The Unemployed under the New Deal
Strachey, John, New Statesman (1996)
The New Statesman
17 March 1934
York, Pennsylvania, is a manufacturing town of 75,000 inhabitants, not untypical of the industrial east of the United States. Having recently a day to spend in it, I devoted my time to visiting the institution which caters for the unemployed of the city.
York has had some 10 to 20 per cent of its total number of families wholly unemployed during the past twelve months. It is claimed that the figure is now nearer the lower than the higher limit. These citizens, some seven thousand to fourteen thousand in number, are kept alive in the following manner. An institution known as a "commissary" (no one could explain the name to me) has been established. I was shown over this institution by its manager, a Mr Schmidt. He is not a government official as he would be in England, but a retired business man, working either gratuitously or for his expenses.
The commissary is supported by Federal, State and County funds, raised by taxation. Up till a few months ago it also received money subscribed by private charities. But private charity in York has now run dry. The commissary relieves the unemployed by issuing to each family a weekly food package. These packages are made up according to the number of adults and the number of children in the family. It has been calculated that so many calories of food are necessary to sustain life in an adult, so many in a child, and precisely this amount of food, per person relieved, is provided.
The commissary employees are not permanent State or local officials, but are either amateur, unpaid, social workers, or paid an extremely low weekly wage, on a purely temporary, week to week, basis. A large staff of investigators inquire into the circumstances of every applicant's relief, in a manner very similar to the Means Test investigations in England.
I witnessed a long queue of applicants for relief coming in to get their food package. They were not actually starving, but they appeared to be on a strictly subsistence level. I was informed by a newspaper correspondent, who had been in close touch with the unemployed, that they reported that the rations were just sufficient to maintain health while they were not working. But if and when any of them obtained work on one of the road schemes, etc, in the neighbourhood, they were unable to do any serious work until they had received their first wages, and were able to buy larger quantities of food.
This commissary system appears to be typical of the whole State of Pennsylvania, but endless variations of it appear to be in existence in other parts of the United States. In many places the main source of income to the relief institutions is still private charity, and in these places the amount of food given to each applicant does not depend on the applicant's need, but on the amount of money which the relief institution has available. Thus, if there is a sudden increase in unemployment, the amount of food distributed to each family has to be at once reduced. …