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Report, Flint, Michigan, November 17, 1934

“Dear Mr. Hopkins”

Note:   In the Fall of 1933, Federal Emergency Relief Adminstration director Harry Hopkins sent sixteen reporters to investigate social and economic conditions around the country. “I don’t want statistics from you,” the journalist Lorena Hickok remembers him saying. ” I don’t want the social-worker angle. I just want your own reactions, as an ordinary citizen.” (Bauman and Coode, p. 1) This is one such report.

For a detailed account of the FERA Reports, see In the Eye of the Great Depression: New Deal Reporters and the Agony of the American People, by John F. Bauman and Thomas H. Coode. (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1988).


November 17, 1934

I have been talking to investigators, contact people, engineers, other personnel of the local administration, as well as a number of automobile workers on relief for periods of from several weeks to three years, getting what’s happening to people on relief here, and what they are thinking and doing. This supplements Lincoln Colcord’s work who has limited himself to interviewing key people in the industry, top public officials, etc.

The investigators and other personnel, without being able to formulate their ideas clearly, gave me a tip which has been highly significant. Unconsciously a large part of the relief cases have made government relief a seasonal unemployment insurance. Both a wholesale change in attitude towards “welfare” and a change in the credit situation have contributed to this use of relief.

As one investigator said, “The workers in Detroit used to run up debts between employment,–run a rent up for several months, owe a grocery bill for several months and borrow on the furniture. They don’t do that any more. When their money is exhausted they come to relief.” While several men said to me with evident satisfaction that they had no debts, others pointed out that the grocers and landlords no longer feeling so optimistic about the economic possibilities of their debtors will not extend credit as they used to.

An old Ford worker said, “I used to be able to pick up odd jobs such as washing cars. My wife did, too, then. We used to worry along.” A Chevrolet man said “Each year my savings grew lean and less until now I am at rock bottom.” These men are both applying for relief for the first time this Fall. They expect to get jobs by the first of the year if not before.

The factories are according to the men and others extremely hard-boiled about refusing to hire and about firing men whose wages are garnished. One employer said to a district employment man, “So and so could have worked for us if the sheriff hadn’t followed him to work. It looks too bad.” A definite effort is being made to fight the garnishee racket but it is real fear on the part of some of the men–and relief solves it.

The applicant for relief in case after case writes, “I need relief only until I can get my job back.”

I talked to two high type service men applying for relief for the first time. One, in his late twenties, still looking gay blade even in the relief office, was obviously suffering at the idea of applying for “welfare” but said for himself and others, “People don’t think the same about welfare as they used to. I would have starved before applying three years ago. I wouldn’t apply if so many others didn’t .” His companion interjected with “They say welfare is pretty good this year.”

I believed from the way they looked and from what they said that they were down and out and had “hocked” everything but their attitude is a common one.

They were both fairly well-informed on unemployment insurance and felt that the employers should do their share. I found that the idea of unemployment insurance had seeped even thoroughly into the Negro section where the stigma of relief is practically non-existent. One exception to this was and old Ford worker for two years now on relief and pretty unemployable who remarked, “I prefer relief to the insurance idea. I rather trust the intentions of the government than Mr. Ford.” Next door to him however was a steady, seasonal worker for Mr. Ford for fourteen years, a fine type of Negro approaching the dread middle age, who was passionate in his belief that the employer “should do something about it.”

I visited a dozen cases in one district, dividing them fairly equally between those who had been on relief just a few months and those who had been on for from two to three years. One of them had not seen a worker for two months, none of them for three weeks. They certainly had no defense against questioning built up and were friendly and grateful in their attitude towards relief. The places were all warm and used as I am to New York’s slums I found it startling to see that destitution here does not exclude more over-stuffed chairs and divans than I thought existed and more radios. Since it is respectable here to be unemployed here for at least a part of the year there is a general feeling of optimism among many on relief. One found a distinct difference between those who worked last year and were using relief as a stop-gap and those, particularly those middle-aged, who have not been called for several years. But such is human nature even some of those not called for two years talked of the plants stepping up their employment again.

The top women in the social service division here–three of them as practical intelligent people as I have met–feel strongly on the inadequacy of staff here from the point of view of numbers and salary. Some of the beginner workers are making as little as $12 a week. My visits gave me the impression of the horses running away with the riders, workers calls being so scarce. At the same time there is a healthy lack of over-paternalism. The director of training herself a product of private agencies and the conventional training said that she felt that the “new lot of social workers” had a more healthy attitude towards the unemployed than the old group of case workers as a class since they had not the same desire to do a thorough fob of reform. Lack of paternalism is a policy here.

The director of relief here has pointed a gloomy picture to Colcord and me of winter relief needs. Since he looks upon us somewhat as messengers from the Gods, running both ways, I was interested in talking to Gilchrist, the man in charge of the rather unusual employment service operating under the welfare department. He was formerly a personnel man in industry here and has built up some belief among employers that he is a “competent chooser” of men on relief who can be placed in industrial jobs. In the year up to September 1, 1934 he placed more than 9,700 men and women in regular jobs, in spite of the fact that Ford and Chrysler practically do not use the service and the automobile people do most of their hiring by calling back old men through direct contact. He estimates that if the automobile industry will have a pick-up in any way comparable with last year’s 15,000 welfare people, through him or through direct contact by the companies, will be at least temporarily removed from the lists. This he thinks ought to, anyway, check any continued rise. He has classified about 45,000 of the Detroit relief list as workable if not all acceptable to employers. The current relief load is between 53 and 54,000. His guess is that considering the ratio of the relief load that are trained for the automobile or allied industries there are about 20,000 acceptable individuals on the relief lists for that industry.

If hiring proceeds along the routine of last year the big months will be December through April. Good orders are coming to the welfare department now. While the tool makers strike at this time last year delayed industry Gilchrist nevertheless though it significant that last week he was able to place 324. In the whole month of November 1933 only 46 were placed. These are in addition to men leaving the work division for direct calls.

“Recurrent families,” a familiar phrase here, accounts for fewer applications in October 1934 than in August, 1934 or October 1933 but the intake was larger. How many of these “recurrent families” will be able to leave in the next few months is up to industrial recovery etc.

The Relief Bureau gave me these figures that I thought you might be interested in.

                             Applications          Intake
October, 1933     10,125                   10,017
April, 1934             7,507                  16,453
August, 1934         8,233                    8,951
October, 1934       7,747                   11,557

Even the intelligent man on the street doesn’t believe that the men on work relief or home relief would not on the whole prefer a real job, but with the capriciousness of employment here this business of men making no particular effort in some cases to find jobs and actually turning them down in others is a problem. Very commonly among the colored cases and very frequently among the white relief is thought and spoken of as “working for the government.” It is largely again the matter of security. A man with Ford nine years, young but fairly washed-out, talked with me when I visited a work project, saying that few men on the job would leave for less than work at $20 a week which he would expect to last at least three months. He phrased it, “You can’t blame them for not leaving unless they can better themselves.” He thought–and he was intelligent–that there wasn’t a man who would not leave for temporary employment on equal terms with work relief if the furlough basis could be established by which he were guaranteed a subsistence on relief “without going through the works again.”

The engineers and other personnel on work relief frankly found the prevailing rate of wage both an incentive for men to stay on work relief and an interruption in the efficiency of work relief. The A. F. of L., the men say, keeps a friendly but firm eye on whether the prevailing rate is kept. The complaints of work relief men not leaving for real jobs are much fewer than under the C. W. A. but Gilchrist and others told of such as men on work relief who left the relief rolls for jobs that lasted only five days or two weeks and then “feeling stung.” Gilchrist remarked, “These men won’t show up at the next call.” Various relief rates such as a minimum of $.30 to $.50 with small differentials for semi-skilled and skilled were suggested by the engineers. The City Administration recently put through a policy by which the amounts given for home and work relief were more equal, as a method of inducing the men to show more enterprise.

By the way I was interested to hear the chief engineer say that he believed that Work Relief should concentrate more and more on production projects because he felt that the public works improvements were a more genuine competition to privately financed works.

It is starling to find that of the total of more than 9,700 requests for welfare cases as “help” in the year up to September 1, 1934, less than 700 were for negroes. It is estimated at relief headquarters here that about one fourth of the persons on relief are colored. They represent less than ten per cent of the population. Case workers tell me that Negro politicians are alert to see that there is no discrimination. T. B. cases are so high among them, particularly the new importations from Georgia and elsewhere, that workers have been instructed to map out adequate diets, including milk, weaning them away from “steady beans.” There are two groups of negroes here, living under very different circumstances,” the old families,” whose expenses are almost as high as those of a white and the “cheap labor.” There is a certain amount of “man-on-the-street” resentment at the high proportion of negroes on relief.

One colored man told we he preferred “working for the government” to working for Ford. “It’s this way,” he said. “When you’ve worked eight hours for Mr. Ford you aren’t no more use than a dish rag rung out and hung up to dry.” Work relief gave him a janitor’s job. But another colored man a few doors down will probably go back to Mr. Ford for his eighteenth year. His forefinger is missing. The disabilities–a finger lost here, a limp there–hit you between the eyes here.

What’s happening to children in relief families is subtle but certain district workers tell me that C. C. C. enrollments bring a stampede. One psychiatrist worker told me of a class here where they teach the young girls how to approach employers. “Are there any questions? Asked the teacher. One girl asked this question and other girls also found it important. “How can you go up and apply for a job without crying?” These workers spoke of “employment fear,” of girls ailing continually until they were assured they would not have to go through the experience of looking for a job. One girl of fourteen stole a bathing suit and sold it for 20 cents, using the proceeds to “treat” another girl at school who had given her things. The “out of school” children are special problems here as elsewhere. They no longer have the recreational facilities that they did and can’t afford the “Y.” Publicity was given recently to a gang in which boys of relief families were involved. The boys, who were eighteen or nineteen, stole 256 different objects,–opera glasses and other things almost as useless.

Even the newspaper men say that the political pressure locally is almost non-existent. Since the funds are largely federal the councilmen no longer feel the same proprietary interest the workers say. I saw letters of the councilmen, however in the file, showing they still have the interests of their constituents at heart. The Unemployed Council here is headed by a very genteel New Yorker, reputedly a Columbia M. A. The most pressure is brought at district offices. The head of the council is asked to the social work get-togethers. His line to the relief administrator is, “Don’t tell me your back is against the wall because you have no funds. Your back is turned the wrong way. Why don’t you help me get more money from Mr. Hopkins.” The Council seems to be a very quiet affair here, very few of the relief families concerned with its existence, but I can feel that it influences relief policy. One of their banner cries has been for the single men. Recently groceries for single men, without forcing them to join transient groups was effected. Several case workers said, “We feel that maybe we could get away with one more cut. But no more.”

In district offices the Council takes up the cudgels of individual cases. The rule is that district offices will not discuss with the Council the details of specific cases. Relief cases that I talked to were too contented to be much concerned with the Council.

Whether they will successfully capitalize on the cut in relief to be put in effect November 23 is yet to be seen.

You used to like charts so I am enclosing a very pretty one. The people who made it up believe that the much-berated C. W. A. shows its recovery power effectively on the chart.
Sincerely yours,

Louisa Wilson

Source:   Wilson, Louisa, “Report, Flint, Michigan, November 30, 1934,” Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hopkins Papers, Box 66. (June 9, 2014).

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