Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Great Depression and the Burden of 'Poor Relief' on Minnesota Cities

When the stock market crashed in October of 1929, symbolizing the start of the Great Depression, the entire country felt the impact. Economies large and small were affected, and communities in Minnesota were no different.

At the time, it was the responsibility of a local or county government to provide for residents living in poverty, and suddenly "poor relief," as it was called, was on the minds of municipal officials like never before.

"Leadership through the local government may not be the most desirable way of meeting a huge social problem, yet it is apparent that this assumption of local leadership and responsibility is with us today," stated a League publication for an unemployment conference held in 1931.

At the conference, representatives from 14 cities "made war on the hazards of unemployment and problems of poor relief," according to one news report.

The League urged its members to anticipate and prepare to provide basic needs such as shelter, clothing and food; address the issue of delinquent properties; and create relief work in the form of public works projects.

The League also compiled and reported on efforts by members to address unemployment and poverty:

•    Chisholm's representative reported that the city was employing 80 men for one week a month to work on city infrastructure. In addition, unemployed men would be put to work cutting down dead timber, to be used as fuel by poor households.
•    In Austin, plans to work on the Austin Airport were fast-tracked one year to provide work in the fall and early winter. The Water and Light Board put 15-20 men to work tearing down an old boiler house and turning the old boilers to scrap iron. The city and Hormel community chest committees anticipated they would double the previous year's expenditure of $3,800 on relief.
•    Golden Valley, then a farming town, reported that they arranged for the chairman of the Parent-Teacher's Association in each of their two school districts to look after the needy in conjunction with the justice of the peace.
•    In Alexandria, among other efforts, a coalition of businesses, nonprofits and city officials roused  businesses and households to provide one day of work a month to be given to an unemployed person.
Images from Minnesota Municipalities magazine, 1931

All hands on deck, cities and beyond

In addition to purely parochial efforts, it's clear municipal leaders recognized the gravity of the problem, and the impossibility of solving the crisis while going alone.

Federal funds such as those from the United States Reconstruction Finance Corporation were usually allocated and distributed at the county or city level. Cities were asked to identify public projects such as ditch clearing, laying water mains, and leveling road beds for work relief.

The League also stepped in in November of 1932 to help the state's Public Works Administration process federal grant applications for public works projects in cities. That work was funded through the American Municipal Association (now the National League of Cities) by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

 How was your city impacted by the Great Depression? What actions did your city take to respond? Let us know in the comments!

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