Part 3: Relief
Relief During the Great Depression
After the misery of World War I, the Spanish Flu and a brief recession, the Roaring Twenties blew in on a gust of exuberance and freedom. Women threw aside corsets and bobbed their hair. Speakeasies did a roaring business. The Charleston was the dance de jour. Industry flourished. Wealth grew. The world was our oyster and we lived it to the fullest. Nothing could stop us.
Or so we thought.
The Great Depression and the Dirty Thirties slammed into us with a hammer-blow. Industry shuttered. Savings vanished into a puff of nothingness. Millions were unemployed and road the rails in a fruitless search for work. Farmers watched fields and crops blow away. Only Russian Thistles, grasshoppers and army worms thrived.
No one had money, and even if you did, there was nothing to buy. In Canada, by 1933, 30 per cent of the labour force was out of work. Desperate times demanded desperate measures – relief of one sort or another. One in five Canadians became dependent upon government relief for survival.
Relief! To stubbornly independent and proud people such as my grandparents, it was a dirty word, smacking of failure, loser, inadequacy. Yet it was all they had to keep food on the table for there were no options. It was a bitter pill to swallow.
In the USA, President Roosevelt announced the New Deal which provided work and relief through projects such as the Public Works Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural Electrification Administration.
The Canadian federal government did little to alleviate suffering, off-loading the responsibility to provincial and local governments. In hard-hit Saskatchewan, the government funded relief work camps to upgrade highways. Payment was in the form of vouchers for groceries, medicine, binder twine, machinery repairs, clothing, fuel, kerosene and harness repairs. The Provincial Relief Commission processed requests from municipalities for seed grain, feed for livestock and food and clothing vouchers.
Soup kitchens fed the unemployed and hungry in cities. Men riding the rails marked the gates of homes where others could find a sandwich and maybe a barn loft in which to sleep – both my maternal and paternal grandparents’ farms were so marked. Churches and other organizations in less hard-hit areas shipped boxcar-loads of food and clothing westward. Stories still circulate of perplexed prairie wives trying to figure out how to cook slabs of salt cod from Newfoundland. My uncle tells of rotting apples and worn-out clothes that didn’t fit anyone in the family.
It took another war to end the Depression and the simultaneous return of rain to end the Dirty Thirties. Hard times were over.
Or so we thought.
Relief in the Time of COVID
Once again, we find ourselves in hard times. Unemployment rates haven’t been this high since the Great Depression. Thousands of businesses are on the verge of bankruptcy because of stay-at-home orders.
Unfortunately, work projects cannot be part of today’s relief response when proximity means danger. Instead, governments are providing businesses and workers with subsidies; the Paycheck Protection Program in the USA and the Canada Emergency Response Benefit in Canada are but the start of financial aid packages to tide people over, at least for a while.
Food banks have replaced soup kitchens but they are just as overwhelmed now as they were 90 years ago. In the USA, people wait in hours-long lines for a box of food. In Canada, food bank use has increased by 20% as of mid-April.
No matter how you sugar-coat it, relief is still a bitter pill to swallow. We want to work. We crave the satisfaction of a day’s work done, a cheque in the bank, bills paid, food on the table. We crave the respect of family and friends for being a productive member of society. We crave the self-esteem that comes from contributing to the well-being of our community.
Next: Surviving post-pandemic
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Note: I grew up listening to my parents and grandparents talk about the “hard times” of the depression and drought. Those stories informed four chapters of “Our Bull’s Loose in Town!” Tales from the Homestead: “The Dirty Thirties,” “Living on Relief,” “The Plight of the Unemployed.,” and “The Year with No Crop.”
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