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On the inhumanity of Illinois's government in the 1930s

In case anyone is interested in the history of the Great Depression, particularly in Chicago, here's an excerpt from a chapter of my Ph.D. thesis. I've posted excerpts elsewhere on this blog—here, here, here, here, and here—all of them, like the one below, excessively long. Sorry about that. This one tells the history of how miserly Chicago and Illinois were in their care for the long-term unemployed—a miserliness that wasn't explained by the poor economic conditions, since the state and city at all times had plenty of resources they could have devoted to alleviating the suffering of the hundreds of thousands without work. Historians haven't sufficiently emphasized the fact that it was primarily class structures, not governments' lack of resources, that were responsible for abysmal standards of unemployment relief across the country.

The same, of course, is even truer today: when people out of work aren't given much support by the government, that's a policy choice by representatives of business, not an economic necessity.

You'll notice some references in the following to "later" discussions (in the same chapter) of unions' and churches' response to unemployment. I haven't included those sections in this post.


Two central conflicts broadly determined the quality and quantity of relief for Chicago’s unemployed in the 1930s: the class conflict, and the political conflict between Cook County and all other Illinois counties (often referred to as downstate counties). The class conflict, as usual, was by far the more significant one, being largely responsible, at least indirectly, even for the insufficiency of the federal government’s aid for relief, but the fierce rivalry between Cook County and downstate counties bore much responsibility for Chicago’s many relief crises. Rural counties did not want to pay to relieve Chicago’s unemployed, so they regularly lobbied and voted against the city’s interests in the state legislature. But the city did not want to pay for its poor either. So in the battle between Cook County and the rest of the state, it was the unemployed who suffered.

This chapter has two purposes: first, to tell the sordid tale of local and state governments’ neglect of the poor, as manifested in their meager financing of relief; second, to contrast this miserable record with the more generous one of many unions and churches, which because of their social missions could not act so callously towards the jobless. The section on government in particular supports the Marxian conception of the state as being, to a first approximation, an instrument primarily in the hands of the ruling class in its struggle to amass and maintain as much power and wealth as possible.[1] Inasmuch as the disaffected poor tended to share this Marxian attitude, the analysis supports the argument that the supposed cynicism, “apathy,” resignation, and diffuse resentment of many of the long-term unemployed were based on a quite rational understanding of the world. Of course, to some limited extent the state is capable of neutrality in adjudicating between the poor and the rich, and through popular movements it can be forced to heed certain demands of the lower orders. This fact, too, many of the poor understood, as by the millions they pressured government at the local, state, and federal levels to move to the left.

The account in this chapter supports the analysis given by Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward in their classic Regulating the Poor (1971). As they say,

The key to an understanding of relief-giving is in the functions it serves for the larger political and economic order, for relief is a secondary and supportive institution… We shall argue that expansive relief policies are designed to mute civil disorder, and restrictive ones to reinforce work norms. In other words, relief policies are cyclical—liberal or restrictive depending on the problems of regulation in the larger society with which government must contend.[2]

We might, however, qualify their argument by noting that relief policies can be expansive and restrictive at the same time, in different respects. And they can never get too expansive, for the need to discipline the labor force always remains. Thus, as civil unrest exploded across Illinois from 1930 to 1932, the relief policies and financing of townships, counties, and eventually the state slowly grew more expansive, while yet remaining extremely restrictive relative to the need that existed. In the summer of 1932 the federal government, finally acknowledging the necessity of providing funds to subsidize states’ relief efforts, broadened the mandate of the recently created Reconstruction Finance Corporation so it could give loans for this purpose. With the initiation of federal involvement, Illinois could continue its niggardly record as regards relief financing without inviting the charge that it was permitting thousands of families to literally starve to death (for the RFC’s funds prevented that from happening). Federal relief policies became more expansive with the onset of FERA and then the Civil Works Administration in 1933, while the governments of Illinois and Chicago stayed committed to restrictive policies, preferring to let the national administration be responsible for “muting civil disorder” as the state and city did what they could, in effect, to “reinforce work norms.” In retrospect, one can see it was a delicate balancing act that all three levels of government were engaged in: public relief had to be tremendously expanded…but not too much, lest class structures be upset and the working class become undisciplined.

Once the emergency of civil unrest in the early Depression had subsided, the federal government could abandon its unwonted generosity in the sphere of direct relief and let responsibility for it devolve back to states and localities. This meant that the enforcing of work norms—by keeping public assistance at low levels—would again be the main function of relief. On the federal level, a relatively expansive policy did continue in the form of the Social Security Act and the WPA; but the conservatism and restrictiveness of these measures—even the WPA at its peak aided (with low wages) only about a quarter of the jobless[3]—indicated that their purpose was just as much to reinforce work norms as to prevent and mitigate civil disorder. And so the decade limped to its end in an ever more conservative political environment, the disciplining of the labor force taking greater prominence as a purpose of both direct relief and federal work relief.

It is true that most politicians and officials did not interpret relief in such terms, as being determined by the exigencies of class struggle (the struggle of the rich to control the poor, in the context of the poor’s struggles for greater power and dignity). They did not usually see themselves as public servants of the business class. The large majority, surely, were convinced that they were motivated solely by considerations of the general welfare, and that regulation of the poor had nothing to do with it. This fact, however, is not an argument against Piven and Cloward’s (or my) Marxian interpretation of relief. The self-interpretations and self-reports of institutional actors are highly unreliable guides to the significance of particular political phenomena, for people are expert at deceiving themselves, at embracing high-minded but superficial rationalizations. This is one of the lessons of Marxism, namely that one discovers the broad significance of a phenomenon through institutional analysis, not through analysis of rhetoric or politicians’ professed intentions.[4] It is institutions that are the main actors here, not individuals somehow isolated from an institutional context—a context that, in fact, structures their actions and determines political possibilities. One might even say, therefore—what I am, in part, arguing in this book—that members of a working class that is typically cynical and suspicious of the motives of the rich and powerful have (to that degree) more honest insight into the workings of society, and are less indoctrinated, than most people who belong to powerful or prestigious status groups that are convinced of their own benignity.[5]

Thus, while it is not hard to find examples of public figures in the early Depression expressing dismay at the thought of widespread suffering and insisting that such suffering alone necessitated huge expansions of relief, this fact is of little interest or importance. In particular, we should not conclude from it—as, for instance, the historian Jeff Singleton does—that “the large emergency relief organizations created in the early winter of 1931–1932 do not seem to have been a response to demanding workers [as Piven and Cloward argue] but were produced by a genuine desire to ‘prevent starvation’…”[6] Doubtless many officials did have such a genuine desire. The question, however, is whether political and business leaders around the country would have made such a clamor for expansion of relief had the suffering masses remained quietly in their homes, relatively out of sight and out of trouble, or been content to write polite letters-to-the-editor from time to time. If localities and states had not been threatened with multiple types of breakdown—social, financial, political—it is unlikely that hundreds of representatives of powerful institutions would have pleaded with Congress and Herbert Hoover for federal aid to states (especially considering their earlier abhorrence of that idea). The prospect of mass starvation was useful in lending moral weight to their entreaties, but fundamentally it was threats to institutional stability and the class structure on which it was based that, by mid-1932, provoked a nationwide wave of elite support for federal aid. And it was the perceived disappearance of those threats a few years later that caused such support to recede.

The section on unions is much shorter than the one on government, in part because it is less central to the broader points I want to make in the book. But I’ll return to the subject of unionists’ radicalism in the following chapter, particularly in the context of their support for the extraordinary Workers’ Unemployment and Social Insurance Bill that Representative Ernest Lundeen, of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, introduced in Congress in 1934 and 1935. In this chapter I simply sketch some of unions’ responses to mass unemployment and briefly make the not very controversial argument that rank-and-file members of AFL unions tended to be more radical than the higher officials of Internationals, state and local federations, and the national office. I also touch upon the CIO’s response to unemployment, which was much more activist than the AFL’s.

The section on churches differs from the previous two in that it discusses the unemployed themselves in addition to institutions. What effect did joblessness have on religious attitudes? In what ways did people interact with churches? My emphasis is on the relative generosity and left-wing character of the attitudes that much of the religious community displayed. This emphasis supports the general argument being made that the hegemony of capitalist ideologies, including the belief in the legitimacy of the social order and its ruling authorities, is not necessarily as complete as we may be accustomed to thinking. Wherever there is altruism, compassion, commitment to the principle that every life has dignity, or awareness of the reality of acute conflict between social classes and valorization of the lower class’s interests, there is implicit or explicit resistance to the dynamics of the dominant institutions of a modern capitalist society, which are demonstrably grounded in the anti-Kantian principle of treating people as means to the end of one’s own profit-making and power-accumulating. In the case of churches in the 1930s, this tear in the fabric of “bourgeois hegemony” was quite large.

In fact, the description I give of the lower-income Black church culture permits me to argue that, perhaps paradoxically, one of the central “meanings” of lower-class religion in this era was a type of diverted class struggle. As in the case of other examples of class struggle described in this book, it is not typically understood in this way even by the participants. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to discern tendencies that lend themselves to such an interpretation. In certain social contexts, the tendencies blossom into fully fledged struggle between poor and rich, oppressed and oppressors: the case of liberation theology in Latin America between the 1960s and 1980s may be the most obvious example, but aspects of the U.S.’s Civil Rights Movement are another, as are features of the Protestant Reformation itself, and of the very birth of Christianity among the poor and outcast of the Roman Empire.[7] When people of limited means come together to empower themselves, even if not in a directly or explicitly political way, there is reason for the dominant class to be wary. Fortunately for this class, religious institutions are usually well-integrated into mainstream society and do not pose much of a threat. If they did, they would certainly not be tolerated for long.[8] But the cooperative, compassionate ethic they often preach, and the communitarian essence of many of their institutional practices, should not be seen only as some politically anodyne complement to the Hobbesian market. These tendencies are potentially subversive and must not be permitted to become overtly political or to spread into the broader arena of social and economic relations.

Thus, the first half of the chapter describes the political economy of capitalist atomization, while the second half describes two manifestations of the political economy of solidarity or community. In the following chapter, we’ll discuss the clash between the two, in which the poor rose up against the rich.

Money and politics

It is easy to think that the reason relief was so inadequate in the 1930s is that it was, after all, the Depression. Money was not abundant. In reality, the country had plenty of wealth that it could have spent on the poor, including in the years of greatest crisis. For, of course, the federal government could have distributed, for the purpose of relief, billions of dollars to individuals, municipalities, and states even in 1932. And it could have afforded to spend many billions more than it did on the WPA from 1935 on. Some members of Congress supported such initiatives, as when Senator Robert Wagner submitted a bill in March 1932 calling for a $1.1 billion public works program to be financed through a bond issue, or when a couple of months later Senator Edward Costigan submitted a bill permitting a grant of $500 million to states. Hoover and his supporters defeated these and similar measures, unwilling to countenance an unbalanced budget. It is not irrelevant to note that Hoover was utterly in thrall to big banks (which opposed deficit financing), so in thrall that he deliberately faked entries in a “diary” he left historians so as to paint himself as more independent of bankers than he was.[9] Consistent with this orientation, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation was originally created (in January 1932) to lend $2 billion to banks, railroads, insurance companies, building and loan associations, etc., thus initiating a long tradition of the federal government’s bailing out the financial sector when things went awry. The unemployed and the poor got nothing. It was hoped that the RFC’s loans would end bank failures, relieve liquidity fears, and allow banks to start lending to businesses again, which would permit them to resume investing on a large scale and so end the crisis. That is, wealth would “trickle down” from banks to industrial firms to employees (the currently unemployed). Needless to say, this did not happen. The bankers who received loans “betrayed” Hoover—as he saw it—by not expanding lending but building up their reserves in case of another liquidity crisis. And so, while the RFC did temporarily stabilize the financial system, industry did not recover.[10]

It was at this point, in the summer of 1932, that Hoover finally relented on the principle of giving loans to states for unemployment relief. The nationwide pressure had become unendurable: constant hunger marches, the beginning of the Bonus March on Washington (and the organizing of bonus protests in major cities), continual public revelations of mass suffering and social disorder, the impending collapse of relief in Chicago and other cities, intense lobbying by governors, mayors, and businessmen, and considerations of politics in an election year were, in the aggregate, apparently enough to convince Hoover that he should do something. So, after further higgling and haggling with liberal Congressmen, and despite his obsessive fear of anything resembling a national “dole,” he signed a bill among whose provisions was that the RFC could lend $300 million to states for direct relief.[11]

And yet even then, this absurdly insufficient amount trickled out to states very slowly, in part because of the stringent conditions a state had to meet (and the vast amount of paperwork it had to submit—every month, for a new loan) before it could receive even a few million dollars. For example, in July 1932 Governor Pinchot of Pennsylvania—a state in desperate straits—applied for a loan of $45 million but was granted nothing, because supposedly the state had not tapped all of its own resources yet. Pinchot tried again in August, arguing that Pennsylvania’s good faith had been demonstrated by the General Assembly’s recent passage of a $12 million relief bill. Again his request was denied: the state had to do still more before it could get some of the RFC’s money. Incensed, Pinchot—a Republican—went public with his disgust, adding his voice to the nationwide chorus of attacks on the RFC for being nothing but a dole to the wealthy. He made a personal appeal to Hoover, asking him to cut the red tape and approve the loan. At last, in late September, the RFC acted: it gave Pennsylvania $2.5 million, which was little better than an insult. Struck by the contrast between the ease and speed with which the RFC had given corporations almost $2 billion and the incredible stinginess with which it approached loans for the purpose of unemployment relief, Pinchot wrote a scathing and well-publicized letter to the head of the RFC, in which he charged that “in giving help to the great banks, great railroads, and great corporations you have shown no such niggardly spirit… [O]ur people have little patience with giving everything possible to the big fellow and as little as possible to the little fellow.” Coming from a Republican, this letter did Hoover no favors in the presidential election six weeks later.[12]

Pinchot, incidentally, had distinguished himself months earlier in his willingness to expose all the politicians’ cant about America’s glorious traditions of rugged individualism, self-reliance, local initiative, neighbor helping neighbor, and the irreparable damage to the national character that would result from federal relief. In an article in January 1932 for the important liberal journal Survey, he concluded that the real reason for mainstream opposition to federal relief was “the safeguarding of money in the hands of an incredibly small number of incredibly rich men,” a conclusion he backed up with detailed analysis of the polarized economic structure that the 1920s had produced. “The force behind the stubborn opposition to federal relief,” he insisted, “is fear lest the taxation to provide that relief be levied on concentrated wealth—fear lest the policy of years, the policy of shielding big fortunes at the expense of the little ones, should at long last be tossed into the discard.” Local, and even state, relief meant making the relatively poor pay, as we’ll see momentarily, and so was the preferred policy until it was no longer sustainable.[13]

These points would be too obvious to make were it not that historians have tended to focus on policymakers’ ideological motivations of localism, voluntarism, and individualism at the expense of the far more important class dynamics out of which such ideologies emerged.

Let us turn now to the state and local levels, which are our main concern. As one historian pointedly states, “the depression years were by no means progressive in the history of state finance.” It was in these years that states discovered the sales tax, and came to rely on it (together with taxes on alcohol, tobacco, gasoline, and soft drinks) for the majority of their revenue. By 1937, 28 states had a sales tax (and it had been repealed or declared unconstitutional in five other states), up from zero states in 1931. The incredible lucrativeness of consumer taxes accounts for the striking fact that at the end of the Depression decade, states were in a much stronger financial position than at the end of the 1920s, some even showing budget surpluses. “Despite poor economic conditions, states almost doubled their revenues, collecting $2.1 billion from all sources in 1930 and $4.1 billion in 1940.” Most states, therefore, could not plead poverty as an excuse for underfunding unemployment relief.[14]

Illinois was an enthusiastic participant in the regressive fiscal trends of these years, by 1938 raising 80 percent of its revenue from four taxes that disproportionately affected the middle and lower classes: a gasoline tax, a motor vehicle registration fee, taxes on alcoholic beverages, and a sales tax. The latter alone, dating from July 1933, provided 43 percent of the state’s revenue, a higher proportion than in any other state except West Virginia. On the other hand, while Illinois had a higher percentage of people earning over $5,000 than the United States as a whole, it had no income tax at all, a distinction shared by only eleven other states. (The Illinois Supreme Court had ruled unconstitutional a proposed income tax in 1932.) Nor did it have a state property tax after 1932, since the new sales tax was thought to have made it unnecessary. Cook County and Chicago levied property taxes, but tax delinquency there was “so bad that it is almost impossible to comprehend,” an analyst wrote in 1938. “Cook County, Illinois,” he declared, “stands out as the only area in the United States where the payment of real estate taxes is more or less a voluntary matter.” Such facts as these indicate the degree to which the propertied, in particular those of considerable wealth, were able to mitigate their tax burden in these years.[15]

Credit for this achievement was due in no small part to organizations like the Civic Federation of Chicago, which was dedicated to safeguarding the taxpayer’s purse, especially the businessman’s purse. Throughout the decade it, together with the Better Government Association, the Chicago Association of Commerce, the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, and other such groups, fought against and often defeated such measures as Old Age Assistance, “prevailing rate of wage” laws for public works projects, increased taxes to support Chicago schools, increased assistance for the blind, bond issues for expansions of the overcrowded Cook County Hospital and Oak Forest Infirmary, and additional taxes for poor relief in Cook County and Chicago. Whenever a new tax on property was proposed on the city, county, or state level, the Civic Federation was there to evaluate it and, in all likelihood, lobby against it. Thus, when we read of the hardships of Chicago’s poor in the late 1930s, we should not think this state of affairs was something that just happened, an unfortunate product of the Depression and of the complex and inadequate machinery for poor relief that had evolved in Illinois. It was the product of particular policies advocated by particular interests (in addition, of course, to the very structure of Chicago’s political economy).[16]

To give another example, the powerful Chicago Real Estate Board was always on hand to press for “drastic economies” in relief administration. In early 1934, for instance, when it looked as though a bond issue would not be sufficient to finance relief for the whole year (as indeed it was not), the president of the Real Estate Board warned the governor that “any attempt to increase taxes on property for emergency relief purposes…would certainly meet our most determined opposition. Prompt and determined action must be taken immediately,” he ordered, “or all savings to taxpayers, through reduction in public expenditures and through your action in using the proceeds of the sales tax to cover the state budget, will be offset and stultified by the emergency relief and its requirements.” He went on to decry the “stubborn opposition” among relief administrators to reducing the number of their employees—a reduction, incidentally, that would have meant disaster, since when the Civil Works Administration ended a month later the relief rolls expanded enormously. But such were the forces that disproportionately determined policy.[17]

Early in the Depression, the relief policy that the dominant interests favored was, as ever, voluntarist and privatized. Fundraising drives were organized, and private family welfare agencies were supposed to take the initiative in caring for the unemployed. These sorts of anti-government dogmas, in fact, were already outdated by the 1920s, for in 1929 the Bureau of Social Statistics had unearthed the striking fact that in the previous year 72 percent of all relief (including mothers’ aid, assistance to the blind, etc.) in fifteen important cities was from public, not private, funds. Nevertheless, when the economic whirlwind struck it was largely up to Chicago’s five major private agencies—the United Charities, the Jewish Social Service Bureau, the Catholic Central Charity Bureau, the American Red Cross, and the Salvation Army—to aid the stricken, although hundreds of churches, fraternal organizations, settlement houses, clubs, unions, local relief committees, and schools played in the aggregate an important role as well. The Cook County Bureau of Public Welfare took on many cases, but by 1931 the shares of public and private agencies in total relief activities were the exact inverse of their relative positions in 1928: whereas in that year the public burden of relief was 64 percent and the private burden 36 percent, the opposite was the case in 1931 (36 percent public, 64 percent private).[18]

The only way private agencies were able to so expand their caseload was through state-assisted fundraising. For the first couple years of the depression, ad hoc organizations like the Governor’s Commission on Unemployment and Relief and the Joint Emergency Relief Fund of Cook County were able to raise some money, though not nearly enough to meet the need. It was primarily the lower middle class that contributed, sometimes in the form of voluntary or involuntary “gifts” that corporations and the state government deducted from the pay of employees.[19]

While the business class could have donated far more than it did (which, by some accounts, was next to nothing), more than enough to solve the relief crisis of the winter of 1931–32, it is true that the Chicago government was not in a position to be of much use. As mentioned in an earlier chapter, even before the Depression hit it was stuck in a fiscal morass due to the profligacy of Mayor “Big Bill” Thompson’s administration, excessive political corruption and waste, a drawn-out property reassessment that interfered with tax collection, a tax strike by real-estate owners, and in general the inadequate municipal fiscal powers that a hostile state legislature had imposed on Chicago (including debt and tax limits and hundreds of regulations regarding the minutiae of budget matters). Nor was the legislature cooperative in solving the mess it had helped create. As a result, the new mayor Anton Cermak was effectively a captive of bankers and industrialists, whose money he needed in order to keep the city running. “He conducted the business of the municipality,” a reporter acidly observed, “not in the council chamber of the City Hall, but in the comfortable quarters of the Chicago and Union League clubs,” where the bankers and their friends congregated. As a condition for their loans they demanded Cermak follow a program of ruthless austerity, precisely the opposite of what the relief crisis called for. Thus, during his brief tenure as mayor—he was assassinated in March 1933—Cermak spent most of his time shuttling back and forth between the real centers of power so as to plead for help: business communities in Chicago and New York, the state legislature in Springfield, and Congress, for federal aid.[20]

It was in the winter of 1931–32 that Chicago’s relief crisis became a climactic emergency, forcing the state legislature to act. This body, dominated by downstate counties, had distinguished itself both for its callousness to the suffering of the unemployed—in 1931 it passed not a single major piece of legislation to alleviate misery in the state—and for its refusal even to reform Cook County’s anarchic and archaic tax machinery. The governor called a special legislative session in November 1931 to address these matters, during which bill after bill was introduced to provide state financing for relief. None passed, despite the tremendous pressure coming from public officials and the press in Chicago, where the issue was most urgent. Pleas for action from the Governor’s Commission and the Chicago Church Federation were read before the General Assembly, to no effect. By mid-December the $10 million raised by the Joint Emergency Relief Fund that fall was already approaching exhaustion, and it appeared that relief stations would soon have to close—even as the ranks of the jobless were continuously swelling. There was literally no other recourse but state funding. Nevertheless, having accomplished nothing, the General Assembly adjourned from mid-December until early January. After it reconvened, another bill was introduced, which passed the Senate but died in the House. Incredibly, after this failure, “interest of the General Assembly in the relief problem subsided again,” to quote an informed observer. Instead, the legislature finally enacted the long-delayed public finance reform of Cook County and Chicago—after which, again, it adjourned, until early February. “Relief funds in Chicago were only ten days from exhaustion as the state’s lawmakers, on whom all hope was pinned, voted themselves a vacation and went home.”[21]

For the politically active members of Chicago’s elite, who understood the enormity of the crisis, this adjournment in January was the last straw. A few bankers, newspaper editors, relief officials, leaders of the General Assembly, and the governor met in a hotel and, over a few hours, worked out the legislative program that they planned to browbeat the lawmakers into approving. Members of the Assembly were telegraphed to return to Springfield earlier than they had intended. Meanwhile, prominent figures were publicly uttering apocalyptic pronouncements, as when Mayor Cermak spoke of the newly worked out legislation as follows:

This is civic fire insurance. These communist organizers are not new in our city. We had them in times of plenty. But now they find men more ready to listen to them. I say to the men who may object to this public relief because it will add to the tax burden on their property, that they should be glad to pay it, for it is the best way of insuring that they keep that property.[22]

Still the downstate legislators were wary. As the legislation was designed, there was a chance—depending on the outcome of a bond referendum—that the state property tax would be raised in order to pay for the $20 million that was to be allocated to relief. That is, the downstaters worried they and their constituents might end up footing a large part of Chicago’s relief bill. Moreover, some members continued to think Chicago had the wherewithal to take care of its own. With some justice, one senator “said that Chicago was proceeding to raise $400,000 for the opera; Chicago had no difficulty in putting up the $300,000 for the national political convention; Chicago was spending millions on the Century of Progress; therefore, Chicago should stop these projects and devote the money to charity.” And so the debates continued for another week. Relief funds ran out, but the stations remained open in the hope that legislative action would be forthcoming.[23]

At long last, it was, in early February 1932. Illinois had thus entered the relief business, the fifth state to do so—under extreme duress. The final act was rather dramatic and is worth summarizing, for it was revealing:

The first effort to pass the [relief] bills was made in the House and many Chicagoans, including the mayor, were present. When the initial roll call was taken on the first of the bills fifty votes were lacking for the two-thirds majority necessary to pass an emergency (immediately effective) measure. At this point the veteran speaker of the House broke his own policy of not speaking to a measure, and said: “There is grave danger now. The federal government has already issued the orders necessary to curb disorder if it arises. The mayor of Chicago is on the rostrum here and he is undecided whether he should agree to calling out the troops tomorrow morning. The armories are under guard now.” On a later roll call the bills passed with many votes to spare…[24]

Humanitarianism was not absent, but more importantly, property was in danger.

The legislative program enacted was quite complicated, consisting of five bills that both established the Illinois Emergency Relief Commission and outlined a convoluted way of funding relief. The essential point, as usual, was to protect property, but also to protect downstate counties from paying for Chicago’s relief (which was just another way of protecting property, namely that of downstaters). The basic method was to make each county responsible for financing its own relief, by diverting its share of the state gasoline tax from highway expenditures to relief expenditures. (In effect, this also meant shifting the burden of relief from property owners to automobile owners, and so, in proportion to wealth, affecting those in the middle and lower classes more than those in the upper class.) It would be cruel to the reader to summarize here the Rube Goldberg legislation, involving tax anticipation warrants, a bond referendum, gasoline tax rebates, etc.; the important thing is that, for the moment, Chicago’s relief crisis abated.[25]

The new IERC insisted that public funds should go to public agencies, so the Cook County Bureau of Public Welfare took over control of the Joint Emergency Relief Service—with its many “district relief stations” around the city—that had been organized by the private agencies to care for all the clients who would not ordinarily fall under their purview (in other words, most of the unemployed). Private agencies could now gradually return to something like their pre-Depression caseload, while cooperating with public authorities and sometimes providing crucial aid, as when the relief stations temporarily shut down because of funding problems. The Council of Social Agencies assumed the enormous task of coordinating activities among all the private and public organizations, some of which were yet to be born.[26]

As it happened, within a few months the relief stations were in danger of closing again, lacking the funds to continue beyond early June. To induce bankers to buy a few more million dollars’ worth of tax anticipation warrants and so keep the stations open another month or two, the Unemployed Councils, the Workers Committee on Unemployment, and relief authorities mobilized in May. Public demonstrations, radio and newspaper publicity, telegrams to politicians, and meetings with the mayor and bankers had the desired effect, and at last dozens of Chicago bankers and industrialists held a meeting to buy the remaining warrants. “In other words,” recalls an activist, “the starvation date in Cook County was postponed until about July 25.” But on this date, the full $20 million that had been appropriated was already going to be exhausted, and there was little hope that the state legislature would appropriate more funds. So Cermak and others redoubled their efforts to get money from the federal government, and this time, as we have seen, met with success, when a bill authorizing the RFC to lend to states was passed. Illinois received $3 million in late July, having asked for $10 million. In August it asked for $23 million and got $6 million. Less than a month later it asked for $37 million to keep the relief stations open until January, and got $5 million. While paltry, these sums were far more than other states received, even though Philadelphia’s relief stations had actually been forced to close for the summer, a tragedy that elicited from the RFC only a self-righteous lecture to Governor Pinchot that he ought to have done more to help the victims. Around the same time, incidentally, the Dawes bank in Chicago received a $90 million loan from the RFC, a fact that infuriated unpaid teachers and the unemployed.[27]

Through the terrible winter of 1932–33 it was primarily the RFC’s advances of money that allowed relief to continue, albeit on an inadequate basis. Indeed, in October the IERC announced a 50 percent cut in that month’s relief rations, which were already based on a subsistence level. Disturbances soon broke out all over Chicago in the vicinity of relief stations, as when a crowd of several hundred unemployed went on “strike” by refusing to accept any aid, instead sitting down in various places on the sidewalk (one of the early uses of a tactic that the CIO would make historic use of several years later). A delegation of hundreds went to the city hall to demand more funds, objecting to a sales tax and proposing instead that the police force be reduced and the money saved be used to feed the jobless. A massive hunger march was to happen at the end of the month, even though a permit was denied. All this pressure evidently worked, for at the end of the month the RFC approved a new loan that would permit a resumption of normal relief rations in November. (The march took place anyway, between 30,000 and 60,000 people tramping in pouring rain through the Loop and into Grant Park, where they cheered speakers exhorting them to fight “the bosses of the capitalist class.”)[28]

And so Illinois muddled through that winter and spring, living off the largesse of the RFC. So far the state government had, strictly speaking, provided no funds for relief, only diverting local shares of gasoline tax revenues and authorizing county bond issues. This parsimonious phase ended in March 1933 with the inauguration of a state sales tax—which, however, was promptly declared unconstitutional. (The legislature also passed a law requiring relief applicants to sign a “pauper’s oath,” a tool of humiliation.) RFC loans were set to last only until the middle of May, and none more would be forthcoming because the agency had reached the end of its financial resources. Once again, however, the federal government acted just in time to avert a major crisis, this time by creating FERA, which proceeded to give monthly grants to Illinois from May 1933 to December 1935. The total of these grants was over $200 million, which constituted about 75 percent of Illinois’s relief financing, more than most states even though Illinois was one of the wealthiest.[29]

A new, amended sales tax took effect in July 1933, which went some way towards meeting FERA’s demands that Illinois do more to finance its own relief. But Harry Hopkins, the head of FERA, was still not satisfied: the tax provided less money than necessary, and starting in 1934 its revenues would not be available for relief anyway. They would go into the state’s general revenue fund, making it possible to do away with the property tax. After Hopkins announced in September that federal funds to Illinois would cease unless the state acted more responsibly, Governor Henry Horner called a special legislative session to authorize a new bond issue. Lawmakers were unsympathetic. “The impression here,” an observer in Illinois told Hopkins, “is that the federal government is going to do it all—let it.” After a month of debate and several attempts at the bill’s passage, it was finally necessary to fly in Anna Ickes, wife of Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, to cast a vote and so get the bill passed by a one-vote margin. The resultant bond issue was the main (albeit insufficient) source of state funding in 1934.[30]

Through the winter of 1933–34, the Civil Works Administration eased the burden on relief agencies and finances, but after it ended in the spring, relief rolls rose again and required still more expenditures than before. Fortunately, FERA was willing to assume the overwhelming responsibility, even when it had to meet more than 90 percent of Illinois’s relief needs. Hopkins informed Horner that this could not go on, that in 1935 the state would have to contribute $3 million per month to its relief administration. Otherwise federal aid would cease. But where to get the money? Horner knew the General Assembly would never consent to another bond issue. For the moment, therefore, he asked legislators to allocate for relief the surplus that had accumulated in the treasury from the sales tax, which they did. But this was going to run out by April 1935, after which it would be necessary to find a more permanent solution. This solution, Horner decided, was to raise the sales tax from 2 percent to 3 percent. But there was a problem: while it would not be hard to get a simple majority of the legislature to pass such a measure, the money would not be available until August, whereas Hopkins had insisted that Illinois should provide its monthly quota of $3 million at once. This meant the bill would have to pass as an emergency measure, which required a two-thirds majority. And so the stage was set for an epic battle between Horner and downstate legislators, especially Republicans.[31]

The intricacies of the battle, which provoked one of Illinois’s greatest post-1932 relief crises, need not concern us, but they revolved around a couple of different issues. As usual, there was the bitter complaint that the Chicago-based IERC spent a disproportionate amount on Chicago rather than downstate. This complaint had by now fused with resentment of the whole “centralized” FERA system itself as personified in Hopkins, who was hated for his ostensibly autocratic tendencies and contempt for Illinois’s lawmakers. It was felt that the state, particularly its non-Cook County portion, was constantly being dictated to, that it was at the mercy of Hopkins’ whims and arbitrary demands, for the monthly $3 million was considered excessive. The legislature even sent a delegation to Washington, D.C. to ask Hopkins how he had arrived at that estimate of the state’s fair contribution, but he snubbed it by going on a vacation with FDR the night before it arrived. Such treatment only served to make more vituperative the denunciations that Republican politicians heaped on him, especially after he expressed disapproval of two bills to gut the IERC and return relief functions to the local level. “In my present mood,” a representative shouted on the floor of the Illinois House of Representatives, “I am ready and willing to tell Washington to go to hell… Now is the time to determine whether Illinois is a sovereign state or a puppet creature of the Washington bureaucracy.”[32]

Hopkins’ demand in 1935 for more state money—a perfectly reasonable demand—was but the spark that ignited a powder keg, for the business class’s hostility toward public relief had never abated even in the moments of dire crisis. Relief had only been accepted as a necessary evil then, a very temporary necessary evil. Throughout the decade, a relief administrator noted in retrospect, most Illinois newspapers “both shared and reflected a lack of sympathy for the unemployed en masse… The basic assumption seemed to be that the unemployed by and large were ne’er-do-wells who needed discipline as much as public assistance.” Interestingly, when the press mentioned particular cases that had come to its attention it frequently criticized the inhumanity of the relief that had been granted (probably as another way to argue that public relief was necessarily bad); but when it dealt in generalities it returned to the criticism that relief was too generous. The Tribune expressed a not uncommon attitude in an editorial in early November 1932, in which it declared that “The recipients of unemployment relief are objects of charity [and thus failures]… It was their duty to support themselves and their families and in addition to help support the common government. For one reason or another they have failed to make the grade.” The IERC, as the symbol and administrator of public relief, was the target of the most vicious criticism, being subjected to scurrilous and unsupported attacks charging “thievery, swindling, forgery, and plundering,” or “THE VILEST KIND OF RACKET,” to quote one headline, or waste of funds on a colossal scale. Grand jury investigations uncovered essentially no wrongdoing by the IERC.[33]

Legislative committees, too, conducted investigations of the Relief Commission, for instance in 1934 and 1937–38. The 1934 investigation culminated in a report that was “a vitriolic criticism and little more,” “highly biased and largely misinformed.” The investigation three years later, which occurred at a time when the Commission had been stripped of nearly all its former powers, was more legitimate, being concerned with the inadequacies of what was by then a system of relief by local governmental units. Indeed, its final report argued that the IERC should regain supervisory authority over local administration of state funds, because the money was being spent wastefully. Nevertheless, it too was somewhat hostile toward unemployment relief, stating, for example, that “the effort to extend social service as a state-wide function of poor relief [an effort that had been integral to the FERA system of public relief] is an extravagant result of the successful propaganda of a profession [namely, social work] desiring to establish a permanent field of public employment for themselves.” All in all, a knowledgeable commentator concludes, “it is apparent that the first state relief administration in Illinois had little or no support from the legislature which had created it.” No surprise, then, that it effectively came to an end (albeit temporarily) in July 1936, as we’ll see.[34]

Meanwhile, in April 1935 neither the governor nor the downstate opposition forces would back down in their standoff over the sales tax increase. Horner, backed by Hopkins, demanded it immediately, but the Republicans would not grant it. The matter came to a head at the end of April, when funds ran out. The nearly 10,000 employees of the IERC were cut off the payroll (although many continued working as volunteers) and relief stations in most counties closed, leaving the jobless to fend for themselves. Apparently unaware of the irony, politicians and newspaper editors shrieked that Hopkins was “provoking hunger and perhaps even violence” and showing “insolent indifference toward physical suffering,” but he did not budge. Some legislators, on the other hand, were not upset by the developments. “For the first time there has been a tightening of the Illinois Relief Commission’s purse strings,” said one. “They are being forced to purge their rolls of chiselers [i.e., fraudulent relief cases]. The payroll brigade has been laid off and when they get money to start operations again I don’t believe they will dare put all their thousands back to work.”[35]

Those on relief were of a rather different state of mind. Hundreds of demonstrators marched on the State Capitol waving banners—“United We Eat, Divided We Starve,” “Tax Wealth, Not Misery,” a criticism of the sales tax (which taxed the unemployed themselves for their own relief). Chicago saw demonstrations as well, at which dozens were arrested. Thousands of eviction notices were posted as rent payments ceased. Later in the month hunger marchers returned to Springfield, this time in the thousands: “unemployed miners, farmers, and laborers in ragged old clothes and overalls, tired and hungry, marched about the capitol building with posters denouncing the sales tax,” as “hundreds of state troopers wearing Sam Brown belts studded with bullets guarded the entrance to the capitol.” They informed the crowd that machine guns would be turned on them if they tried to enter the building. While the politicians inside attacked one another for their cruelty and callousness, the marchers demanded that relief be restored with money raised by taxes on inheritances, incomes, and the Chicago Board of Trade.[36]

In late May, finally, the crisis came to an end. It had become clear to Hopkins that a two-thirds majority in the Illinois House was impossible to achieve, so he decided to accept a simple non-emergency measure, according to which the state would resume its financial contributions in August. Horner agreed, having been assured that FERA would finance Illinois’s entire relief operation until the rise in the sales tax started to bring in more revenue. For the rest of the year FERA continued to fund well over three-fourths of the state’s unemployment relief.[37]

However, political currents in the second half of 1935 were anything but placid, for major changes in federal policy were in the works. The WPA was slowly being set up in the summer and fall of 1935, in preparation for a dismantling of FERA. In January 1935, Roosevelt had pledged to end federal participation in direct relief, and the gradual disassembling of FERA that fall fulfilled his pledge. Minor “crises” occurred as funding shrank, but the real difficulties for Illinois’s administrators were produced by the simultaneous directives to build up the infrastructure of the WPA—which entailed transferring tens of thousands of relief cases to federal work relief—and tear down the infrastructure of FERA. It is something of a miracle that this bureaucratic nightmare did not collapse under the weight of administrative confusion. In fact, the major problems that emerged in the course of the transition, and were not solved in the following years, were financial rather than strictly “administrative”: the Roosevelt administration did not request, and Congress did not grant, sufficient funds for the WPA even to hire all the employable (“able-bodied”) people on the relief rolls, quite apart from the millions of able-bodied unemployed who were not on relief at all (and therefore could not be hired by the WPA). Governors had been led to expect that nearly all the employable relief cases in their state would be transferred to the WPA and thereby become a federal responsibility, so that the state would no longer have to pay for their direct relief. But because of the inadequate finances of the WPA—which grew even more inadequate after 1935—states ended up being saddled with far more cases than they had expected, which led to even lower standards of care than would have been the case anyway. In Illinois, for example, the “residual” relief caseload (i.e., the number of cases that were not transferred to the WPA) in January 1936 had been predicted to be around 65,000, but it turned out to be 130,000.[38]

Thus, Illinois entered a new, tragic phase, the post-FERA phase of its relief administration. Historians have written about the grim consequences nationwide of this backward step in unemployment relief, the devolution of relief back from the centralized FERA to the states and localities, so we need not dwell on its broad contours. Taking their cue from the federal government, many states quickly shed their relief burden and shunted the responsibility back onto local communities, which in most cases had neither the inclination nor the means to meet the resultant chaos. All too frequently, and as early as January or February 1936, relief sank to old, miserable poor-law standards. “In one eastern community,” a relief worker wrote in June 1936, “town officials authorized families to beg their food from merchants and householders when town funds for relief were exhausted. Recently newspapers have reported the encampment of delegations of unemployed in legislative chambers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Missouri protesting the abandonment of state aid for relief, calling to mind the ‘hunger marches’ of the early period of the depression.” During the terrible recession of 1938, a journalist noted that “food, clothing, and shelter budgets for families receiving direct relief have been lopped so drastically and so generally [in the Midwest] that it is impossible to measure the results in human suffering.” As may be imagined, conditions were even worse in the South. Dorothy Kahn, director of the Philadelphia relief program, asked in despair, “Have we lived through the agonizing years of depression relief to produce nothing better than this?”[39]

Commentators at the time and subsequently have puzzled over why the Roosevelt administration abruptly ended FERA after only two-and-a-half years. Jacob Fisher, chairman of the National Coordinating Committee of Social Service Employee Groups, was convinced it was the propaganda campaigns and lobbying of the business class that doomed FERA. “The engineers of defeat of the social work program have been the American Manufacturers Association, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Liberty League.” Doubtless there was some truth to this, for business at the national and state levels had indeed vigorously opposed high standards of public relief, and much of the media had waged an ideological war against relief. The mainstream culture of the well-propertied had never grown comfortable with the idea of the “national dole,” especially if it was to last longer than a year or two. But this meant that the Roosevelt administration itself was never comfortable with a national dole, and from the very beginning looked forward to ending it. Indeed, this is why the word “emergency” was in the very name of FERA. Even Harry Hopkins, himself a social worker who was extremely sympathetic to the suffering of the poor, was convinced that relief was a “very demoralizing thing” that encouraged “an unwholesome attitude toward the Nation and the States.” Liberals replied to Hopkins and Roosevelt that no one doubted it was better to have work than relief; what was at issue was the inability of the WPA to hire anything close to a majority of the eligible unemployed, who would therefore be thrust back onto the miserable resources and cruelty of states and localities. It was similarly cruel to abandon “unemployables” to their states, even if the provisions of the new Social Security Act were likely to make things somewhat better for them.[40]

But such pleas were of no use: Roosevelt’s personal ideology had been formed in a political economy that overwhelmingly favored the interests of business, so it was basically conservative, committed to fiscal conservatism and a belief that relief was so degrading the federal government should not be involved in it. Reinforcing these convictions was evidence of the “unwholesome attitude” among those on federal relief that disturbed Hopkins: all over the country they had come to think the federal government had an obligation to help the needy, and that it was not fulfilling this obligation satisfactorily. “Clients are assuming that the government has a responsibility to provide,” a journalist reported, adding that “the stigma of relief has [by 1934] almost disappeared except among white-collar groups.” Relief workers noted that many clients even claimed a right to live comfortably at the government’s expense. We’ll return to this important point in the next chapter. Such a defiant attitude was very unsettling to authorities, for in its implications it seemed to demand a wholly new social order. How could capitalism continue—without radically changing—if all the unemployed received generous government support? Average wages would have to rise significantly in order to tempt people to seek work, and wealth would have to be taxed at a very high rate in order to pay for such an expansive welfare state. Society as a whole would become much more statist, and individual states’ independence of the federal government would erode significantly. In short, FERA was encouraging attitudes—and social movements—incompatible with America’s capitalist economy and federalist political structure. It had to be dismantled lest the pressures for its expansion engulf the nation.[41]

Discipline of the working class, therefore, became the order of the day, an order that Illinois carried out with relish (in effect, if not in intent). To retrace all the political machinations, sectional jealousies, personal rivalries, business lobbying, and popular protests that determined Illinois’s relief policies in the following years is a Herculean task that will not be attempted here. But we can draw two main conclusions from the brief overview that follows. First, to quote a relief administrator, “there is no gainsaying the fact that the state and localities could have provided more relief money than they did during the period of FERA grants.” This is obvious from the fact that they did provide more money, because they were forced to, after the federal government had withdrawn. Second, the welfare of the unemployed was at all times a low priority compared to other issues such as the avoidance of tax increases, the sectional desire to saddle other regions of the state with as much of the relief bill as possible, the determination not to reintroduce a state property tax or pursue any kind of corporate income tax, and the agendas of partisan politics.[42]

It was not a good omen when the underfunding of relief began immediately in January 1936, even though by some accounts the state had an $18 million surplus. Horner called a special session of the legislature, which, after weeks of deliberation, appropriated enough money to keep relief going into the summer. Meanwhile, however, measures had been passed that threatened to throw the entire administrative machinery into chaos: the General Assembly, led by downstate elements (which themselves were led by the Illinois Agricultural Association), had decided to gut the hated IERC by that summer and transfer financial and administrative responsibility to the state’s 1,454 townships. To make Chicago pay for its own poor, it and all other townships had to levy a property tax in order to be eligible for state funds. Horner, who had often supported Chicago in its battles with downstate counties, signed off on this terrible, hastily conceived legislation because he was at that moment mired in a political battle with the Chicago Democratic machine and had decided to “play rough.” He knew, too, that in his fight for reelection downstaters would appreciate an anti-Chicago stance.[43]

Less dramatic than the state’s political skirmishes but equally or more real was the continued inadequacy of relief in these early months of 1936. In March, for example, clients’ budgets had to be slashed, which meant that the IERC could in but few cases pay rent and electricity bills. Clothing and medical service authorizations, likewise, were restricted to emergency cases. Such curtailments were to recur regularly from 1936 on, even in months of relative financial stability.[44]

Starting in July, the General Assembly decreed that only $2 million of state funds would be available each month—to meet a need of more than twice that amount. The towns were supposed to supply the remainder. Illinois’s relief financing and administration entered, then, a period of “truly medieval” decentralization, in which 1,454 authorities existed where formerly there had been one. It was now, much as in the bad old days of “pauper relief,” up to townships to determine who would be eligible for relief and how much they would be granted, a system that lent itself to abuses, inefficiencies, local incompetence, and wide variations in relief standards. It is true, however, that there was not a literal return to the Elizabethan poor-law administration of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, since the state government did commit to contributing money towards relief and maintained some connection with local institutions (as well as with the WPA and other federal programs). Moreover, Chicago was fortunate in that the new Chicago Relief Administration could simply take over the existing networks and professional personnel of the IERC, which had been based there.[45]

On the other hand, the city’s poor were unfortunate in the degree to which the City Council was subordinate to business interests. The transition to the post-IERC era was going to be difficult in the best of circumstances, but with such a City Council it was utterly chaotic. Even if the Council had prepared for the sudden reduction of state funds in July 1936 by passing the required tax levy, a significant cut in relief budgets would have been necessary. But the aldermen refused to do so, hoping to find a way to circumvent the state’s decree. As neither the city nor the state cared enough to keep relief functioning in Chicago, drastic cuts were necessary beginning in the summer of 1936. Medical and hospital services were discontinued, then rent, gas, electricity, and clothing services, and then food budgets had to be cut. There was not even any money to mail the thousands of grocery orders that families were counting on. For over a week in July, therefore, no food was given. “The total amount of suffering,” the Chicago Defender observed, “endured during the seven or eight days of absolute destitution by clients will never be known.” At last aldermen donated $2,900 to pay for postage to mail the food orders that CRA employees had volunteered (without pay) to fill out.[46]

That week there occurred a dramatic illustration of the Piven-Cloward thesis that (in crude terms) the surest way, and often the only way, for the poor to get consideration is to cause turmoil. Hundreds of people on relief, representing the Illinois Workers Alliance, the Association of Workers in Public Agencies, and the Revolutionary Workers’ League, stormed the City Council chambers and flooded the galleries, loudly denouncing the assembled aldermen as the mayor tried to call the meeting to order. Pandemonium ensued until police dragged the demonstrators into the hallway. With the hundreds of “troublemakers” finally outside, the aldermen were called to order to the tune of “Solidarity Forever” ringing in the halls. This whole affair apparently made an impression, for the City Council promptly voted to levy the property tax it had put off for months. Later that day, grocery orders were mailed to clients.[47]

Unfortunately, the tax could not be collected right away, and no banks would buy the tax anticipation warrants. So local money remained unavailable. A skeleton CRA staff continued to work without pay so that families could receive their grocery orders (the mayor lent $2,500 for the postage), but still no other aid was given. Protest demonstrations continued, as when 10,000 people marched from Union Park to Michigan Avenue to decry the suspension of cash relief and the state’s policy of using only one-third of revenue from the sales tax for relief purposes. Conditions were equally bad, or worse, in many other areas of the state, but the governor was on vacation and the legislature was out of session, so nothing was done. Finally in August the General Assembly reconvened—under heavy guard, for it was greeted by hundreds of hunger marchers. An anonymous bomb threat heightened the politicians’ sense that something should be done. “An infernal machine,” the threat said, “will be thrown into the Senate chamber and members of the Legislature will go home in boxes and on stretchers…if you don’t take up our program first.” Obediently they did.[48]

By mid-August some ameliorations of the statewide disaster had been approved, in particular that for the rest of the year $3 million of state money would be available for relief each month, and that some of the state and local money could be used for administrative purposes (rectifying an oversight in earlier legislation that had necessitated the virtual shutting down of administration). But still only eight percent of funds could be used for administration in Chicago, an absurd and arbitrary constraint that forced a reduction in the CRA staff from 2,200 to 1,000 and, among other inefficiencies, saddled the remaining caseworkers with 250 cases each. The increased state funds did, at least, allow food budgets to be restored and cash relief to resume, along with semi-regular payments for rent, fuel, shoes, and clothing. In December the state appropriated another $12 million, which carried relief through May 1937—although not without yet more cuts that forced thousands of families off the rolls in Chicago.[49]

And so things went for the next few years, deteriorating significantly during the “Roosevelt recession” of 1937–38. The state kept appropriating more money—usually well after emergency conditions had arisen—but it was never enough. As the conservative backlash against the New Deal gained momentum, the WPA hemorrhaged jobs in 1937, creating dire conditions in Chicago, the rest of Illinois, and indeed much of the country.[50] The CRA was forced, again, to end payments for rent and clothing, as eviction rates shot up in the fall of 1937 and thousands of clients were dropped from the rolls. Desperate parents pleaded with courts to assume guardianship of their children, so that they could receive proper care in foster homes or institutions. By late November, the head of the CRA declared that the city was facing its worst crisis since the winter of 1930–31.[51]

The following year saw a temporary improvement, as relief returned to 80 percent adequacy (as measured by a subsistence budget)—until May, when stations closed again. Tens of thousands of families were shut off from access to life’s necessities; for good measure, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution condemning any increase in property taxes. At length, a solution was found to this new emergency, and relief resumed.[52]

But Congress slashed appropriations for the WPA again in 1939, and the relief rolls, yet again, expanded. The CRA and the IERC resorted to the usual measures, for instance discontinuing all relief cases in Chicago (of which there were 190,000, representing 570,000 people) and forcing everyone to reapply and possibly undergo an investigation. To cut the rolls further, the legislature passed a law stipulating that only people who had lived in Illinois for three consecutive years could be granted relief. Despite all these austerity measures, funds kept hemorrhaging. At a time when New York City was contributing 60 percent of the cost of relief, Chicago was supplying about 17 percent.[53]

Nothing noteworthy changed in 1940. In May, labor unions and “a huge host of progressive organizations” such as the Illinois Workers Security Federation (successor to the Illinois Workers Alliance) sent a resolution to Governor Horner pleading for a special session of the legislature, a resolution that began, “The relief situation in Chicago today is a major emergency. Malnutrition, starvation and disease are appalling in extent. Present WPA cuts will make these conditions even worse.” No special session was called. A number of stalwart activists, veterans of unemployed advocacy, valiantly continued the fight in an ever more conservative political climate, but they had little success. Even the most powerful unions were unable to sway the governor or the legislature. For instance, in a letter to the IWSF, the district president of the United Mine Workers lamented that “our Union has done everything humanly possible to bring these matters [of relief] to the attention of the state administration, but, I am sorry to say, without any results.” Now that unemployed organizations, victims of conservative backlash, had “shrunk to the vanishing point” (as one activist said), the state had no reason to remember the thousands of unfortunates suffering in their tenements and back alleys.[54]

As we know, what finally saved the unemployed and ended the twelve-year-long relief crisis (continuing into 1941) not only in Illinois but all over the country was, perversely, the imperative to kill Nazis in Europe and Japanese in the Pacific. Such an imperative, far from being a threat to the class structures of American capitalism and their distribution of power, was a colossal boon to business, so it was able to become national policy, as adequate unemployment relief never was. Where the New Deal and (in some respects) its humanitarian impulse had failed, global war succeeded.

[1] For a non-Marxian account that supports this conception, see G. William Domhoff and Michael J. Webber, Class and Power in the New Deal: Corporate Moderates, Southern Democrats, and the Liberal-Labor Coalition (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011). The work of the political scientist Thomas Ferguson is even more apt. See, e.g., Thomas Ferguson, Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995) and Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers, Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986).

[2] Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare (New York: Vintage Books, 1971), xiii.

[3] Piven and Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 83.

[4] For an illustration of the anti-Marxian, idealistic method, see, e.g., Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), which won the Bancroft Prize in 2006. Westad argues, implausibly, that “the United States and the Soviet Union were driven to intervene in the Third World by the ideologies inherent in their politics” (my italics), rather than by economic and strategic considerations of power. For example, after quoting a State Department spokesman on the reasons for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, Westad states ingenuously that “freedom and security have been, and remain today, the driving forces of U.S. foreign policy” (p. 405), apparently unaware of the countless instances from 1898 to the present of U.S. suppression of freedom and democracy abroad. (See William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 2004).) The intellectual superficiality of idealism is patent.

[5] Students of U.S. imperialism are especially familiar with the reality of self-deception and hypocrisy among policymakers. To take an example at random, Gillian McGillivray espouses a refreshing realism about U.S. motives in invading Latin American countries dozens of times in the twentieth century when she argues, “The most common characteristic of these interventions (beginning with Cuba [in 1898]) was the U.S. administrations’ need to portray them as motivated by humanitarian generosity when what really drove them was U.S. capitalists’ desire for new markets. By the late nineteenth century, many U.S. industrialists were ready to export goods, to import and process primary resources, or to set up export industries abroad… Within this framework, one can understand the contradiction between what U.S. politicians said they were doing and what they actually did in Cuba and the rest of Latin America. The hypocrisy began with the myth that U.S. forces invaded Cuba to help the Cubans win freedom from Spain. The actual goal was to preclude a social and racial revolution (‘another Haiti’) and to create a new, dependent, and politically moderate Cuba safe for U.S. capital…” Gillian McGillivray, Blazing Cane: Sugar Communities, Class, and State Formation in Cuba, 1868–1959 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 67, 68. See also, among many others, Walter LaFeber, The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860–1898 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1963) and Walter LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993). It is economic interest and power that makes the world go round.

[6] Jeff Singleton, The American Dole: Unemployment Relief and the Welfare State in the Great Depression (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000), 80. Anthony Badger agrees with this contention when he argues that the evidence does not “support the argument that the New Deal welfare measures were designed to ward off the threat of disorder by the unemployed and the poor.” Badger, The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933–40 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989), 302.

[7] See, e.g., Christopher Rowland, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995); John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995); Karl Kautsky, Communism in Central Europe at the Time of the Reformation (New York: Russell & Russell, 1959); Karl Kautsky, Foundations of Christianity: A Study in Christian Origins (New York: International Publishers, 1925).

[8] This claim might seem contentious or in need of argument, but it is in fact mere truism. It should hardly be controversial that the dominant class opposes threats to its power. This is why, for instance, business opposes unions. If churches explicitly threatened capitalist power, they would be treated as harshly as unions.

[9] Thomas Ferguson, Golden Rule, 145.

[10] James Stuart Olson, Herbert Hoover and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, 1931–1933 (Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1977), 33–39, 56–58, 66; Barron’s, January 18, 1932; Chicago Tribune, July 31, 1932. See also Vincent Gaddis, Herbert Hoover, Unemployment, and the Public Sphere: A Conceptual History, 1919–1933 (New York: University Press of America, 2005), 107–126.

[11] Olson, Herbert Hoover and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, 65–67.

[12] Ibid., 80–84; Arthur P. Miles, Federal Aid and Public Assistance in Illinois (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1941), 25, 26.

[13] Gifford Pinchot, “The Case for Federal Relief,” Survey Graphic, January 1, 1932.

[14] James T. Patterson, The New Deal and the States: Federalism in Transition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 97–99.

[15] Carl H. Chatters, “Who Pays for Social Services?,” Social Service Year Book, 1938, 1–13; Daniel Scheinman, “Financing Unemployment Relief, 1930–38,” in State-Local Fiscal Relations in Illinois, ed. Simon E. Leland (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1941), 186; Washington Post, August 3, 1934, December 20, 1935.

[16] Bulletins 123, 126, 127, 137, 147, 161-A, 169-A, Civic Federation of Chicago Papers, UIC Special Collections, box 1, folders 7–9.

[17] Chicago Tribune, February 25, 1934.

[18] Josephine Chapin Brown, Public Relief, 1929–1939 (New York: Octagon Books, 1971 [1940]), 55; Clorinne McCulloch Brandenburg, “Chicago Relief and Service Statistics, 1928–1931” (M.A. thesis, University of Chicago, 1932), 39.

[19] Brandenburg, “Chicago Relief,” 14–16, 20, 21; Brown, Public Relief, 72; Mauritz Hallgren, Seeds of Revolt (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1933), 123, 133.

[20] Alex Gottfried, Boss Cermak of Chicago: A Study of Political Leadership (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1962), 247–255; Dwayne Charles Cole, “The Relief Crisis in Illinois during the Depression, 1930–1940” (Ph.D. diss., St. Louis University, 1973), 4–15; Hallgren, Seeds of Revolt, 118–127.

[21] Frank Z. Glick, The Illinois Emergency Relief Commission (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940), 16–26; Robert Asher, “The Influence of the Chicago Workers’ Committee on Unemployment upon the Administration of Relief: 1931–1934” (M.A. thesis, University of Chicago, 1934), 10.

[22] Chicago Tribune, January 25, 1932.

[23] Glick, The Illinois Emergency Relief Commission, 20–26; Chicago Tribune, February 2, 1932.

[24] Glick, 26; Brown, Public Relief, 89–96.

[25] Cole, “The Relief Crisis in Illinois,” 37–39; Scheinman, “Financing Unemployment Relief,” 183; Glick, The IERC, 21–25.

[26] Edward L. Ryerson, Jr., “Out of the Depression,” Survey, January 1934, 3–7; William Arthur Hillman, “Urbanization and the Organization of Welfare Activities in the Metropolitan Community of Chicago” (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1940), 60–62; G. D. Jones, “The Local Political Significance of New Deal Relief Legislation in Chicago: 1933–1940” (Ph.D. diss., Northwestern University, 1970), 22.

[27] Asher, “The Influence of the Chicago Workers’ Committee,” 17, 18; Edith Abbott, “The Fallacy of Local Relief,” New Republic, November 9, 1932; New York Times, June 28, September 16, 1932.

[28] Ryerson, “Out of the Depression,” 5; Scheinman, “Financing Unemployment Relief,” 184, 185; Glick, The IERC, 161–164; Asher, “The Influence of the Chicago Workers’ Committee,” 20–22; Chicago Tribune, October 2, 29, 1932; Washington Post, October 20, 1932; New York Herald Tribune, November 1, 1932; New York Times, November 1, 1932; Frank McCulloch letter to Marcia Beales, June 10, 1979, McCulloch Papers, box 7, folder 1.

[29] Scheinman, “Financing Unemployment Relief,” 185, 186; James T. Nicholson, “Family Relief and Service,” in Social Service Year Book, 1933, 3; Glick, The IERC, 179–186.

[30] Cole, “The Relief Crisis in Illinois,” 121–136; Glick, The IERC, 166–168; Jones, “The Local Political Significance,” 51, 52.

[31] Scheinman, “Financing Unemployment Relief,” 187; Glick, The IERC, 76, 177; Cole, “The Relief Crisis in Illinois,” 254–262; Jones, “The Local Political Significance,” 82–100.

[32] Chicago Tribune, March 7, 20, 27, 1935; New York Times, March 24, 1935.

[33] Jones, “The Local Political Significance,” 79–82; Glick, The IERC, 137–144. Even the Chicago Daily News, not excessively hostile towards the IERC, was quite hostile towards relief in general. To quote one editorial, “[Relief] is a poison, both psychological and moral, that insidiously tempts its victims to succumb, and then destroys the desire and the spirit of enterprise that should grasp every opportunity for a return to independence.” Chicago Daily News, July 17, 1934. Such an attitude was very common all over the country, including among New Dealers and even some of the unemployed themselves, who wanted to work. Its seductive appeal was an indispensable ally in the campaigns of conservatives and the business class to roll back and finally destroy federal- and state-administered relief.

[34] Glick, 144–151.

[35] Cole, “The Relief Crisis in Illinois,” 257–262; Jones, “The Local Political Significance,” 94–100; New York Herald Tribune, April 28, May 6, 1935; Washington Post, May 1, 1935; New York Times, May 6, 1935.

[36] New York Herald Tribune, May 8, 1935; New York Times, May 10, 12, 22, 1935; Chicago Tribune, May 16, 1935; Washington Post, May 16, 1935; Eugene Leslie, “Illinois Creates a Crisis,” Social Work Today, July 1935.

[37] Chicago Tribune, May 23, 1935; New York Times, May 26, 1935.

[38] New York Times, September 29, 1935; Russell H. Kurtz, “No More Federal Relief?” Survey, February 1935; Biennial Report of the IERC, Covering the Period July 1, 1934 through June 30, 1936 (Chicago, 1936), 149; Margaret D. Yates, “Family Service and Relief,” Social Service Year Book, 1935, 13; Singleton, The American Dole, 185.

[39] “A New Low in Relief Standards,” Compass, June 1936, in National Association of Social Workers Papers, Chicago History Museum, box 22, folder 1; Samuel Lubell and Walter Everett, “The Breakdown of Relief,” Nation, August 20, 1938; Singleton, The American Dole, 186; Isidor Feinstein, “Starving on Relief,” Nation, February 12, 1936; Dorothy C. Kahn, “What Is Worth Saving in ‘This Business of Relief’?,” Survey, February 1937, 38.

[40] Jacob Fisher, “The Present Status of Public Relief in the United States,” in Proceedings of the National Conference of Social Work, 1936 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1936), 437; William R. Brock, Welfare, Democracy, and the New Deal (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 259–267; “The New Deal of Lower Wages,” Nation, January 16, 1935.

[41] Quote from Brock, Welfare, Democracy, and the New Deal, 263.

[42] Glick, The IERC, 183.

[43] New York Times, January 4, February 8, 1936; Chicago Tribune, January 16, 1936; Cole, “The Relief Crisis in Illinois,” 318–326; Jones, “The Local Political Significance,” 106, 107; Scheinman, “Financing Unemployment Relief,” 188, 189; Glick, The IERC, 171, 172. The last four sources are also the main sources for the next paragraph but one.

[44] Chicago Tribune, March 14, 1936.

[45] Lubell and Everett, “The Breakdown of Relief,” 173, 174.

[46] Cole, “The Relief Crisis in Illinois,” 348–351; Chicago Tribune, June 17, 20, 28, July 2, 1936; New York Times, July 12, 1936; Chicago Defender, July 18, 1936.

[47] Chicago Tribune, July 9, 1936.

[48] Chicago Tribune, July 14, 16, 18, August 5, 1936; Cole, “The Relief Crisis in Illinois,” 354–357; Washington Post, August 5, 1936; New York Times, August 9, 1936.

[49] Cole, “The Relief Crisis,” 356–359; Chicago Tribune, August 13, 1936; Scheinman, “Financing Unemployment Relief,” 189, 190; “The Illinois Relief Imbroglio,” Compass, October 1936; Chicago Tribune, April 30, 1937; Illinois Council on Public Assistance and Employment, “Preliminary Report on Administration of Relief in Chicago,” January 25, 1938, in Welfare Council Papers, box 233, folder 6; Fay Herman, “Politics in Illinois,” Social Work Today, October 1936; letter from Frank McCulloch to Jacob Arvey, April 1, 1937, in Frank McCulloch Papers, box 4, folder 4.

[50] It is possible to see the end of FERA as the first moment of the national turn towards conservatism, the initial target of which was public unemployment relief and the second target, a few years later, the spirit of the CIO. From this perspective, ironically, the Social Security Act, approximately coincident with the end of FERA, can be seen as just as much a victory of conservatism as of liberalism, for it constituted but a feeble attempt at state welfarism in comparison to the far more popular Workers’ Unemployment and Social Insurance Bill. From these two initial victories, one may see the slowly building conservative “movement” as progressing to even greater triumphs in its vitiation of the potential of the WPA and its halting the social-movement momentum of the CIO from 1938 into the war years. Eventually, starting perhaps in 1947 and ’48, it established itself as the dominant political and cultural paradigm. According to this periodization the crucial year was 1935 (not 1938 or the later years that historians have proposed), for it was then that certain radical possibilities were foreclosed, the tide turned against unemployment relief and an expansive welfare state, and the Roosevelt administration definitively revealed its true conservative colors. The die was cast even before Roosevelt’s overwhelming electoral win in 1936.

[51] Glick, The IERC, 174; New York Times, September 19, 1937; Cole, “The Relief Crisis,” 363–370; Chicago Tribune, August 25, September 1, 8, 17, October 14, November 9, 30, 1937; Milton Shufro, “Chicago Spotlights a Crisis,” Compass, December 1937, 20–22.

[52] Cole, “The Relief Crisis,” 376–381; Glick, The IERC, 175; Chicago Tribune, May 18, 27, June 11, 21, 1938; New York Herald Tribune, May 19, 22, 1938; New York Times, May 22, 26, 1938; Scheinman, “Financing Unemployment Relief,” 192; IERC, The Relief Problem in Illinois: Report to His Excellency, Henry Horner, Governor, and to the Honorable Members of the Sixty-First Illinois General Assembly (Chicago, 1938).

[53] New York Times, July 22, 1939; Chicago Tribune, January 10, June 2, August 11, 1939; Cole, “The Relief Crisis,” 461–476; Jones, “The Local Political Significance of New Deal Relief Legislation,” 184–190.

[54] Lea D. Taylor et al., “Resolution to Governor Horner on Relief,” Frank McCulloch Papers, box 9, folder 4; Work, May 23, 1940, 1; letter from UMW District 12 president to McCulloch, May 21, 1940, and letter from McCulloch to Sophonisba Breckenridge, May 18, 1940, in ibid.; Chicago Tribune, April 7, June 5, 1940.


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