Book Review: A Square Meal – Part II: Politics

The book is still A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression, recommended to us by reader Phil Wagner, and Part I of the review is here.

Condescension, Means Testing, and Infinite Busybodies

The other big thing we learned from A Square Meal, besides the fact that food in the 1920s was bonkers, is that the Great Depression brought out the absolute worst in the American political machine: the tendency for condescension to the unfortunate, constant means testing to make sure the needy are really as needy as they say, and infinite busybodies of every stripe.

Some of this was just standard government condescension. In WWI, the United States Food Administration tried to convince Americans that dried peas were a fine substitute for beefcake, and that “Wheatless, Eggless, Butterless, Milkless, Sugarless Cake” was a food substance at all. Sure.

When the Great Depression hit, things got steadily worse. Homemakers were encouraged to turn anything and everything into casseroles, which had the benefit of making their contents indistinguishable under a layer of white sauce and bread crumbs. The housewife could serve unappetizing food or leftovers over and over again without her family catching on, or at least that was the idea. Among other things this gives us this unusual early example of the overuse of the term “epic”:

Whatever the answer, [the casserole] is bound to be an epic if mother is up to the minute on the art of turning homely foods into culinary triumphs

Some people in government seemed to be confused — they seemed to think that the food issues facing the nation were a matter of presentation, that food just didn’t look appetizing enough. It’s hard to interpret some of these suggestions in any other light, like the idea that good advice for Americans in the Depression could be, “to impart a touch of elegance to a bowl of split pea soup, why not float a thin slice of lemon on top and sprinkle it with some bright red paprika and finely chopped parsley.” Or the suggestion that beans could be fried in croquettes to make them more appealing. Authorities trotted out “reassuring” announcements like: 

The fact that a really good cook can serve better meals on a small budget than a poor cook can serve on the fat of the land suggests that the fault may be not in the food material itself but in the manner in which the food is prepared and served, and therein lays a tale!

But what really grinds our gears isn’t the condescension, it’s the means testing. The second half of the book is mostly depressing stories about the government refusing to provide basic aid to starving families, or screwing up one relief program after another with means testing, or other things along these lines.

American society at the time was firmly anti-charity. People thought that everyone on the breadline could be divided into the “deserving poor” and the “undeserving poor”, and it was their job to search out which was which. They seemed to believe that even one whiff of assistance would immediately turn any hardworking, self-respecting American into a total layabout. 

People in the 1930s are always saying things like, “if a man keeps beating a path to the welfare office to get a grocery order he will gradually learn the way and it will be pretty hard to get him off that path.” They really seemed to believe in the corrupting power of government support, to the point where they were often afraid to even use the word “charity”.

Before the Great Depression, there was very little history of big-picture welfare. The support that society did provide was administered locally, and not very well administered at all:

The poor laws combined guarded concern for needy Americans with suspicions that they were complicit in their own misfortune. Under the poor laws, the chronically jobless were removed from society and dispatched to county poorhouses, catchall institutions that were also home to the old, infirm, and mentally ill. Those who could ordinarily shift for themselves but were temporarily jobless applied to public officials, men with no special welfare training, for what was known as outdoor or home relief, assistance generally given in the form of food and coal. To discourage idlers, the welfare experience was made as unpleasant as possible. Before applying for help, the poor were made to wait until utterly penniless, and then declare it publicly. When granting relief, officers followed the old rule of thumb that families living “on the town” must never reach the comfort level of the poorest independent family. The weekly food allowance was a meager four dollars a week—and less in some areas—regardless of how many people it was supposed to feed. Finally, it was customary to give food and coal on alternate weeks, providing minimal nourishment and warmth, but never both at the same time.

Journalists called people who received government assistance “tax eaters”. When support from the town was forthcoming, it looked like this: 

…the board made all relief applicants fill out a detailed form with questions like: Do you own a radio? Do you own a car? Do you spend any money for movies and entertainment? Did you plant a garden? How many bushels of potatoes do you have? The board gave aid in the form of scrip, which now could only be used to purchase the “necessities of life” at local stores: “flour, potatoes, navy beans, corn meal, oatmeal, coffee, tea, sugar, rice, yeast cakes, baking soda, pepper, matches, butter, lard, canned milk, laundry soap, prunes, syrup, tomatoes, canned peas, salmon, salt, vinegar, eggs, kerosene.”

The Manhattan breadline is emblematic of the Great Depression, so we were sort of surprised at just how much people at the time hated them, even very mainstream sources. You’d think that giving out bread to the starving would be one of the more defensible forms of charity, but people loathed it. And none more than the city’s social workers, described as the breadlines’ “harshest critics”:

Welfare professionals with a long-standing aversion to food charity, social workers condemned the breadlines as relief of the most haphazard and temporary variety, not much different from standing on a street corner and handing out nickels. The people who ran the breadlines, moreover, made no attempt to learn the first thing about the men they were trying to help, or to offer any form of “service” or counseling. The cause of more harm than good, the breadlines were humiliating and demoralizing and encouraged dependence, depriving able-bodied men of the impulse to fend for themselves. Social workers were adamant. Breadlines were the work of fumbling amateurs and “should be abolished entirely; if necessary by legal enactment.”

As the Depression dragged on and things became worse, more relief did come. But when it came, the relief was invasive. Housewives were told not only what to cook, but where to shop. Some women had to venture far outside their own neighborhoods to use food tickets. Social workers dropped in on schools to criticize the work of teachers, in particular the tendency of teachers to be overly “sentimental” or “solicitous”. They feared that schoolteachers lacked the “well-honed detective skills” required to distinguish between whining and genuine tales of woe. 

To ascertain that applicants were truly destitute, officials subjected them to a round of interviews. Candor was not assumed. Rather, all claims were verified through interviews with relatives and former employers, which was not only embarrassing but could hurt a man’s chances for employment in the future. More demeaning, however, were the home visits by TERA investigators to make sure the family’s situation was sufficiently desperate. Investigators came once a month, unannounced, anxious to catch welfare abusers. Any sign that the family’s finances had improved—a suspiciously new-looking dress or fresh set of window curtains—was grounds for cross-examination. If the man of the house was not at home—a suggestion that he might be out earning money—investigators asked for his whereabouts, collecting names and addresses for later verification. Finally, though instructed otherwise, investigators were known to reprimand women for becoming pregnant while on relief, the ultimate intrusion.

Families lived in dread of these monthly visits, terrified they would be cut off if it was discovered that one of the kids had a paper route or some similar infraction.

In some areas, including New York City, “pantry snoopers” accompanied women to the market to confirm that all parties (both shopper and shopkeeper) were complying with TERA’s marketing guidelines. More prying took place in the kitchen itself, where investigators lifted pot covers and peered into iceboxes on the lookout for dietary violations.

Relief was often inadequate. Public officials were sometimes able to set relief levels at whatever amount they saw fit, regardless of state or federal guidance. Some of them assumed that poor families would be able to provide their own farm goods, but often this was not the case. In some places officials reasoned that poor workers would be easier to push around, and kept food allowances low to keep them in line. There was also just straight-up racism: 

Six Eyetalians will live like kings for two weeks if you send in twenty pounds of spaghetti, six cans of tomato paste and a dozen loaves of three-foot-long bread. But give them a food order like this [$13.50, state minimum for six persons for half a month], and they will still live like kings and put five bucks in the bank. Now you ought to give a colored boy more. He likes his pork chops and half a fried chicken. Needs them, too, to keep up his strength. Let him have a chicken now and then and maybe he’ll go out and find himself a job. But a good meal of meat would kill an Eyetalian on account of he ain’t used to it.

Families on relief who asked for seasonings on their food, like vinegar or mustard, were refused on the grounds that they might “begin to feel too much like other families”. Officials who were afraid that cash handouts to the poor might encourage dependence instead used that money to hire a resident home economist to help the poor make better use of what little they had.

As with modern means testing, this seems heart-breakingly callous. All these “supervisory” jobs intended to keep poor people from getting too much relief look suspiciously like a method for taking money that’s meant to help starving families and using it to pay the middle class to snoop on their less fortunate neighbors. Everyone loves giving middle-class busybodies jobs in “charity” work, no one seems to worry all that much about getting food to malnourished children. 

To be fair, no one expected that the relief would have to go on for years. Everyone thought that the panic was temporary, that it would all be over in a couple of months. This doesn’t make it much better, but it does explain some of the reluctance.

Another surprising villain in all this is, of all things, the American Red Cross. Over and over again, the Red Cross either refused to provide aid or gave only the smallest amounts, even when people were literally starving to death. They sent officials to areas stricken by drought and flood, who reported back that there was not “evidence of malnutrition more than exists in normal times” or brought back stories about an old man complaining that the Red Cross was feeding him too well. Meanwhile, actual Red Cross workers were reporting circumstances like this, from Kentucky: 

We have filled up the poor farm. We have carted our children to orphanages for the sake of feeding them. There is no more room. Our people in the country are starving and freezing.

The Red Cross’s reasoning was the same as everyone else in government: “If people get it into their heads that when they have made a little cotton crop and tried to make a corn crop and failed and then expected charity to feed them for five months, then the Red Cross had defeated the very thing that it should have promoted, self-reliance and initiative.” Actually this statement is on the friendlier side of things; another Red Cross official, after touring Kentucky, wrote: “There is a feeling among the better farmers in Boyd County that the drought is providential; that God intended the dumb ones should be wiped out; and that it is a mistake to feed them.”

Was Hoover the Villain? 

This brings us to a major question — namely, was Herbert Hoover the real villain of the Great Depression? 

At first glance it certainly looks that way. Hoover consistently blocked relief bills in Congress. He had a clear no-relief policy, and he stuck to it throughout his time as president. And he did send the US Army to drive a bunch of poor veterans out of DC

(He also lived in incredible opulence during his time in the White House. Always black tie dinners, always a table awash in gold, always fancy gourmet foreign food, always a row of butlers all exactly the same height. As they say, “not a good look”.)

But when you start looking at things in more detail, it becomes more complicated. It may seem naïve, but Hoover really thought that Americans would come together and take care of each other without the need for government assistance. He seemed to oppose relief because he thought that the federal government stepping in would make things worse. In one speech, he promised that “no man, woman or child shall go hungry or unsheltered through the coming winter” and emphasized that voluntary relief organizations would make sure that everyone was taken care of. He might have been wrong, but this doesn’t look villainous. (He also said, “This is, I trust, the last winter of this great calamity.” It was 1932.)

In a pretty bizarre state of affairs, he also seems to have been thwarted by the Red Cross at every turn, especially its chairman John Barton Payne. It makes sense that Hoover approved of the Red Cross, since it was one of the voluntary generous organizations he liked so much. What’s strange is how frequently the Red Cross just didn’t do jack, even when asked.

For example: In 1930, Hoover pressured the Red Cross to help out with drought relief in the Mississippi delta. The Red Cross agreed to give out $5 million in aid, but by the end of the year they had spent less than $500,000, mostly on handing out seed to farmers. 

Another time, Hoover went to the Red Cross to help provide relief to striking miners. This time the Red Cross refused, though again they offered seed to the miners (it’s unclear if there was even arable land near the mine). So Hoover went to a Quaker relief organization instead, and the Quakers agreed to help feed hungry children in the mining areas. Hoover struck a deal where the Red Cross would provide $200,000 to help the Quakers out. The Quakers waited two months before the Red Cross refused again. So the Quakers went ahead without them.

Somehow Hoover never turned his back on the Red Cross. Maybe he just liked the idea of aid organizations too much to realize that this one kept undermining him in times of crisis. 

But the other thing to understand about Hoover is that, despite his gruff no-handouts exterior, inside he was a bit of a softie. He stuck to his guns on the subject of cash relief, but he usually found a way to help without breaking his own rules. When the Red Cross refused to help the Quakers, Hoover rooted around and found $225,000 in an idle account belonging to a World War I relief organization, and sent that instead. In the flood of 1927 (when he was secretary of commerce), he refused to allocate federal funds directly, but he did have the U.S. Army distribute rations, tents, and blankets, organized local governments to rebuild roads and bridges, and got the Red Cross to distribute seeds and farm implements (the only thing they seem comfortable with). This was a huge success, and a big part of what won him the 1928 presidential election!  

The reason Hoover believed in the no-relief approach was simple — he had used it many times before, and it had always worked. He had a long track record of dealing with this kind of crisis. Before he was president, his nickname was “The Great Humanitarian” for the relief work he had done in Europe during World War I. People saw him as an omnicompetent engineering genius, and the reputation is at least partially deserved. It’s hard to overstate just how popular he was before the Depression: He won the election of 1928 with 444 electoral votes to 87, a total landslide.

Hoover thinks that attitude is the key to fighting financial panics, because this is exactly what he saw in 1921. There was a big stock market panic, which Hoover recognized was at least partially psychological. So he put out a bunch of reassuring press releases, told everyone that the panic was over, and sure enough, the market recovered.

So when the same thing happens in 1929, he figures the same approach will work. He does everything he can to project confidence and a sense of business as usual, and tries not to do anything that will start a bigger panic. This includes no federal relief — because if the federal government starts handing out money, that must mean things are REALLY bad. It makes a certain amount of sense, it did work for him in the past, but for some reason, it doesn’t work this time around. Maybe blame the Red Cross. 

FDR definitely jumped in to take advantage of the confusion. As then-governor of New York, he started implementing the kind of relief plans that Hoover refused to consider. He gave direct food relief. He used the word “charity”. And when he ran for president, he made it very clear that he thought the federal government should cover what the states could not, and make sure that no one would starve.

This did win him the election. But afterwards, he started looking a lot more like Hoover and some of his cronies. In his 1935 state of the union address, he said, “continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. It is inimical to the dictates of sound policy. It is in violation of the traditions of America.” We’re right back to where we started. 

FDR rolls out the Works Progress Administration, another program that ties relief to a person’s work. But this isn’t administered much better than the Red Cross. Many workers couldn’t live on the low wages they offered. Even when they could, the jobs lasted only as long as the projects did, so workers often went months without jobs between different programs. 

The Civilian Conservation Corps was for a long time the most popular of these programs, but in 1936, Roosevelt decided to focus on balancing the budget instead. He slashed the program from 300,000 people to about 1,400. Over time, most of the relief burden fell back on state and city governments, many of which descended back into cronyism.

Some of the programs, for migrants and “transients”, were worse, nearly Orwellian:

Before the New Deal, transients were the last group to receive relief under the old poor laws. Now the FTP funded a separate system of transient centers guided by federal regulations meant to guard against local governments’ ingrained cultural biases against drifters and migrant job seekers. In rural areas, transients would be gathered into federal “concentration camps” (a term that had not yet gained its ominous connotations) designed for long-term stays.

As waves of agricultural migrants spread across the United States, by 1940 the FSA had opened 56 camps around the country, 18 of them in California, each accommodating up to 350 families. Administrators nevertheless continued to keep costs as low as possible, following the “rehabilitation rather than relief” rule handed down by President Roosevelt. Rather than give migrants food, the camps taught home economics–style classes on nutrition and food budgeting.

By 1937 everything seems to have fallen apart again, and the authors suggest that the second half of the 1930s was as bad or worse than the first half. In 1938, Roosevelt refused to give any further direct food relief from the WPA coffers. The stories from 1939 are kind of harrowing. 

By 1939, the problems of unemployment and what to do with millions of jobless Americans seemed intractable. The economy continued to sputter along; real prosperity remained an elusive goal; and Americans were losing compassion for the destitute and hungry.  

A Houston, Texas, reporter lived for a week on the city’s $1.20 weekly food handout, eating mostly oatmeal, potatoes, stewed tomatoes, and cabbage, and lost nearly ten pounds. In Chicago, a family of four received $36.50 a month, meant to cover food, clothing, fuel, rent, and everything else. But fuel in the cold Chicago winters was expensive; families had no choice but to cut back on food. In Ohio, the governor again refused to give aid to Cleveland, which ran out of money for nearly a month—called the “Hunger Weeks”—at the end of 1939. The city was reduced to feeding its poor with flour and apples as desperate families combed garbage bins for anything edible. Adults lost as much as fifteen pounds, while children had to stay home, too weak from hunger to attend school. Doctors saw a jump in cases of pneumonia, influenza, pleurisy, tuberculosis, heart disease, suicide attempts, and mental breakdowns.

So whatever Hoover did wrong, he doesn’t deserve all the blame, and the WPA certainly did not end the Great Depression.

One thought on “Book Review: A Square Meal – Part II: Politics

  1. AidenG says:

    If you haven’t read it already, I highly recommend Kenneth Whyte’s biography “Hoover: an Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times”. It digs pretty deeply into Hoover’s experiences in WWI, and it makes clear why he took the approach he did to the Great Depression. Hoover was definitely a deeply flawed president, but most of how he is remembered today is the direct result of how FDR’s campaign engaged in some really scorched earth character assassination.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s