Case Studies of Unemployment in the Great Depression

Veteran migrant worker and his wife camped in Wagoner County, Oklahoma, June 1939.
Lee, Russell, photographer. Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress). Digital image from the American Memory collection, digital ID: fsa 8a26425

The Settlement Movement began in the United States with the founding of the University Settlement in New York City in 1886. Settlement workers, primarily women, lived in the communities that they were working to improve and were interested in housing and labor reform, child welfare, sanitation and other programs of social reform.The National Federation of Settlements was founded in 1911 with Jane Addams as its first president. The National Federation of Settlements and its member organizations were in the forefront of the fight for child labor laws, improved race relations, labor union formation and a peaceful world.  For instance, the NAACP was founded at the Henry Street Settlement, and Jane Addams was the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. 
In 1931, the National Federation of Settlements carried out hundreds of interviews of unemployed workers throughout the country. The transcripts of these interviews were published as "Case Studies of Unemployment", compiled by the Unemployment Committee of the National Federation of Settlements. The full text is available online as part of the fascinating American Memory collection.
The text below reproduces three of 150 case studies published, and I urge you to visit the online site to read more. Why are they here? Recall that the classical model defines the labor market equilibrium as the combination of real wage and employment levels such that, among other things, all workers are supplying their preferred amount of labor at the going wage. Put another way, if someone is not working, it must be their choice not to work. In normal times, this may be true of many workers, particularly when there is a generous welfare state to provide a a safety net. But is this a plausible position to take when so many of people are out of work, and their conditions are so dire?

Case 140
The Lovejoys, Cleveland, OH.
African-American (M, 44, W. 40).
Carpenter; then workers at odd jobs.
The Lovejoys have seven children: Princess, 19; George, 17; Mildred, 15; Fisher, 13 (crippled); Amanda, 11; Rose, 9, and Julius, 5. The father, a carpenter by trade, was forced to join the union in 1923. Then because union wages were as high for Negroes as for others, his white employers dropped him from their pay roll and hired white men instead. For a period of years, he depended entirely on odd jobs such as carrying bricks for bricklayers, acting as porter and anything else that he could find to do. His father and older brothers had been carpenters and he learned his trade from them. He finished grammar and first year high school in Georgia. His wife, too, had a fairly good education, in a girls' finishing school in Georgia.
The family life has always been on a high plane. Both parents are very much concerned about the physical, mental and moral welfare of their children. The whole family attends church and Sunday School regularly
At every turn of fortune for the better, they have tried to get a little saved for the next hard time. During 1926 and 1927, Mr. Lovejoy had work quite regularly, averaging $5 or $6 per day for at least nine months out of the year. It was at this time that they had an opportunity to buy, on a rental plan, a house built by the contractor employing Mr. Lovejoy. It is a small one-family house hardly adequate for so large a family, but much better than the rented places they had formerly lived in.
During the spring of 1928 unemployment again struck Mr. Lovejoy and lasted until the following December. Throughout this period, they lived largely on an occasional day's work done by either the father or the mother and the $2 or $3 per week earned by George in shining shoes. All this time, it was difficult to meet payments and at one time it looked as though everything would be lost, but they finally mortgaged their furniture and obtained a loan sufficient to take care of the payments on the house. But many times the whole family went hungry, particularly the father and mother, who almost starved. Mrs. Lovejoy obtained one day's work a week at the settlement camp, cleaning and doing laundry. Here she could bring the younger children to get three good meals with plenty of milk,--but this was for just one day.
The children at times have been much undernourished, but somehow the family has managed to get along without calling for help. Mrs. Lovejoy is able to make over old clothes received through friends of the settlement for the children, so with almost no expense, she is able to keep them neatly dressed. It was through Mrs. Lovejoy's attendance in the breadmaking classes that they first became known to the settlement. She put her knowledge gained there to good practice in her own home. Through all of these years, it has been the family aim to keep the children in school at all costs. They have an almost religious faith in education.
(N. B.: At present Mr. Lovejoy is working at the settlement as night watchman.)

Case 149
The Cassattas, Boston, MA.
Amer. (Ital. parentage) (M. 26; W. 24).
Expert Furrier.
There are four in the Cassatta household,--Dominico and his wife, Anna; their baby and his mother. Mr. Cassatta, spoken of by neighbors and relatives as a "steady, wonderful, good fellow" is said to "never go out with the boys." His father died when he was 12, which made him give up school and go to work on a farm. Later he returned to Boston and before his marriage, three years ago, was earning $35 to $40 per week as an expert furrier. Six months after he was married, however, he was laid off. He had no savings since he had "paid cash" for the parlor, bedroom and dining-room sets with which he and his wife "set up housekeeping." Rent was $30 a month. Anna was proud indeed of her immaculate five rooms and bath. Her kitchen was a joy with window plants, spotless ruffled curtains, and clean window panes. She graduated from the local grammar school, had gone to work and in her words "had earned good money in the box factory." When her husband lost his job, she tried to go back to the box factory only to find her place taken and to be told that the force was to be cut down. New machines were to be installed so that one person could do the work of seven or eight. Dominico tramped the streets. Debts accumulated. Finally he was able to get part-time work in a rubber factory at $22 a week. 
Then came the baby. Just at the time when he was hoping for full-time work at the factory, 150 men were dropped and he was among them. Anna's family helped with food, but frequently the family has been in serious arrears with the rent.Ever since Dominico began to face "hard luck" he has tried "everything." He borrowed $50 in order to try selling oranges from a push cart. He paid $4 a crate, but in 24 hours, according to his story, oranges dropped to $2 a crate, so he only made $10. He invested this in cherries but made almost nothing and besides found himself in the midst of a "war" because the other push cart vendors did not want him in their territory. Next he tried to get work as an ashman but was told at City Hall that no more men were needed. Finally, he obtained a "pick and shovel" job. This was very humiliating, he thought, for "an American-born fellow," but he began to be encouraged again as he earned $6 per day and was able to pay the rent he owed and the insurance, $1.35 per week. About a year ago, the "pick and shovel" job ended and since then, Dominico has been able to obtain work only off and on. Some of the furniture has been sold; his wife's engagement ring, after many trips to the pawnbroker, is apparently there not to be redeemed. Anna's family still helps with food and clothing and still believes in Dominico, saying now and again, "He tries, but it's hard luck."
Two months ago, Dominico's mother, who lives in Portland, Maine, urged him to go there where he succeeded in getting work in a hat factory. The work is again part-time and his income during the two months has been as low as $4 a week and never over $16 a week. In a recent letter Anna tells her story. "We live with another family--I wish I had my own home! We pay $5 for food every week and $2 for our room. Then there is the baby's milk and carfares. I want to go back to Boston."

Case Number 139.
The Radeeds, Louisville, KY
Syrian (M. 44; W. 35).
Peddler, Fruit Stand Proprietor
It was back a long, dark brick "alley way" between a wholesale fruit company and a pool room, up a flight of freshly scrubbed, worn steps. Here across an immaculately scrubbed, bare kitchen over which were spread newspapers to protect the floor from muddy feet, into a bare, neat room occupied only by two straight chairs, an old iron bed and an old bureau, the visitor met the attractive, soft-voiced little Syrian mother who has kept her family of husband and seven children happy and together with little assistance through a long period of unemployment and financial reverses. Mrs. Radeed was lying in bed with her 2-year-old son beside her. The preceding evening she had had a "hemorrhage." For two years she had needed an operation that should have been performed at the birth of her last baby. She smiled up at the visitor. "Much trouble--husband--still no work," she replied to the inquiry after her family. There was nothing complaining in her manner as she struggled to explain in her broken English accompanied by gestures, "No read, write--you understan'?--know  nothing--nobody wan' heem! He try--everywhere. Stand? lose much money--make nothin'--owe five hund' dollar--"
When Samuel Radeed came to Louisville from Syria, he took up the two occupations known to the Syrian immigrants, peddling a variety of articles and keeping a vegetable and fruit stand in the market district,--a stand which his wife tended while the children played on the street in front of her. Some years ago Radeed managed to secure a position as an unskilled worker in a clothing company. All went well with the family; regular savings were deposited in the bank. Mrs. Radeed continued with the stand, though it had begun to lose money. Chain stores began to carry a supply of fresh fruit and vegetables at a cheaper price than they could be sold by the privately-owned stands. But the Radeeds held stubbornly on to their stand. It was almost a tradition with them. Then Radeed was laid off at the clothing company on account of a financial depression. When the company reopened a more capable man was employed in Radeed's stead. Several months ago, the stand had run up a debt of five hundred dollars, and Radeed agreed to give it up. The wholesale dealer agreed to give them an opportunity to get on their feet before forcing them to pay, a deed that has won the Syrian family's eternal gratitude. Their little savings are free to carry them over until Mr. Radeed secures permanent work. Mrs. Radeed holds the debt a sacred trust and talks of how they will pay it as soon as they are able to spare a little from the money needed for existence. For many months now. Mr. Radeed has been trying his luck at peddling dry goods around the country just outside of Louisville. But peddling is another Syrian occupation which is no longer profitable. The priest at the church where Mr. Radeed's family attends and the children go to school has tried repeatedly to get Radeed a place in a local composition company run by Syrian people, but so far has not been successful. In the meantime Sammie, the 16-years-old son, has been secured a position as errand-boy at a hotel near by. Here Sammie, who has had no opportunity to learn any trade or gainful occupation, earns $7.10 a week. This is the main support of the family at present. "My Sammie--he good boy--work hard--give me all he make," says Mrs. Radeed appreciatively. Mary and Rose, the two older girls, sell paper shopping bags in the market district all day Saturday. They average $1.35 apiece. Of this amount, they deposit fifty cents in a Christmas savings fund. The rest goes toward the general family fund.
A few minutes' talk with the Radeeds convinces one of the fact that the Syrian family is proud; they do not expect charity. The children are all bright, willing and ambitious with a strange mixture of American childhood's characteristics and stolid Syrian stoicism. The little girls beamed with pride which was reflected in their sick mother's eyes when they were praised for their splendid housekeeping and care of the younger children.
When talking of her approaching operation which the doctor had told her could not be put off longer than the following week, Mrs. Radeed's only worry seemed to be that she could not pay the doctor who would perform it. It wounded her pride to have to accept charity even in the form of medical assistance. "Maybe sometime--I pay him--"she repeated several times. As the visitor prepared to leave, promising to come see Mrs. Radeed at the hospital, she clung to the worker's hand. "The children--they come to Neighborhood--they tell when I go." Then smiling she called eagerly to the departing worker, "You hear of work --tell my husband?" It was more of a plea than a question --a plea one couldn't forget passing through the bare, chilly kitchen where the younger children, scantily clothed for the cold day, were playing with a few old bottles. Though it was five o'clock no preparations were being made for supper other than a pot of coffee on the stove and a loaf of black bread which the oldest girl was slicing. The entire family was anemic and undernourished to such a point that several members appeared tubercular.