The American Dole: Unemployment Relief and the Welfare State in the Great Depression

By Jeff Singleton | Go to book overview
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Chapter 2
The "Rising Tide of Relief"

In 1937 the WPA's Division of Social Research published a monograph entitled Trends in Relief Expenditures, 1910-1935. The study, authored by Anne E. Geddes, a member of the work program's research division, placed the expansion of relief during the Great Depression within in the context of long-term trends in welfare spending. Geddes reviewed a range of studies on public and private relief expenditures during the two decades that preceded the depression. The data, although "scattered and fragmentary," consistently showed significant increases in spending for relief during this period. In a sample of sixteen large cities, for example, public expenditures for all forms of relief increased from an aggregate of $1.6 million in 1911 to nearly $19 million in 1929. Correcting for population increases, Geddes found per capita expenditures rising from $.10 to $.90 per inhabitant. Another study focused on a large sample of public and private agencies in the most populous cities in the nation. It found that public relief spending increased by 216 percent between 1916 and 1925; private relief showed a more modest, but impressive, rise of 143 percent during the same period. 1 The studies showed that relief spending had increased both during the latter part of the Progressive era, the period of reform prior to World War I, and during the 1920s, when there was relatively less public concern about the problem of poverty. Geddes concluded that the relief crisis of the early 1930s was not simply an anomaly caused by the economic crisis but represented "a sharp acceleration of a tendency manifest during the preceding two decades." 2

Geddes' conclusion suggests that even before the Great Depression, means-tested relief was becoming the safety net for low-wage workers. 3 This finding, although not stressed in most histories of social welfare

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