Riding The Rails, a transcript of people who road the rails during the Great Depression
New Deal Network
National Alliance to End Homelessness
DC Central Kitchen
Creating Jobs, Creating Opportunities: The New Deal and Today
"Brother can you spare a dime?"
So went the refrain of the popular 1930s song. And so was the tune of millions of Americans as the country went into economic collapse. By 1930, the Great Depression was in full force. In March, a few months after the fateful stock market crash, more than 3.2 million people were unemployed. Bread lines became a common sight and food riots broke out frequently. People smashed grocery store windows and made off with fruit, canned goods, bacon and ham. Hundreds of thousands of people roamed the countryside looking for food, shelter and work. A quarter of a million teenagers were living on the road, crisscrossing the country by hopping freight trains and "riding the rails." The Depression had destroyed everything in their young lives-their fathers had lost their jobs, they had been evicted from their homes, even their schools had gone bankrupt and closed down.
Into this despair stepped the new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Something needed to be done and it needed to be done quickly. FDR brought with him a sense of confidence and optimism, declaring, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." He then managed to rally the people around his program of economic recovery, known as the New Deal, which began an era of large-scale social programs and government participation in economic activities.
An early step was the formation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a program meant to assist young men between 18 and 25 by enrolling them in work camps across the country. But the main relief came in the form of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), an agency created in 1935. The goal of the WPA was to provide work, not welfare, to those in poverty. The idea was to help people help themselves, instead of just handing out charity. Along with fighting unemployment, the hope was that by providing people with jobs, people would preserve their skills and maintain their self-esteem.
The WPA had many other long-range benefits. Under its construction projects, 65,000 miles of road, 125,000 public buildings, 75,000 bridges, 8,000 parks and 800 airports were built. The WPA also sponsored the National Youth Administration to give part-time employment to students, establish training programs, and provide aid to unemployed youth.
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The agency was also unique in that it focused on the arts. This was accomplished through the creation of three major programs (the Federal Theater Project, the Federal Writers Project and the Federal Arts Project), which employed thousands of actors, painters, sculptors, musicians and writers during its existence. The WPA thus strove to promote cultural life as those it employed created artwork and murals on public buildings, set up community theaters and documented local life.
The WPA lasted until 1943, when a wartime economy virtually eliminated unemployment. During its eight-year existence, this relief agency helped nearly 9 million people. Yet it was definitely not without its critics. Much of the controversy was over its arts-based focus, as many people believed it was a waste of resources. Some thought that it really was the equivalent of welfare because it was giving people money for work they thought was unnecessary. The main opposition, though, was the popular belief that poverty was the result of laziness.
Unfortunately, this is still a popular belief. According to Nina Langlie of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, many people, both youth and adults, think that all homeless people are lazy, alcoholic, drug addicted, crazy or just aren't trying hard enough. Maybe you have some of these beliefs as well. Even Nina admits, "Before working at the Alliance, I had exactly the same stereotypes as everyone else." So, what is the truth about poverty and homelessness? And how does our situation today compare to the Great Depression of the 1930s?
First of all, the Alliance believes that homelessness didn't even exist until the 1980s. Now wait a second, didn't I just get through telling you about the people in the '30s who used to ride the rails and wander the country? Yes, it's true that there were people without homes. But it was not the same widespread social problem that it is today. Up until the 1960s or so, cheap hotels and housing were generally available. Even people with no support system and little money had a place to go.
Yeah, but aren't we in good economic times now? How could homelessness be a bigger problem now than during the Great Depression? Well, studies have shown that homelessness actually increases when more people are employed! You see, as the economy is more active and people are making more money, the cost of everything goes up, making things like housing less affordable. So the people at the bottom of the economic ladder are the ones who suffer. On any given night in the United States, 750,000 people are homeless. Over the course of a year, about 2 million people experience homelessness for some period of time. The gap between rich and poor has widened drastically, and there are severe wage inequalities today that did not exist back in the 1930s.
The Alliance cites three main reasons for homelessness: people are not making enough money, there is a lack of affordable housing, and there is insufficient access to services such as medical care. Luckily, many great organizations are working to combat these problems. Many of them, such as the D.C. Central Kitchen (D.C.C.K.), operate on the same self-help labor model as the WPA and The New Deal. The D.C.C.K. gets food from restaurants, catering services, hotels and other places that would otherwise just throw it out. They prepare balanced meals and distribute them to those in need. Every day, 3,000 meals are given to the poor in homeless shelters, senior citizen centers and after-school programs.
But here's an added twist: the people who prepare the meals are formerly homeless or have been welfare recipients themselves. This community kitchen provides a 12-week training course in culinary skills to help prepare them for careers in the food service industry. As founding director Robert Egger explains, the program is an attempt to get away from a well-intended system that builds dependency by just handing out food, to one that empowers people by generating skills. It is an attempt to work together to combat hunger and shatter stereotypes that the homeless are lazy.
To me, the D.C. Central Kitchen represents a new generation of social programs. The New Deal was all about extensive government funding and large-scale social projects. Today, however, many people believe that less government is better, so funding cuts for many such programs have become commonplace. Robert Egger is an entrepreneur, dedicated to building a business model that will generate revenue. His project is an example of how private enterprise and social good have combined to create some amazing results.
So what can you do about the problem? The first and most important thing is to learn as much as you can, to become informed and to break free from any negative stereotypes you might have about the poor and the homeless. Although street people are the most visible homeless people, they comprise only about 10 percent of the homeless population. Keep in mind that homeless people reflect our country's diversity: they are the young and the old, men and women, single people and families, city dwellers and rural residents, the able-bodied and the ill - all without a permanent place to call home.
As Nina recommends, "Read the paper, be informed, know what's going on. And if something's not right, get mad! Let your voice be heard." And some of Robert's most important advice is to "keep your friendships strong because it is good friends who will keep you passionate and keep your ideals alive."
Of course, another way to get involved is to volunteer at an organization such as the D.C. Central Kitchen, or an equivalent in your area. Even if you can't spare a dime, you can at least spare some time, some compassion, some love. Instead of looking at poverty as an issue of personal responsibility and blaming people for being homeless, we need to see it for what it is: a housing issue, a wage issue, an issue of social responsibility. Even though our country may not be in a Great Depression, millions of people out there are still suffering. They deserve our understanding and our commitment to do what the Alliance believes is truly possible: bring an end to homelessness.
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Links to Other Dispatches
Daphne - Eleanor Roosevelt: An incomparable pioneer
Rebecca - Together we can make a difference!
Nick - It was a hard knock life during the Depression
Jennifer -Mary McLeod Bethune kept her eyes on the prize