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Social Worker and the Depression

The Social Worker and the Depression

June Purcell Guild

Editor’s Note: June Purcell Guild (1888-1966) was a distinguished social worker, attorney and author.  A native of Columbus, Ohio she received her undergraduate degree from Ohio State University and her law degree from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.  She practiced law in Columbus and Kansas City, Mo.  Later, while living in Richmond, Virginia she was admitted to practice before the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court.

 She was married to Arthur Alden Guild and lived for 35 years in Richmond, VA. Among the books she wrote were: “Living with the Law,” “Civil Rights Versus States Rights,” Black Laws of Virginia,” and with her husband, “Social Work Engineering.”  Mrs. Guild also directed the Negro Welfare Survey of Richmond.

The United States leads the world in the number and activities of its gangsters, racketeers, and social workers. It has the highest murder rate and owns the most motor cars. It outranks, in natural resources, wealth, and productivity, any other country, not even excepting huge, rapidly developing Russia. Not to be edged out of its firsts, the United States has more unemployed workers than any other nation and easily leads in expenditures for private benevolence and social work. For the present year, the fourth since the great crash, $97,945,148 was raised by 320 community chests throughout the country. It must be admitted, however, that the death bell may already be tolling; very few chest drives for 1933 reached their goals, those mysterious and imaginary lines between defeat and victory in the social-work attack–always coming, never here–on poverty, crime, and disease.

And what are the tens of thousands of American social workers thinking in these days of depression? What are they actually accomplishing? To what extent do they comprehend the basic causes of the increased need for their activities? Are they ready to tell the truth about social conditions as they, and perhaps only they, know them to be? As one who has called herself professional social worker for years on end, I must answer regretfully that most social workers are much too busy to think about the social implications of their task. They are failing utterly to hold back the Rood tide of social chaos. Many of them, of course, realize that economic maladjustment lies at the root of the need for most social work, but comparatively few social workers regard it as their concern. Of those who see the futility of much present-day social work and privately admit the paucity of its tangible results, not many are saying, above a whisper, that social work effects no social reforms.

Two Children by a Car (Picture from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.) Farm Security Administration: Children of Oklahoma drought refugees near Bakersfield, California. (Circa June 1935)
Two Children by a Car
(Picture from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.)
Farm Security Administration: Children of Oklahoma drought refugees near Bakersfield, California. (Circa June 1935)

Although men are now to be found more and more often in the better-paid jobs, the typical social worker is a devoted, hard-working, college-trained woman who has dedicated her life to the service of those afflicted in mind, body, or estate. Busy almost constantly day and night, the social worker is valiantly trying to ease the suffering and the despair of a few of the many caught in the utter breakdown of an industrial system. Through trained and sympathetic friendship social workers are unquestionably bringing to hundreds of thousands the courage to live on. And in the annals of the righteous these social workers will have their reward. But millions of persons in need of trained service stand small chance of getting it today, and relief budgets, private and public, are inadequate to meet the demands. The truth is, the depression has swamped social work. Whether it will ever again justify its proud claims of prevention, rehabilitation, and adjustment remains at this writing in doubt But has social work materially altered its form or its terminology? Not noticeably.

At this moment what are social workers saying concerning economic and political theory or the need for fundamental social changes to eliminate the cycles and seasons of unemployment? With infrequent exception, exactly nothing at all. On the whole, social workers know little and care less about economic or political theory and practice. Their lack of understanding can only be described as abysmal, tragic. Ignorance in very young social workers, of whom there are many, may be forgiven. It is hard, however, to defend the silence–sometimes the deception–of the old-timers. They all know well enough that social work is not meeting the needs of our calamitous social situation. Obviously, social workers alone cannot launch a planned society; but it is ever more difficult to explain why they seldom raise their voices in analyzing and protesting the misery they see every day of their lives. Why do they not frankly confess that all the social-work technique in the world cannot prevent most of the human suffering with which they are concerned?

Unemployed in a soup line. (Picture from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.)
Unemployed in a soup line. (Picture from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.)

Wholesale unemployment breeds mass misery, want, discouragement, dissatisfaction, disorder. Whatever we may think of the wisdom or the efficacy of hunger marches, should we not remind ourselves that those who believe their need is desperate have a right to petition the government for a redress of grievances? If anyone doubts it, let him read Article I of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the United States. Yet some so-called social workers have said: “Do not treat a hunger marcher as an ordinary hungry transient. Let him starve; he may be a Communist.”

In a certain city a clothing company regularly pays weekly wages ranging from a dollar or two to five or six dollars. Not long ago I saw a week’s pay envelope of $2.73. The wage-earner was a woman who had been on duty there every day full time, waiting for piece work, although not working all the time. Some employees in the factory make less, others a very little more. I know a social worker who once saw a week’s pay envelope from the same company containing 84 cents. The social workers of that certain city growl among themselves about starvation wages but they gratefully accept the clothing manufacturer’s contribution to local charity funds and supplement regularly the wages he pays. Publicly, social workers who know the facts say nothing; publicly, they do nothing. In every city such conditions are duplicated over and over again. And every social worker in the land knows it.

In a nearby city the employees of another clothing company were recently on strike for higher wages. The strikers did not turn to social workers for aid and comfort. When asked why not, the naive answer given, without a trace of rancor, was: “We did not think social workers would be interested in us.” May social workers be forgiven; they were not interested.

In the community-chest campaigns this year the outstanding arguments used to entice unwilling contributors to give more were, first, that private charity must do its utmost before tax funds are provided; and, secondly, that unless private charity carries on, the activities of radicals–those who go to the root of things–and agitators will increase. Not once but many, many times such arguments as these were used by social workers. There was an element of truth in the arguments; the whole truth would have been more constructive, less misleading. Surely social workers realize that private charity even in prosperous days fails to provide adequately for the needs of the underpaid and the irregularly employed. At a time like this the problems arising from unemployment literally engulf private social work, and, indeed, also those political subdivisions attempting to face them squarely. As for agitators, prosperity breeds few agitators. They are only to be feared when social conditions become so uncommonly disagreeable that even the substandard mind knows they could be improved.

Social workers in many cities of the country know that entire families are now expected to exist on relief orders of $2 a week. Social workers among themselves deplore the circumstances, but should a newspaper ask for specific evidence of human suffering they would refuse to give the names and addresses of actual families known to them. Information on cases is confidential. It would be “unethical” to tell a newspaper that the Lee family is slowly starving to death, although the newspaper obviously needs to have facts on which to base demands for better relief standards. If this sounds fantastic, I can only say it happened recently, shall we say in Queensborough? Social workers will not give specific details on the distress and destitution of a few, not even to save many. Most social workers, I may add, fail to use even disguised case stories for social propaganda The poor themselves, when they are not so persistently protected from publicity by their social workers, are taking a somewhat more practical view of their situation. Nowadays, when relief is inadequate and they are hungry, they turn to stealing, begging, and standing on the public streets in bread lines. In fact, in one city where the professional social workers are too “ethical” to disclose the distress of those receiving charitable relief, the unemployed are participating in demonstrations, petitioning the city administration for more food, and in turn are being arrested by His Honor, the mayor of the city, on charges of vagrancy and disorderly conduct. The so-called ethical conduct of social workers seems to be approaching the stage already reached by that of another and older professional group which, though admitting the inability of millions to buy necessary medical service, insists that the United States must not join other civilized countries in adopting a plan of socialized medicine.

Whatever the future may bring of equitable economic opportunity, the professional social worker need not fear the loss of either job or prestige in happier days. Many human beings will continue to need assistance in making their adjustments to environment, whatever that environment may be. But to encourage the public to believe it is now possible–or even desirable–for social workers to bring any considerable number of people into a harmonious relationship with a social environment which fails to supply even the minimum essentials to millions, is unfair, unsound, unsocial. Social work is really functioning as a stop-gap in the present social crisis. It is fortunate perhaps that it is performing that function none too successfully. But unquestionably social workers are helping to postpone the inevitable reorganization of economic and political institutions.

As a social worker profoundly interested in the problems of afflicted humanity and at the same time in the professional integrity of my group, I believe the time has come for social workers to meet existing issues with a comprehensive program of social reform. Aiding individuals one by one is essential. Organizing community-welfare plans is also well and good. Clearly, however, something more far-reaching is also needed. For those who would call themselves social workers. there is no escaping the social challenge of the times.

 Source: — The Nation, Editorial,  June 14, 1933. Vol. 136, No. 3545, p. 667. Permission granted for non-commercial, educational purposes by The Nation