has set up a complaint committee for the labor groups which also welcomes grievances, particularly from families who at present or in the future may belong to the family of the A. F. of L. Fortunately for local public opinion neither the City Manager nor the Labor Secretary have been subtle. The established local newspaper is very sympathetic towards the local administration of relief now, but a new “free-on-your-doorstep” sheet that may become increasingly powerful is championing attacks on relief administration.

Since Flint lives and has its being through General Motors the staggered production-plan, by which fewer families will get work but they have more steady employment, will it is generally agreed make less high peaks in relief but by the same token prevent the minimum drops of last Spring and Summer here.

The tentative production schedules of Buick and Chevrolet, on which Fisher Body and accessory companies depend, are based on “reasonably optimistic” plans. Those two companies expect to employ more than 8,000 less than they did last year at their peaks. Chevrolet, for instance, went up to between 18 and 19,000 last Spring. While now only at 3,900 it expects by the middle of December to have 10,000 employed. By February 1 it expects to have 13,000 employed. It will continue, according to present plans on that schedule.

The Buick schedule, which is lagging just a little, is interesting as compared with 1933.

                     1933                1934    
October       4,339               9,000
November   6,103             10,000
December   9,863              11,000
January      12,841              11,500
February    14,114               11,500
March         12,565              11,500

(Average        9,971              10,750

for six months)

The relief load up to the present has gone over the top with the net increase of cases accepted the largest in history between November 19 and 23, averaging 141 cases a day. This figure is for the County including Flint. The total current load is more than 8,500. In the five day period mentioned 748 new or re-opened cases were accepted while 47 were dropped. Of the total number of cases accepted 319 were brand new cases. It has the relief administration hopping and wondering, but winter is coming on and wide hiring has not begun yet.

I talked to the general mangers or high representatives of the three big branches of the automobile industry in Flint. They were all pretty sympathetic and understanding towards the problems of relief administration, although all had fallen for the high “administrative cost in the country” line. I was particularly amused at Lenz, manager of the Chevrolet factory, who was tearing his hair as I came in and shouted, “I have absolutely no criticism of relief administration in the country or here. I have just been spending 45 minutes explaining to one of our workmen why he can’t get another dollar on his company relief check. You can’t please anybody.”

Lenz, a smart German, seemed to me fairly typical of a well-meaning, intelligent executive who had not thought very deeply about relief. On the whole he said he had confidence in the way the relief job was carried on in Flint. He believes that the pick up in industry in the future will take care of the major part of the relief problem, particularly if the building trades get on their feet which he does not believe will happen without lower hourly rates. I was a little surprised to have him admit that under the seasonal hiring system and the long depression, it is safe to gamble that most of our men have to apply for relief soon after they quit their jobs. Their savings are gone.

“You can see how quickly this relief is making bums out of men by the way they run to apply for it,” he said. The men administering he welfare fund of the Company for which General Motors matches the 22 ¢ a month given by each man were inclined to recommend to the executives that the ownership would find the men less demanding on the fund if it were wholly paid for by the company. This idea is being considered.

Lenz was absolutely firm of the opinion that old age pension and unemployment insurance must be national to be workable. He was “on the fence” about them but optimistic about business prospects. “If our forecasts are right we will have a good summer,” he said.

He labored under the prevailing misconception about the method of paying relief workers and I assured him that while the prevailing wages were maintained that did not mean that those on work relief earned more than their budget needs. “There is no discipline in work relief. It is a loafer’s paradise and the wages are too high. I believe that you must have work relief to keep the men out of trouble but a man on relief work is not giving the same kind of service as contractual labor and the regular union rates are too high. It just keeps the illusion that relief work is a real job.”

Stiffler, the assistant to the top man in General Motors in Flint, was very interested in relief and thoughtful about it. He had served as $1 a year man to re-organize the relief in one of the neighboring counties from political to business basis. “I am not critical,” he said, “because I realize the enormous difficulties in the problem but from my experience I am generally opposed to work relief if some substitute could be found to occupy the unemployed. Work relief is so difficult to control. I can’t believe that for a man to do just something is enough. The educational thing, the recreational and educational angel seems to me the thing that must be developed. A workable plan in education would seem to me fare preferable to work relief. It would give an opportunity to change the view point of the workers.

I don’t feel,” he added, “that the unemployables are a chief problem. No matter how much prosperity there will be a large proportion of permanent indigent in the cards is inevitable.

He with Lenz went out of their way to praise the C. C. C. Camp idea and express the hope that it would be extended.

Parker, manager of Fisher Body, the kind of business man that has golf cups the size of spitoons around him, expressed the opinion that “relief is making them not want to work and that relief ought to be harder to get.” He made several observations, with which I was inclined to agree with him, that relief ought to be made harder to get and that workers were getting more and more dependent on relief. “They consider themselves shareholders in relief,” he said.

The Fisher Factory is now only employing 2400 as compared with a maximum of 6300 last Spring. He believes that on the staggered basis the factory might be able to give steady employment to 4000.

Sticking to the subject of work relief I was interested to hear one of the leading contractors in Flint, an A. F. of L. man, “pooh” at the idea of work relief causing serious competition to private industry. Furthermore he said he believed that work relief wages should be 10 per cent lower than the regular wages as an incentive for men to look for private work.

While in Flint I set in on a meeting of the County-City Commission where they were deciding on the prevailing rate for common labor. Two of the three members of the Commission present said that they believed that $.35 an hour was too high–one of the objectors being a farmer and another a retired multi-millionaire–but the Chairman succeeded in persuading them to accept that price, recommended by the Director and Works Division head. They had asked a rate finding committee to give them information of prevailing rates for labor, and they varied from 29 cents to 50 cents according to the analysis of the Committee. The A. F. of L. member of the rate finding committee refused to sign the report of that committee, saying that he understood that the committee was asked to set rates, not find them. Th divergence in opinion among the small fry of the A. F. of L. is enough to make one’s head ache. Has the big boss of A. F. of L. tried to direct their opinion al all?

The president of the unemployed council at Flint, a work relief client, has “struck,” refusing to work for 35 ¢ an hour. He is making himself a test case.

What to me was of outstanding interest here is the way the unemployed are behaving about relief. The workers on the whole are “hard babies,” the living conditions are bad, the struggle for existence has been terrible even before the depression, but the place is to a certain extent a yardstick of behavior in depressed, deflated conditions.

The Chairman of the relief Commission, formerly a fairly high General Motors executive and now wealthy and retired, estimated that 75 per cent of the relief clients preferred work relief. He also estimated that about 25 per cent of the relief load was not acceptable to industry–and his guess is better than the next fellow’s.

A group of those whom he would call not acceptable to industry, their leader a Robert Young who has been on relief for three years has formed the unemployed council. It is the oldest and strongest of the two outstanding unemployed organized groups. They are motivated little by Communism beyond the fact that they have learned such phrases as “there must be mass treatment” and “if we are not careful we will be reduced to a peon class.” I talked to Young, a tiny, wretched-looking fellow resembling nothing so much as a bright-eyed rat, and he told me that his group felt that relief standards were being lowered, and that his group looking realistically on relief as a program to stay was fighting for more and better relief.

One of the investigators told me that the strength of this council was clinched when it protested successfully against a recent cut. She with another worker in the district where these men come from said that the council was being successful in discouraging other men from working for work relief pay. They also told me that they believed that the protests of the council and the success of the council is spreading the news of “what the other fellow got” resulted in investigators giving more clothing etc. than was needed. “A lot of them are discouraged, demoralized,” they told me. “They are feeling now that the biggest holler gets it and they are using community pressure when they can through the council.”

Strong in the North End, the Council is making many families feel that “public opinion is taking care of me.” Young himself told me that his group had only 300 members although he expected a membership drive to bring it up to 1,000. A recent rival to this council has grown up in another part of the City. This group is being “helpful” to its members, having a mutual sewing circle, house repair committee, etc. in addition to a “united front” against possible cuts.

Leadership of these groups is obviously so feeble but the organizations are so young, and are definitely creating sentiment.

All the workers were unanimous in saying that a large proportion of the relief lists took the “entitled to it” attitude. “The grateful ones are in the minority,” said one to me. I was interested to find that the recent applicants for relief were scornful of the “old-timers” saying such things as they would rather sit at home that work, and “anybody who has been on relief for three years ought to have found something during that time.”

Perhaps the taxi-cab driver I had was right when he answered my question of “Do you think most of the people on relief mind asking for it?” with “Not much.” There are so many variations in relief cases but as a group the “unemployables” are beginning to show a little strength.

I spent a day visiting homes with investigators. They tell me that relief is actually raising standards in some of these shack lives. One of the leading doctors told me that medical care in the City was now better than it had ever been before. In the homes that I visited less than 25 per cent were “unemployables.” All, except a very few, asked for clothing or other articles such as a new stove, that neighbors had received from relief. I certainly had a feeling that few would choose to stay on relief but there was little feeling that it was a painful process to ask for relief.

Out of these visits and others made I am getting an impression that is amounting to an obsession. That is that this “nursemaid,” amateur social work investigating is badly demoralizing. From what I see and hear most of the resistance against applying for relief, which was something of a problem once, has been broken down. Now the problem is to keep them from falling back into a child-like dependency. I could see as I visited that some of the clients worked on the investigator with the same strategy as a child on its parents before Christmas. Such items as clothes, blankets, stoves, and other commodities for which no standard amounts were set were given to the best beggars. There is something revolting about it and encourages the petty cheating that a standard allowance rules out because it is impersonal. One case tried to put over an extra food order for a non-existent brother. That didn’t impress me nearly as much as seeing nice looking young factory families cheating a little for an extra shirt. Relief orders here to date have been delivered but a change is going through requiring the relief applicant to go and get the order. Good.

The greater case with which men and women were asking for relief was shown in such cases as that of a buxom widow who has for years made the struggle of earning her own living by keeping boarders. She recently went on relief–by my standards without the absolute necessity of doing so. It required so little effort to eke our an existence on “welfare.”

“Mass treatment” is what so many of the unemployed say that they want. Workers tell me that the amounts of relief are snowballed into much larger sizes than original needs by men going on the theory demanding what others they know have. My experience with the investigators was to see them parcel out so long as the store was stocked. Most of them haven’t the claibre to make impersonal judgements on grants. Not that I saw any families living on more than a mere subsistence and a bitterly meagre one.

The Youth League in Flint has some thirty members. I went to one of their meeting and while leadership grow from them someday it is not there today. One of the leaders, a young teacher, said that there was considerable discussion and bitterness among some of the children in relief families.

Woodward told me with some pride that recreational facilities in Flint were some of the best in Michigan. The welfare families had shown, however, little interest or perhaps knowledge of their existence. Anyway, he said he felt there was need of some one to promote interest in the families for such opportunities.

I could see little physical suffering, perhaps because the town is used to so little. But morally disintegrating, on the whole unrevolting humanity one did see.


Louisa Wilson

 Source:  Wilson, Louisa, “Report, Flint, Michigan, November 30, 1934,” Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hopkins Papers, Box 66. (June 9, 2014)

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