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

By Jeff Singleton | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
Unemployment Relief and the Welfare State

From 1930to the end of 1935general relief administered by local public and private agencies was the primary source of aid to the unemployed. Relief during these years was very much like what we now call "welfare"--a grant by a local agency to a needy family to supplement an inadequate income. The key difference is that welfare today is targeted to single mothers and children. General relief in the 1930s required only an income test to determine eligibility, and most of the caseload consisted of male workers and their families or single men. 1 There were, to be sure, other important differences: depression-era relief tended to be given "in kind" (food baskets, grocery orders, used clothing) rather than in cash; local relief administration was highly unstable, with frequent organizational shifts resulting from funding crises or abrupt changes in federal policy; the system was the focal point of a great deal of protest and grassroots organizmg, among both recipients and social workers; the social work profession itself was less mature and still resembled a social reform movement. Still, the 1930s "dole," like contemporary welfare, was essentially an inadequate, bureaucratic, highly variable, income-tested program targeted to the poor that retained many of the characteristics of traditional "poor law" relief. It was generally despised by recipients, who considered it degrading, was attacked by conservatives, who viewed it as a source of moral decay, and was a political albatross for liberals, who couldn't seem to get rid of it. 2

The explosive growth of general relief in the early depression years was a crucial episode in the history of American social policy. Not only did the system assist millions of unemployed workers and impoverished farmers in the depths of the Great Depression, but it federalized public

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

Table of contents

  • Recent Titles in Contributions in American History ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface vii
  • Chapter 1 - Unemployment Relief and the Welfare State 1
  • Notes 18
  • Chapter 2 - The "Rising Tide of Relief" 27
  • Notes 48
  • Chapter 3 - The Myth of Voluntarism 57
  • Notes 82
  • Chapter 4 - The National Dole 93
  • Notes 120
  • Chapter 5 - Work Relief 131
  • Notes 160
  • Chapter 6 - Ending the Dole as We Knew It 173
  • Notes 199
  • Conclusion 209
  • Notes 217
  • Appendix - Relief Estimates and the Children's Bureau Series 221
  • Notes 224
  • Bibliography 227
  • Index 239
  • About the Author 245
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