Economy

Self-Help for the Unemployed

By

Mr. Upton Sinclair, in his open letter to President Roosevelt published in a recent issue of The New Republic, again raises a question that has received much consideration in various quartersthe possibility of instituting a program of self-help for the unemployed. Dramatized by Mr. Sinclair in his Epic campaign, this method of relief has won many supporters but, despite the various discussions of the subject, it has seldom been noted that such a program has already been adopted by the federal government and that it has been functioning in forty-five different states. 

A detailed report of this phase of relief administration is contained in The Congressional Record for March 19, having been read into the document by Senator Cutting. The report, prepared by members of Mr. Hopkins’ staff, reveals that of the 1,600,000 persons on work relief on November 15, approximately 15 percent were employed in the production of goods and that there were 7,650 projects in operation throughout the country. These were as follows:

Clothing, sewing of garments, etc…….. 2,348

Food, canning and preserving……….... 1,217

Fuel, cutting wood, digging peat, etc...    434

Garden projects……………...........……….    576

Household goods………………….............    738

Construction materials……………..........       75

Other projects………………………............ 2,263

During the succeeding month there were some changes in the number of projects, but they remained approximately the same. Production for December is shown in the following:

Total meat and meat products…. $7,409,042

Total fruit and vegetables………....        525,931

Total other food products……......          10,708

Total clothing…………………...........       583,626

House furnishings……………….......    1,834,412

Miscellaneous…………………..........        165,736

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Total.......................................... $10,529,089

 This report, however, was prepared before complete production figures for December had been received. Jacob Baker, assistant administrator, who submitted the report to Senator Cutting, estimates it to be about 60 percent of the total, making the latter approximately $18,000,000.

In regard to efficiency, which is one of the questions always raised in any discus«ion of self-help for the unemployed: it appears that efficiency is primarily dependent upon organization and the retraining of workers whose skill has been impaired by idleness. The report reads:

Cost data have not been kept accurately by all the local administrations on their work programs, but on the whole expenses are the same as with contracts…. The nearest approach we have to a specific record of efficiency is in the case of the Ohio relief production units, where the Ohio relief administration is using vacant and idle plants and manning them with relief labor. The December returns of these plants show the total value of goods produced, if they had been sold at $132,000 produced at a total cost of $126,000. The goods, of course, were not sold but distributed to relief clients.

These figures, as observed by Senator Cutting, indicate the possibility of cutting the present cost of relief by enlarging the self-help program. The report says:

The average expenditure for relief of funds from all sources is approximately $165,000,000 a month. We began with that as a basis and the fact that 43 percent of the clients were on work relief. By planning a program to put as many as possible to work and for them to produce as much of their own needs as possible through rental of idle equipment, it appears that the same relief benefits that cost $163,000,000 could be readily produced for $60,000,000. If these benefits were increased 35 percent, it would bring them to a respectable standard of subsistence at a total cash outlay of $78,000,000 a month.

The report is calculated, by and large, to offer much support to the proponents of the self-help method of relief. It has much to recommend itnot only its apparent economy but its larger social value derived from putting men to work at their own trades and crafts. As a means of alleviating the pressure of the depression, however, its value is dubious. Whenever an unemployed man is put to work to make something that the government would otherwise buy to distribute for relief, an employed man loses a job.

This article originally ran in the July 17, 1935, issue of the magazine.

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