A View of the Depression in Chicago
by Maxine Davis

The next person is a big truculent Slav, bareheaded, tieless, with the lapels of his coat fastened together with the sort of safety-pin that comes with layettes. Loudly, angrily he demands help. He rolled steel at the mills, he said, as long as they had any use for him. For seven months he's been waiting to be called back. His kids ain't got shoes to go to school. The wife ain't got gas or water to cook with-or anything to cook. The government better do something, damn quick!

The receptionist does not bristle at this demand. He knows by now that men asking for relief are as likely to cover their humiliation with defiance as with servility.

Tony Wiczowski lives within the jurisdiction of this office, and his needs seem urgent. He is given an appointment for an interview tomorrow and an affidavit to sign and bring with him to the interview.

This affidavit, common to many states, is known as the "pauper oath." The document inquires every detail of the applicant's life, his wife's maiden name, names and addresses of all relatives, employers, and earnings of all persons living in his home, whether relatives or not. It makes minute inquiry into bank accounts, past and present, possessed at any time by any member of the applicant's family, any property, insurance, pensions, etc. It asks minutely about debts owed.

Then it says in effect: "See here! You must testify that you are a pauper; and if you testify falsely, it will go hard with you."

The affidavit so sworn is a public document. The individual who signs it becomes everybody's business.

Relief workers are practically unanimous in condemning this pauper oath. They claim it is devastating to the individual; that when a man or woman has reached the state of destitution where it is necessary to appeal to public charity, he is frightened and despondent, and this affidavit is a last straw to cracking morale. The social workers assert that it would be quite possible to obtain such information in other ways; that, if the individual's claim was deliberately fraudulent, the affidavit would not deter him anyhow.

Men and women on Chicago relief rolls have been required to take this pauper oath not once but three times: when they first made application (any time after the early days of 1933), in May of 1935 when the state had a spasm of "purging relief rolls," and again in 1936.

Tony signs his affidavit and comes to keep his appointment at the district office the next day.

The social worker who interviews him attempts to find out what she regards as the bare facts of the case. How has the family been getting along since Tony was laid off? Why does he need relief at this time? Has he used up all his savings? Is anyone ill in the family? Does he have any troubles with his wife or his children? Does his mother-in-law interfere? Does his wife mind the fact that his invalid sister lives with them? What are the specific facts of management in the shabby Wiczowski ménage?

The attitude of the social workers in this office is sympathetic, friendly, and generous. They try to give Tony reassurance. They do what they can to help him overcome his embarrassment, make him feel this relief office is no different from a doctor's office. They are here to help him make social adjustments. The staff is composed mostly of young women from the University's School of Social Service Administration. They have degrees, although some of them are undergraduates working as volunteers this month. They're not hard-boiled. On the contrary, they are warm-hearted, and they have in addition to inherent kindness, a "philosophy' which they learned in the classroom.

Tony fidgets, is surly. He doesn't really want this nice young lady's sympathetic ear. He has spent the money they had sewed into the mattress. He has sold the fine gilt standing lamp with the rich purple tassels that made the Wiczowski parlor the envy of the neighbors. He has never thought whether he got on with his wife or not. He brought her all his wages, and she gave him back two dollars every Saturday night. She is a good cook. Mind their relatives? He has never considered it. You have them, there they are. All Tony wants is barely enough to tide him over till the chimneys of the mills again redden the skies and he can get back to his job.

Well, Tony's application is accepted, is registered with a number, and record sheets are made out. From then on, Tony is a case history. The record is given to a case worker who is expected to visit the Wiczowski home within twenty-four hours to see if the situation is actually in accord with the facts presented.

Tony and his wife and family wait anxiously for three days, however, because the worker assigned to them has so many people to visit that it takes her that long to get around to them.

Not that she works union hours. Far from it. Poor little Miss Doran has a social conscience. She tumbles out of her bed before seven in the morning, puts a pot of coffee to boil while she dons her shabby tweeds, her scuffed and run-down brogues, and smears rouge indiscriminately over her cheekbones. This is a month when the Relief Administration has had its quota of funds cut down. Some of the case workers have been dismissed, and the ones who remain have to share between them the ever-increasing load. That happens every once in a while. So Miss Doran will work until nine or ten o'clock at night and then go to bed with the hungry who await her resting heavily on her active little conscience.

Finally she gets around to call on and investigate the Wiczowskis. Tony, she finds, hasn't exaggerated his circumstanccs. She authorizes relief....

Once shelter and fuel are provided, the next problem is clothing.

Clothing is simply given when it is needed. Whenever possible, the I.E.R.C. gives its "own" clothes; that is, garments made by relief workers from materials doled out by the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation.

You might think this would work out splendidly. The government bought surplus commodities from the producers and then had them made up at relief wages. No extra expense, people kept warmly clothed and covered, and everybody happy.

But somehow, it never quite worked out that way. For instance, when Miss Doran put in a requisition for clothes and bedding for the four Wiczowski children, the package would come half filled. Headquarters didn't happen to have any dresses for six-year-olds on hand, or they had no trousers for five-year-old boys. Or they had no comforters that month.

Then, the clothes wouldn't fit. Well, you may argue, the Wiczowskis ought to be thankful to have anything to wear at all. Alas! Not only do human beings lose their sense of proportion about things like that, but institutional styles in clothing make a serious difference in morale. When Tony had to go hunting work in a coat two sizes too small and in a denim shirt that came from the inexpert fingers of a worker in a sewing-room project, he looked like a relief client. And he knew he looked like a relief client. He felt dejected; he lacked self-confidence. It tended to make his daily job-hunting futile....

Twenties-Depression Home |Twenties | Depression| Updated December 12, 2013