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A Program for Relief
January 16, 1937
Vol. 144, No. 3, P. 61
We are pleased that the President has given definite assurance that no individuals in need of relief will be dropped from the rolls of the WPA during the present fiscal year. At the very least, this indicates that the Administration is aware that relief is still a desperate problem. While unemployment is considerable lower than at any time in the past five years, between nine and ten million men and women are still without work. A large proportion of these persons have been out of a job so long that they have completely exhausted their resources. Many have become unemployable for physical or psychological reasons. Others have lost their skill and are not likely to be absorbed in private industry unless they can be rehabilitated or fitted to perform other types of work.
While the WPA is in many ways more satisfactory than any of its predecessors, it should be evident that no organization of this type can have a place in a permanent federal program. It is tremendously costly for the amount of actual assistance given. Much of the work carried out by the WPA would be indefensible except as a relief measure. If the projects are defensible, there is no reason why the workers should not have full-time jobs at standard wages. Nor does the WPA represent a satisfactory technique of relief. Its "security wage" involves an actual hardship on large families. Moreover, there are hundreds of thousands of men fully entitled to WPA jobs who, because of the recentness of their unemployment or for other reasons, have been thrown upon the mercies of state or local relief. This varies from an average of approximately $36 a month per family in New York to well under $10 in many Southern states.
Any form of relief is distasteful as a permanent policy, since of necessity it carries with it the stigma of charity. Far more satisfactory, obviously, would be a system of social insurance that provided adequate and regular benefits. But neither the Social Security Act nor any legislation that is likely to be enacted by the present Congress even approaches that goal. The 3,000 hunger marchers now converging on Washington will do much good if they merely dramatize the size of the problem of relief.
There is nothing more pernicious than the tradition that the local community should look after its own unfortunates. The fact is that many states and local communities are financially unable to do so. In many communities there are serious legal and constitutional obstacles to obtaining the necessary funds. The federal government, on the other hand, has several sources of income which are practically untapped.
The first consideration of a long-range relief program should be adequate assistance for all the needy, regardless of what caused their distress or where they live. This might be achieved either by a straight federal program or a joint federal-state plan under which the federal government could aid states unable to carry their burden. Experience has shown that standards must be fixed, as far as possible, by the federal government, while administration is often best carried out locally. Government employment projects should be continued only if their utility is beyond question. This should not mean a reduction in the so-called white-collar projects. On the contrary, the federal theater and art projects are undoubtedly among the most desirable of all WPA undertakings. But eligibility should be based, as in private industry, on ability rather than need. Wages, conditions of work, and the right of organization should be precisely the same as for private employment.
Simultaneously, there should be built up a truly adequate public employment service such as already exists in many of the leading industrial countries of the world. This would imply, at the outset, a complete census of unemployment and the establishment of an extensive program of training and rehabilitation. Such a program would undoubtedly be costly, although probably no more so than the present uneconomic WPA. It is necessary if a large section of American manhood is not to be permanently robbed of the right to earn a living.