Reporting The Depression

Franklin Roosevelt gave Harry Hopkins an impossible job in 1933. The President's New Deal administrator was supposed to find ways of feeding over 4 million families who couldn't find assistance in their State or local communities. Hopkins had to find and distribute food to those who really deserved help. If that task was not enough, he was also supposed to find jobs for those who could work. Most remember him for his later accomplishments administrating the Works Projects Administration (WPA) Few remember that his first attempts to combat hunger and lack of jobs was through the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA).

His main problem was to get trustworthy reports on how well relief programs were managed. To his great fortune, a hard-boiled individualistic woman named Lorena Hickok appeared on the scene. She was the first woman hired by the Associated Press and a devoted friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. That friendship had begun when Lorena covered the first lady during the election campaign. When Hopkins asked the unorthodox and sometimes irreverent newspaperwoman to travel the country and write the truth about what she saw, he found the ideal person. Her reports were some of the best of the Depression. What follows is her summary sent to Hopkins on January 1, 1935. She had traveled for three years through 32 states ferreting out local officials and interviewing hundreds of others. In this section she was trying to shed light on an age-old question that has since stumped historians. Why wasn't there a revolution during the Depression? Here is part of what she wrote…

Report Summary
[Washington, D.C. January 1, 1935]

Only among the young is there evidence of revolt, apparently. These young people are growing restive. Out of some 15 weekly reports from industrial centers all over the country, hardly one omitted a paragraph pointing out that these young people may not tolerate much longer a condition that prevents them from starting normal, active, self-respecting lives, that will not let them marry and raise families, that condemns them to idleness and want. At present there is not leadership among them. College men are shoveling sand, checking freight cars, working in filling stations. High school graduates are offering themselves to industry "for nothing, just experience' — and are being accepted. Boys who normally would be apprentices in the trades are tramping the pavements, riding the freights back and forth across the country, hanging about on street corners. One day in November a 21-year-old boy in Baltimore walked 20 miles, looking for work. "I just stopped at every place," he said, "but mostly they wouldn't even talk to me." * * * "There's going to be trouble as sure as you're sitting there," predicts the junior placement director in the New York State Employment Service. "There are no leaders in the group between 17 and 20, but these kids would gladly follow a leader of the next age level." * * * "There seems too be a general acceptance," wrote a FERA investigator from Homestead, PA. "of the fact that leadership will develop among the educated young people who are mingling on the only jobs they can bet with embittered unskilled laborers and absorbing their point of view." * * * Here are remarks from several young people to a FERA investigator in Providence, RI : A 20-year-old boy: "Why the Hell should I get up in the morning lady? What am I going to do with all these days? I've been looking for a job for four years. I've had two. Five months I've worked, in all. After a while you just know it ain't getting you anywhere. There's nothing for us!" Another boy: "I'd steal if I had the guts." A pretty 21-year-old girl: "I'm young. It seems to me I got a right to something, if it's only one new dress a year." " 19-year-old boy: "It's funny. A lot of times I get offered a drink. It seems like people don't want to drink alone. But no one ever offers me a meal. Most of the time when I take a drink it makes me sick. My stomach's too empty." This, from Wilmington, DE: "The worst that will come out of the depression is the breaking down in the morale of present day youth. Those maturing in the lean years. The schools, it seems, have not tempered their bright promise to the facts of the times. These youngsters come out feeling that the world is still easy, for them — that it's their elders who are the weak sisters. Soon they lose confidence. Then all sense of responsibility or respect for anyone. By the time work eventually turns up, they won't be able to hold a job. They have no experience and no chance of getting any. Their juniors will be first choice in a short time, and our present day crop will constitute a lost generation, sold out by a depression they didn't make."

With the comment that the case worker who gave it to him believed it expressed the feeling of many of her younger clients, a FERA investigator a few weeks ago sent in this poem from a town in Ohio. It was written by an 18-year-old boy.

Prayer of Bitter Men
We are the men who ride the swaying freights,
We are the men whom Life has beaten down,
Leaving for Death nought but the final pain
Of degradation. Men who stand in line
An hour for a bowl of watered soup,
Grudgingly given, savagely received.
We are the Ishmaels, outcasts of the earth,
Who shrink before the sordidness of Life
And cringe before the filthiness of Death.

Will there not come a great, a glittering Man,
A radiant leader with a heavier sword
To crush to earth the enemies who crush
Those who seek food and freedom on the roads?
We care not if Thy flag be white or red
Come, ruthless Savior, messenger of God,
Lenin or Christ, we follow Thy bright sword.

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