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Everybody’s Burden: Poor Laws, Public Welfare, and the Poorhouse presentation for the

Humanities Center Brown Bag Colloquium Series

Hard Times in Frank Murphy’s “Great City of Plenty”: Lessons on Old Age from Depression-Era Detroit Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Thomas B. Jankowski WSU Institute of Gerontology <>

The Great City of Plenty

Pre-New Deal Safety Net in Detroit • Most continued to work, if able • No expectation of retirement • 95% had no pension • Lack of age-discrimination laws made age-based firing a common practice • Poverty rate among older adults very high even in good times

• Family • Stronger norm of traditional filial duty • Michigan Public Act 146 of 1925 compelled able adult children to support parents who were destitute, under penalty of three to twelve months at hard labor.

• Friends, neighbors, and private charities

Pre-New Deal Safety Net in Detroit • Detroit Department of Public Welfare • The most extensive municipal relief program in the US • Detroit was the only city in the US whose public welfare system handled more cases than the city’s private charities • Provided vouchers for groceries, coal, rent assistance, and clothing, as well as free medical care • By Sept. 1929 its caseload stood at about 3,380 families

• Wayne County Hospital and Infirmary at Eloise • “The Finest Poorhouse in the World” • Michigan poor laws delegated to counties the ultimately responsibility of caring for indigents • City of Detroit sent dependent elders to Eloise

The Great Depression Hits Detroit • Almost immediately after the crash of October 1929, the economy in Detroit collapsed • Hundreds of thousands of Detroiters thrown out of work • Employment in manufacturing sector dropped 52% during first year of Depression • Automobile production dropped from 5.3 million in 1929, to 3.4 million in ‘30, to 1.3 million in ’31

The Great Depression Hits Detroit • Even those who kept their jobs saw sharp drop in pay • Average annual wage for an autoworker fell from $1,600 in 1929 to less than $1,000 in 1933

• Enforced un- and under-employment created “new poor,” competing for welfare resources with “old poor”

The Great Depression Hits Detroit • DDPW caseload increased from 3,380 in October 1929 to over 22,000 in April 1930 • Caseloads for social workers rose from 76 to 209 despite a doubling of staff • A visitor to the DDPW said he had never seen such human misery, and that the Department was in “a pathological condition [that] reflected and re-enacted the hysteria of its clients” • The Superintendent of Public Welfare suffered a “nervous collapse” in mid-1930

The Great Depression Hits Detroit • From 22,000 in April 1930, the DDPW caseload reached over 45,000 families by December • Tax revenues were also dropping, and by mid-1931, the City of Detroit was practically bankrupt

• In the fall of 1931, DDPW cut food allowances to all cases nearly in half, and cut off aid entirely to 20,000 families • In January of 1932, DDPW cut allowances again, and in July, stopped paying grocers altogether

The Finest Poorhouse in the World

• Hospital, infirmary, asylum, sanitarium, farms • Dozens of buildings, 900 acres, a city in its own right • DDPW also referred thousands of people to Eloise each year, nearly 5,000 in 1930 alone

The Finest Poorhouse in the World

• Eloise was hit hard by the Depression • From about 2,000 “inmates” in 1929, the Infirmary population peaked at nearly 14,000 in 1933 • Despite constant building, overcrowding was endemic

Eloise: Ward in Building N

Social Security In many ways, the 1935 Social Security Act was a direct response to this fear:

â&#x20AC;&#x153;The hope behind this statute is to save men and women from the rigors of the poorhouse as well as from the haunting fear that such a lot awaits them when journey's end is near.â&#x20AC;? Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo in the Helvering v. Davis decision upholding the law


harg lecture