Book Review – The Homeless Transient in the Great Depression

New York State 1929-1941

This is the kind of book that I really dig….and puts 99.9% of the population to sleep…LOL

Lots of nitty-gritty details and statistics and stories related to a slice of history that is little understood or appreciated but which gives a unique insight into a troubled time. I think one learns more about humanity in situations like this than in most every other manner. The fact is that I see a great comparison in the way people are dealing with the current economic environment and the way that folks handled the depression. There is a consistency in the pair that sometimes gives me chills.

Most little realize how much has changed from that time.

Some excerpts, omitting the raft of statistics:

“The message very clearly was: We will care for you, but it will be on our terms, that is, the almshouse or nothing.”

“The revised poor law made its first symbolic break with the past in its title and definition of terms. The law of 1929 was entitled the Public Welfare Law, rather than the poor law. Symbolically, this took the onus of poverty off those treated under its provisions and changed the emphasis of relief from charity to public duty.”

“The New York Public Welfare Law, although in many ways a drastic revision of the old poor laws still retains the seventeenth-century poor law principles: (1) local responsibility, (2) family responsibility, (3) settlement (or a residence requirement for eligibility for public aid).”

“In other words, it was necessary to incorporate the federal government into the welfare scheme from which it had been omitted long ago when the individual states first adopted the English poor law system.”

“It is interesting to note that one of the rules subsequently laid down by the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA) was that there should be no discrimination on grounds of “political creed, religion, race, color or non-citizenship”. Thus, in practical experience, a United States citizen without residency could be turned down while a non-citizen with residency would receive aid.”

“Normal decent God-fearing people, temporarily unemployed and destitute, were forced into an environment of hopelessness and degradation, the impact of which was devastating to the individual.”

“As explained a few years later in the constitution of the Hobos of America: ‘A hobo will work, a tramp won’t and a bum couldn’t if he wanted to. …A hobo believes the world owes him an opportunity, while the tramp thinks the world owes him a living and the bum just exists.”

“Once he was safely aboard, the rider selected his berth. If he has caught a passenger train, he could ride the “blind,” that is, the space between the locked door of the baggage car and the locomotive. This was, however, a precarious perch, and the rider had to take care not to doze, lose his balance, and slip beneath the wheels.” The book goes to some length to describe the conditions associated with “riding the rails” and the danger and discomforts associated. In 1932, the ICC reported that at least 1886 were killed in accidents and 2,791 were injured. God only knows what the real number was.

Some excerpts from an autobiography by one Tom Kromer titled “Waiting for Nothing”:

I walk into this room. It is a big room. It is filled with these beds. They do not look so hot to me. They are only cots. They look lousy. I bet they are lousy, but a stiff has got to sleep. lousy or not….I can hear the stiffs as they sleep. I pick me out a flop at the other end of the room. There is no mattress. Only two dirty blankets. They are smelly. Plenty of stiffs have slept under these blankets.

They shove this stew before us. It is awful. It smells bad. The room is full of the stench of this rotten stew. What am I going to do? What can I do? I am a hungry man. Food is food to a hungry man, whether it is rotten or not. I’ve got to eat.

…..The book goes on. I found a copy yesterday (11/24/2012) and ordered it.

“From the time that President Franklin Pierce had broken precedent by vetoing legislation to aid the insane, right down to Herbert Hoover’s final presidential address, the position of the executive branch was that federal welfare benefits were the equivalent of a dole, a concept incompatible with prevailing American ideals and inconsistent with federal jurisdiction as defined in the Constitution.”

Eventually the New Deal came to include the Federal Transient Program….”Even in its early developmental stage, the program gave the transient an alternative to his constant wandering. More importantly, it gave the recipient the right to relief. He no longer needed to be a person without a country-one of the forgotten of the Great Depression.”

I treasure books like this…they give one a real appreciation of the times, unvarnished and real. No spin, no politics, just the reality of the times.