TO: MR. HOPKINS
April 25, 1935
My dear Mr. Hopkins:
I have spent a week in Camden. It surprises me to find how radically attitudes can change within four or five months. When last I was in the field, the general attitude of the unemployed was one of hope. Times were of course lousy, but you had faith in the President and the New Deal and things would surely pick up. This, as I wrote you then, hung on an almost mystic belief in Mr. Roosevelt, a combination of wishful thinking and great personal loyalty.
In this town, and I believe it is a typical eastern industrial city, the unemployed are as despairing a crew as I have ever seen. Young men say, "We'll never find work." Men over forty say, "Even if there was any work we wouldn't get it; we're too old." They have been on relief too long; this is like the third year of the war when everything peters out into gray resignation. Moreover, they are no longer sustained by confidence in the President. The suggested $50 security wage seems to have done the trick. They are all convinced that $50 will be the coming flat wage for the unemployed, regardless of size of family. They say to you, quietly, like some people who have been betrayed but are too tired to be angry, "How does he expect us to live like that; does he know what food costs, what rents are; how can we keep clothes on the children...."
The leaders of the unemployed speak admiringly of you. They read about you in the papers (and one of the phenomena of this depression is the degree to which it has made this unread public avid for information: they follow every detail which deals with government or relief, and can give some of us pointers on what is going on in every branch of the government, as reported by the press.) They see headlines which indicate to them that you are telling people where to get off; and they feel that you still are fighting their battle. Formerly everyone used to ask me about the President, used to speak admiringly of him. He is rarely mentioned now, only in answer to questions. Local labor organizations (who are witch doctors with their fingers on the pulse of this group) and local unemployed council leaders say that if he were up for election tomorrow he would lose. They explain this by saying that labor feels the NRA has let them down and the relief clients feel there is no hope for them; industry will not take them back and relief is going on, as a mere sop to starvation.
I bring this up not because I think the politics of it will interest you (if in fact it has political significance) but because it is important in understanding the unemployed now. They used to be sustained by their personal faith: this belief made a good many things easier to bear and I think appreciably contributed to keeping them sane. Having lost that, their despair is a danger to themselves if to no one else. This is a hurried, unjust country, and the people expect to be led into the promised land over the weekend. I am reporting what I see and hear.
I have been following the unemployed leagues and councils closely. First I must say that I think our local administrators are a droll bunch psychologically, in relation to these protest groups. Put any man in authority and he suddenly becomes an embryonic capitalist, an employer of labor. The similarity in relationships between relief administrators and dissatisfied relief clients and industrial magnets and dissatisfied labor would be laughable, if it weren't sad and revolting. The Camden administrator now, in effect, is refusing to recognize the rights of labor to organize. (Humorous violation of 7A.) He does not want to deal with the unemployed Councils of Leagues or any man individually, and discuss with him his personal complaint. There is a strike going on amongst the unemployed in New Jersey; I don't know the extent of this strike. Relief headquarters minimize it, and relief clients, in meetings, brag about it. The reason is that relief clients get a 20% bonus for doing work relief, and they get their money in cash. The way they have figured it out, they are working for that 20% bonus only and they regard it as sweated labor. The whole thing is hard to understand--you have to start from the original principle that society owes a man a living and that he has a right to relief. Therefore, his relief food order is not a gift, it's his inalienable heritage, not to be considered as part of his pay.
They are very confused in their talk. (The meetings are deplorably rudderless, but more of that later.) They talk about lowering the wage standard of their brothers in industry, by accepting these relief wages. They talk about the laxness of supervision on the work relief projects and say it isn't a job; it's an excuse to put in cash-paid parasites as supervisors, foremen, timekeepers, etc. They say that the object is to get as many men loafing on projects as possible, so that friends and political appointees can get these supervisory jobs with cash salaries. They talk of the waste of money and how it affects the taxpayer. (This was really masterful: a long, rambling speech about how "we aren't taxpayers, you say, but every time we buy food or clothing we are paying taxes, and our children will have to continue to carry this burden.") They want a real job, they say: but their present demands are for a 24 hour week and an $18 weekly wage. I spoke to the various leaders of these groups and pointed out that working 35 hours in the Campbell Soup factory under a dreary speed-up system would force industry to raise wages; and then said, "This government believes in curtailing hours of work; why should we go against the policy of the government?" In a burst of candor one of the leaders admitted that the reason they had hit on an $18 wage was that this was the lowest they could compromise on. "What would you do if you had delegates wanting to strike for $40 a week?" He said, "We set that sum and then we can bargain from there."
The meetings themselves are an eye-opener. They are sad and dispirited, with the speakers trying very hard to get up a little enthusiasm from the audience. Obviously the principal lack is a lack of leadership. The men who head these organizations are semi-illiterate (local boys, I don't know about the big shots, but I am going to find out.) They are reasonable, baffled guys. With one exception: a sinister personage whose home I visited, a definite misfit (physically and mentally) in any society. It is to be noted that a large proportion of the unemployed have swung away from him, saying he's "radical." Most of the reasoning and emotion of these people passes comprehension; why not be radical for God's sake; they have every excuse. They are as Tory in their way as the Chamber of Commerce. In all cases, the whole Unemployed Council performance seems particularly sad and futile; but I think it serves an admirable purpose. To wit: it gives these people something to do, keeps their leaders busy, gives the followers a feeling of belonging somewhere; someone is interested in them, they realize that they have neighbors, other people in the same miserable boat. This cuts the danger of helpless solitary stagnation, somewhat avoids the tendency to stay at home and rot in despair. The meetings take the place of entertainment (the movies, a pool room, a saloon), and are their only chance of having any social life.
At one big meeting I attended the high-point of the evening was a prize drawing: chances were a penny apiece and the prizes were food: a chicken, a duck, four cans of something, and a bushel of potatoes. At the risk of seeming slobberly, I must say it was one of the most forlorn and pitiful things I have ever seen in my life. These people had somehow collected a few pennies (what money was left over after the prizes had been bought was to pay gasoline for a 10 year old car which drove the chairmen around to meetings.) They waited with passionate eagerness while the chances were read out, to see if they were going to be able to take some food home to the family. The man who won the duck said, "No we won't eat it; my little girl has been asking for a bunny for Easter and maybe she can make a pet of the duck. She hasn't got anything else to play with."
There will, I promise, be a growing tendency on the part of those who administer relief to take sides either with industry or labor, depending on their personal prejudices, emotion and background. I have already noted this, in a haphazard way, and in Camden the issue came up clearly. A strike is pending in the New York Ship Building Corp. It will probably take place around May first, and will be a strike for higher wages primarily. The Administrator was wondering what to do: should he give relief to the strikers, was their case really good, weren't they being paid enough anyhow? This somewhat clouds the original issue which is to give food to those who must have it and have no other means of obtaining it. Frivolously, one is tempted to point out the extent of ERA subsidization of private industry in that county, by the giving of supplementary relief to people employed in private industry but not making a subsistence living. One might also note that the ERA preserves a fine labor market for these seasonal industries, which casually lay people off knowing they can always get them back when they need them. In fact, when I asked the manager of Campbell Soup how his workers lived during the long pull between tomato seasons (August-December work period approximately), he said, "Oh, they go on relief."
Mr. Hodgson, the administrator, tells me that business is in a bad way. The three big local concerns are Campbell Soup, RCA Victor, and New York Ship. Victor's has been laying people off steadily, and has closed down its print shop permanently. New York Ship is laying off and the strike will help. Campbell's is in its annual slack period, but will reach employment (about 4500) in August, when tomatoes are in season. Campbell's, so I am told, has an annual profit of 10 million dollars. In any case, it is not in a bad way, but is the only industry that thrives. As a source of employment, however, it is not brilliant. There is a grueling speed-up (I can testify to this myself and I have backing for that statement, from many sources.) The tendency is to put two men on a job that requires four. Also, since the strike, one sees the now traditional and epic performance of union workers getting laid off, never to return if the Campbell management knows it. One of the most fascinating angles of 7A is the slyness manufacturers have acquired to combat it. There were about 1800 Union members in Campbell's. I should be surprised if any of these people had work there within six months--at least, if all of them stick to the Union--which they won't for the basic and cogent reason of hunger. Now the Union people are still belonging to the union, though dues slip into arrears. I had a revealing talk with the local president of the Union, an American (most of the labor here is Italian, Polish, or very illiterate negro). He is a superior kind of man, intelligent, cynical, calm. He has of course been laid off. He says that the speed with which the workers become demoralized is amazing. He expects that his own union cohorts will stay in the Union for a few months and then drift into unemployed councils or leagues. He says also that it's terrible to see how quickly they let everything slide; it takes about three months for a man to get dirty, to stop caring about the way his home looks, to get lazy and demoralized and (he suspects) unable to work.
This matter--the demoralization point--has interested me; I didn't originally bring it up, but found the unemployed themselves talking about it, either with fear or resignation. And a Labor organizer with whom I spoke repeated statements they had made. (All of this voluntarily, no "leading the witness.") For instance: I went to see a man aged 28. He had been out of steady work for 6 years. He lived on a house boat and did odd jobs of salvaging and selling wood an iron. He told me that it took from 3 to 6 months for a man to stop going around looking for work. "What's the use, you only wear out your only pair of shoes and then you get so disgusted." That phrase, "I get so disgusted..." is the one I most frequently hear to describe how they feel. You can understand what it means: it's a kind of final admission of defeat or failure or both. Then the man began talking about the new works program and he said, "How many of them would work if they had the chance? How many of them even could work?"
The union organizer, already mentioned, is connected with the building trades. There is some small municipal job on (I didn't see it) dealing with making a subway under the street. They have hired unemployed to do it. He said they had more accidents on that job than they normally had on a big construction job, with men working on scaffolding and really having cause for accidents. He said, "They get so clumsy; they forget how to do their job and then they seem just weak-like."
I still believe that if men were offered a living wage and a good stiff piece of work which they could accept as work, they'd come across all right. But they have a tendency to regard work relief as made work; and God knows we aren't giving living wages. Americans don't work for love alone and precious few of them (after 4 to 6 years of unemployment) work to keep their pride green.
Housing is unspeakable. No doubt the housing was never a thing of beauty and general admiration around here; but claptrap houses which have gone without repairs for upwards of five years are shameful places. There is marked overcrowding (and it is to be noted that T.B. is on the increase.) I have seen houses where the plaster had fallen through the lathe, and the basement floated in water. One entire block of houses I visited is so infected with bedbugs that the only way to keep whole is to burn our the beds twice a week and paint the wood work with carbolic acid, and even so you can just sit around and watch the little creatures crawling all over and dropping from the ceiling...
Household equipment nil. Apparently what goes last is the unused overstuffed furniture in the front room. Clothes nil. Really a terrible problem here; not only of protection against the elements (a lot of pneumonia amongst children: undernourishment plus exposure) but also the fact that, having no clothes, these people are cut out of any social life. They don't dare go out, for shame. The men feel it in applying for jobs: their very shabbiness acts against them. I am now talking primarily about the white collar class.
Health: well, they seem to be getting a lot of service here on the system of calling in their own doctor who is paid by ERA. The system apparently works here as elsewhere so that the best doctors do not take ERA clients (they do their own charity work in clinics) and some very canny folk, who solicit, get the trade. There are always stories about how badly this works: a man who got treatment at ERA expense for a year for rheumatism. He got no better and his wife asked if she could change doctors. The new doctor had an x-ray taken and fount that the man had cancer of the hip. He died within 6 months. Etc. But by and large, they are getting fairly good treatment I suppose, considering how lousy the medical attention for this class is, all over the country. They do, however, have a bad time getting the medicines prescribed by doctors. T.B. is increasing; the hospitals for mental diseases (State and county) have over 1000 more patients than in 1932, epileptics and feeble-minded are increasing. Malnutrition seems prevalent amongst children but not amongst adults; and venereal disease is more or less static though an entirely different class is beginning to come to the free clinics.
It appears that the depression is resulting in a lot of amateur prostitution. This is commented upon by the people who have to deal with the courts and care for delinquent children. The age limit is going down and unmarried mothers are very young. I was talking to a girl about this: she said, "Well, the girls go out with anybody, you might say, just to have something to do and to forget this mess." (She herself was on relief, getting something like $2.00 a week to live on.) I remarked that it was understandable, considering that at least they got a good square meal. And she said, very calmly, "Meal? No, almost never. Sometimes they get a glass of beer." It seems to me that this makes a picture: complete in itself. I've seen the gals. Obviously, they want clothes and a little fun. It's grim to think what they're getting for their trouble.
The young are as disheartening as any group, more so, really. They are apathetic, sinking into a resigned bitterness. No good, most of them. Their schooling, such as it is, is a joke; and they have never had the opportunity to learn a trade. They have no resources within or without; and they are waiting for nothing. They don't believe in man or God, let alone private industry; the only thing that keeps them from suicide is this amazing loss of vitality; they exist. "I generally go to bed around seven at night, because that way you get the day over with quicker."