Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945

Kennedy, David M.

Oxford University, 1999

pp. 172 - 175

As the Great Depression spread in the 1930s, the federal government responded by creating the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, which set up local commissaries across the nation to dispense food and clothing. The people who did the dispensing often harbored barely disguised contempt for the needy, thinking they (p. 172) “were personally culpable for their plight, sinners against the social order, reprobates and ne’er-do-wells, spongers and bums with no legitimate claim on the public’s sympathy or purse.” So relief officials thought it appropriate, especially through requiring of each applicant a mortifying “means test,” to make relief applicants (p. 173) “feel their pauperism. Every help which was given them was to be given in a way to intensify their sense of shame.” Victims of the Depression often felt contempt for themselves. Weren’t they independent, individualistic, can-do Americans, after all? And now to be applying hat in hand for relief from contemptuous relief officials—well, one out-of-work teacher said simply (p. 175) “I’m no good, I guess.”