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Success Stories—Work Relief Style: 1939

Success Stories—Work Relief Style

by Douglas H. MacNeil, An Article in Survey Graphics, July 1939

IN DECEMBER 1932, A DISCONSOLATE YOUNG MAN, TWO OR three years out of college, sat on a park bench and watched his big toe come through his best shoe, while he tried to screw up courage to apply for relief. Two years later he was the executive head of an insurance enterprise handling millions of dollars annually, working in close conjunction with important medical and educational institutions. He, himself, has won an international reputation in his special field. His name would be known to many Survey Graphic readers.

Only a few of his associates recall that in December 1932 he had been just another mechanical engineer out of a job Then a week before Christmas he took a work relief job collecting data on sickness and medical care received by public employee and relief clients. He worked well and made valuable suggestions to his supervisors. Then he became project supervisor. As such he participated in conferences attended not only by social workers but also by board members of philanthropic institutions, some of whom in their private affairs were executives of big business. His energies, his enthusiasm, and his knowledge of his subject, to which work relief had introduced him, couldn’t help impressing anyone who worked with him. When his community undertook a new type of quasi-philanthropic insurance for which his project had built up some of the data for actuarial use, he was drafted by the sponsoring group because, to quote his board president, “his relief experience had compressed into three years, training and experience that could seldom have been obtained in a lifetime of ordinary commercial work.” Now he has gone on to’ organize a similar service in one of the largest cities in the country. His salary is at least $7500 a year and he is still under thirty.

ALMOST EVERY ONE OF THIS BOY’ S COLLEAGUES ON HIS FIRST project also have jobs as good or better than they held before 1930. Two are credit managers of institutions with which their project employment brought them into contact. Another is business manager for a professional society. One man has become comptroller of a private philanthropic organization. Another somewhat younger man is assistant to the president of a nationally known food products company. His employer, who is also on the board of several social agencies, met him when he explained the work of the project to the board of one agency whose cooperation was necessary

These stories stand in sharp contrast to the accepted idea that work relief is a degrading experience, that it saps morale and that initiative goes unrewarded in it.

The test of whether or not work relief is likely to be conducted in such a way as to aid its workers, rests in the way projects are planned. Although work relief projects should function with as great efficiency as many business enterprises—it would surprise some scoffers if they knew how many projects do—the planning of wise work relief measures requires some deviation from many principles of ordinary business management. In business, the first step is to lay out the job, the second to get the man to fill the job. In work relief, the starting point is the man with certain occupational characteristics. How can he best be used; The jobs must be built around the available men.

Effective work relief differs from business also in its attitude toward turnover. Business operations are put out of joint if men resign to take other jobs. Work relief is discommoded unless men are quitting constantly to accept outside employment. What is bad business practice for a factory or store is with equal logic desirable for work relief. Failure to take into account such factors as these in planning work relief is just as serious as permitting the operation of frivolous projects, over-manning projects, or failing to equip projects adequately with tools and supplies.

THE PROCESS OF FITTING THE JOB TO THE MAN, RATHER THAN trying to stretch or compress the man into the contours of the job, is part and parcel of modern personnel theory. Many industrialists believe in it. Some seek to practice it. But the industrial or commercial use of this approach is necessarily limited. Industry hires a man to fill a given job. If the boss doesn’t think he fits in, he just isn’t hired. If a man falls down on his job, the company sometimes will try to find a suitable place for him in the organization before they fire him. This is about as far as business can go. Business exists to make money. Most businesses have functional limitations. The opportunities for building jobs around individuals are limited to the things that are within the purpose of a particular business establishment. A retail dress shop has small use for a potential actuary. Under a work relief system, however, the opportunities for experimentation are not so limited. These stories tell how work relief has succeeded when the principles basic to it have not been violated.

THE EMPLOYEES OF A PROJECT INVOLVING THE PREPARATION OF a handbook containing legal information useful for social workers have had interesting later careers. One young lawyer on the project became interested in social work. He was transferred to the regular payroll of the relief agency as a family visitor or investigator. Now he is a “G-man.” His legal training plus his experience in social investigation equipped him for this new type of police work. Another lawyer who handled the sections of the handbook dealing with marriage, divorce, and inheritance problems, is back in private practice. He gained a wide acquaintance in the chancery courts through collecting material there for the project. This experience enabled him to specialize in divorce cases and he is now rapidly approaching the point where he can qualify as a referee in such actions. A third lawyer has also reestablished his own office and is frequently cited as an expert on naturalization and immigration law, which he studied for the handbook.

Perhaps the most surprising development from this project was the experience of one of the typists. When she came on the project, she was thoroughly whipped. Graduated from college in the early 1920s, she had first tried teaching. She lacked the temperament needed for successful teaching and broke under the strain. Next she took a job in a department store. That wasn’t very satisfactory although she kept it for several years. During the Christmas rush in 1929, she again collapsed and lost her job. Then she studied stenography, exhausting her savings and a small inheritance.

Before she obtained a job, emergency relief agencies were springing up and she was hired as a family visitor. She did fairly well with her families, but again she could not stand the nervous pressure and had to stop working. By the time she was assigned to this project, she was acutely aware of being a failure in three types of work. She was totally green and not specially competent as a typist, but she developed a knack for translating legal terminology into everyday prose. She was relieved of her duties as a typist and assigned to editorial work. The handbook was published. It was enthusiastically received in the social work profession. She was helped to find work in a publishing company. She is happy, far happier than she could ever have been as a teacher or social worker. To a large extent, she controls the tempo of her work. She has lost her baffled, discontented look. She is an assured, successful professional woman. Work relief did this for her.

The number of work relief employee who have proven their merit and gone on to regular governmental employment, can hardly be estimated. At least two heads of state relief organizations commenced their careers in the public assistance field on work relief jobs. When first employed they were as destitute as any pick-swingers on a street maintenance program.

MORE TYPICAL IS THE CASE OF A YOUNG MAN, GRADUATED FROM college in 1935, who was assigned to a project tabulating juvenile court records. He had been planning to teach, but like so many would-be teachers in the 1930s, he could not find an opening. Juvenile court work appealed to him. From the project he was able to observe the inner workings of the court. As a result, he was in a very favorable situation when civil service examinations were held for a vacancy in the probation service. He received his appointment. His salary is approximately the same as he would be receiving if he had obtained a teaching post immediately upon graduation and had received the usual periodic increases.

A one time bank clerk with a Brownie camera as a hobby has found a totally unanticipated good future through work relief. He worked on a cataloguing project in a museum. He took a few pictures which were used in the museum report. Now he is an assistant curator in the museum, and is an authority frequently consulted in art photography and in the photographic reproduction of art objects.

ANOTHER CASE HISTORY IS THAT OF A HIGHSCHOOL GRADUATE WHO was a grocery clerk in 1930. He lost his job when changing population movements caused his employer to close the store. He was ultimately employed by the relief authorities as an inventory clerk on a clothing repair project. He was steadily promoted and when the federal government commenced widespread distribution of farm surpluses, he was put in charge of a warehouse in his state. His contact with social problems and the problems of personnel management led him to attend college at night. Relief officials recommended him when they heard of an opening in the personnel department of a nationally-known industry, the head of which also served on the relief board. He got the job, which suddenly acquired new importance after the passage of the Wagner labor relations act. Now he is a highly-paid industrial relations expert. He serves on state committees dealing with important public problems. If he had stayed in the grocery business, at best he probably would be a store manager now.

IT MIGHT BE ARGUED THAT THESE ARE EXCEPTIONAL CASES, THAT these men and women had the traditional American capacity for success against odds. Perhaps they are lucky, but against this may be set the fact that they had not been successful until they went on work relief. They had been driven by economic necessity to accept what jobs they could get if they could even find a job. They had never had a real chance to express themselves. Through the work relief system of building jobs around the individual on the basis of his skills and interests, their capacities were revealed. They then were able to cash in on their proven aptitudes in a way they might never otherwise have been able to do.

This article should not be construed as a blanket laudation of America’s experience with work relief since 1930. On the contrary, these examples of what can be done through work relief merely serve to lighten the general darkness. The potentialities of work relief for vocational retraining and guidance have been. to cut it mildly, less than fully realized.

Source: MacNeil, Douglas H.,  “Success Stories–Work Relief Style,” Survey Graphic, Vol. 28, No. 7, p. 458 (July, 1939),  http://newdeal.feri.org/texts/369.htm. New Deal Network, http://newdeal.feri.org (March 6, 2014).

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