John Vachon photo of a Minneapolis employment agency, 1939. Source: Library of Congress

Hard Times

A History of Unemployment

In this year’s State of the Union, President Barack Obama touted job growth and a low unemployment rate as proof that America has rebounded from the Great Recession. But just days before, Donald Trump called the jobs numbers “fiction,” claiming they leave out millions of Americans who can’t find work.

Until the late 19th century, the word “unemployed” mostly referred to women and children. Later, the term was redefined at the federal level to address men whom the government thought weren’t fond of work—in other words, layabouts, loafers and slackers.

From the stereotypes surrounding the unemployed to the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Mexican-Americans to free up jobs for white American men, this episode of BackStory will look at what it means to be jobless and uncover the history behind unemployment in the U.S.

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ED: This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers. Next Friday, President Obama will again tout the nation’s declining unemployment rate. Last month’s was below 5%. But from listening to some candidates for president, you wouldn’t know that those were good numbers.

DONALD TRUMP: Don’t believe those phony numbers when you hear 4.9% and 5% unemployment.

BERNIE SANDERS: Who in America denies that real unemployment today, including those who have given up looking for work and are working part time is close to 10%?

ED: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders question what we mean by unemployment. But what did it mean to be out of work before the term, unemployment, even existed? In the 18th and early 19th centuries, plenty of Americans lost their livelihoods. But that was just a part of life.

MALE SPEAKER 1: They even used different sentence structures than we use today. They will say, I went into business and I made a great failure of it.

ED: Today on BackStory, a history of unemployment in America.

PETER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by the Shere Khan Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

BRIAN: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.

ED: Welcome to BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers here with Peter Onuf.

Peter: Hey, Ed.

ED: And Brian Balogh.

BRIAN: Hey, Ed. We’re going to start the show today in 1878. That’s when the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Massachusetts decided to count something no agency head ever attempted– the number of unemployed workers in the Bay State. Now back in the 1870s, the word, unemployed, had multiple meanings.

PETER: It had been used primarily to mean people who did not normally work. The typical person was a child under the age of 10. Or women over the age of 50.

BRIAN: This is historian Alexander Keyssar. We chatted with him about the subject a few years ago. He says those populations weren’t expected to work for a living anyway.

ALEXANDER KEYSSAR: It was clear that the word meant people who were not employed. They did not hold jobs.

BRIAN: Yet headlines across the country talked about a much larger jobless population. The country was still recovering from financial panic of 1873. In Massachusetts alone, newspapers claimed there were more than 200,000 people who couldn’t find jobs. The head of the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor Statistics, a man named Carol Write, didn’t buy it.

PETER: A directive was sent to the people who were compiling around the state saying, only count those who really authentically want to work and you know will work. Don’t count any of these malingerers, leaving it up to the subjective judgment of the people doing the counting.

BRIAN: Just admitting to wanting higher wages than those offered five years earlier could be interpreted as not wanting to work. Even more limiting, the police and assessors that fanned out across the Commonwealth only counted able-bodied men above the age of 18.

PETER: He set out quite deliberately to establish that unemployment rates were lower.

BRIAN: And it worked. The Bureau trumpeted statistics that showed there were only 22,000 unemployed men. That’s a tenth of what the papers had claimed.

PETER: Wright eventually took his talents to Washington DC and established this metric nationwide. It was the birth of the official unemployment rate. And with it, the modern definition of unemployed.

ALEXANDER KEYSSAR: Meaning people who normally do work, but can’t find a job.

PETER: Now we should be clear that the moral of the story is not that government numbers on unemployment are rigged. While Write’s statistics were highly subjective, today’s Labor Department avoids those pitfalls. Even so, economists and pundits frequently challenge the unemployment rate. They say the number does not reflect Americans who left the workforce during the Great Recession and haven’t come back.

FEMALE SPEAKER 1: So you have a 5% unemployment, but people are not participating in the labor force.

MALE SPEAKER 2: This is the lowest since 1977.

FEMALE SPEAKER 2: The president pointed to an aging population who are perhaps no longer looking for work, perhaps no longer qualified to find some of the jobs in a changing technological world zone, and so forth.

BRIAN: If Carol Write’s numbers tell us anything about today’s debates, it’s that expectations about unemployment have changed as the nature of work has changed. Wright provided a language for mounting anxiety about finding work in a modern industrial economy.

PETER: By the end of the 19th century, you start seeing mass protests of unemployed workers, which did not happen in 1837 or in 1857. The first ever protest march on Washington DC was Jacob Cox’s army of the unemployed workers. You see a lot of other indicators beyond the formal statistics.

BRIAN: Keyssar says attitudes towards employment would continue to shift in the coming decades. Blue collar workers only began to expect full-time, year-round employment during World War II. Before that, even the best of times, working class Americans spent a significant chunk of their time looking for work.

PETER: In the late 19th century and in the 20th century up until the 1930s, that figure in a good year looks like it’s somewhere between 17% and 22% of all people experience some unemployment for an average of about three months.

BRIAN: That’s remarkable.

PETER: It’s a remarkable statistic.

ED: So today on the show, we’re going to step away from all those wonky statistics and look at how Americans have dealt with unemployment, and how the search for work has shaped generations of American lives. We’ll hear how attitudes toward those who have lost their livelihood shifted in the 19th century. And we’ll discuss one controversial solution for unemployment during the Great Depression– getting hundreds of thousands of Mexican-Americans to leave the United States.

But first there’s something I got to ask Peter about. If the origin story of unemployment is, well let’s say situated 140 years ago, what was it like back in the colonial period?

PETER: Simply, it’s that you couldn’t have unemployment until there was employment, meaning that you had to have parts of the population depending on regular work, on wages. And that’s not the experience of the vast majority of Americans in the colonial period. People who worked in colonial America were largely self-sufficient farmers. And even if it was hard producing surpluses for market in order to get that little extra income that Americans have always loved to have, it was never a problem about living.

The whole idea of famine, dearth, people dying of starvation, that was not an American experience.

BRIAN: So Peter, I get it. There’s not employment so there can’t be unemployment. But you know there must’ve been good years and bad years. People’s lives must’ve been affected by that. OK, maybe we didn’t call it unemployment. Like what happens when it doesn’t rain and there’s a drought?

PETER: Well in colonial America, there’s plenty of rain.

BRIAN: You’re going to be difficult aren’t you, Peter?

PETER: I should say, there’s plenty of land. People move a lot. Mobility is crucial on the employment front. The great challenge in New England is big families. People would have to move out into new areas. New townships were granted in Western Massachusetts and what became Vermont and New Hampshire. And later, New Englanders move all over.

ED: So you might call that looking for work kind of.

PETER: You could, indeed. Looking for. But I would say, looking for subsistence or a word that’s better in this context is looking for competency.

ED: Something I’ve been looking for for years.

BRIAN: Keep on looking, man. Keep on.

PETER: There’s always a market for competency.

ED: Peter, did that situation change after the Revolution?

PETER: Well yeah, Ed, in some ways it did. Many farmers, of course, continued to work the land. But others headed to America’s port cities in search of work after the war. Baltimore, for example, drew tens of thousands of people.

SETH ROCKMAN: In 1790, it’s a rather small city of about 13,000 people. That population will double to 26,000 by the 1800 census and about 80– some– thousand by 1830.

PETER: This is historian Seth Rockman. He has written a book called Scraping By about Baltimore’s working poor during this early period.

SETH ROCKMAN: So it is a place growing dramatically. And it means that most of the people who are in the city are not from there, but have come from other places.

PETER: Rockman says Baltimore’s rapid growth produced plenty of jobs– building bridges, dredging the harbor, and scraping the streets. Up to 30% of the city’s population found themselves competing for wages and what Rockman calls a new casual labor market, basically day laborers. And this new economy attracted a wide variety of workers. I asked Rockman how exactly these people went about finding work.

SETH ROCKMAN: As most informal economies are, it’s who you know, whether that’s your landlord who can serve as a patron, whether it’s your deacon who knows a guy who knows a guy, whether it’s simply having the good fortune to be on the dock at the moment that a ship comes into port. Or, of course, if you’re an enslaved person, having an owner who basically says, this is where you’re going to work and you’re going to do this work.

And all of these possibilities explain why on say, a construction site in the city, you might find a rented African-American slave, and a free man of color, and a white migrant into the city, and a recent Irish immigrant basically all wielding the same shovels and digging out the same muck.

PETER: Seth, people go to Baltimore because there’s opportunity there. Of course, people in modern days go to cities because that’s where the action is. And that’s where there are opportunities for upward mobility. Or is this just another place where go-getting Americans make good?

SETH ROCKMAN: I think that would be an over-optimistic characterisation. No. People come to Baltimore because it may be, in fact, the least bad choice. You think about Irish immigrants whose laboring conditions in the old world may have been horrible and whose possibilities in the new world in comparison might seem quite robust. But that hardly means that everyone arrives with a clear path to upward mobility.

And when I wrote the book, I had Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed, in mind. And tried to write a book comparable to that but say, for 1810 or 1820. So really looking at people who didn’t have a lot of skills who were unlikely to be employed in what we would call the trades, artisinal crafts that required going through various stages of training. But really people who only had their physical labor to offer.

So for people at the low end of the economy who are in what we would call the manual labor sector, the name of the game is stringing together days of work but not necessarily from one employer, but from many different employers. So the ship comes in, and you have three days of employment unloading that boat and that’s terrific.

And then what’s the next thing? Well you’ve heard that there’s a guy carting a bunch of bricks from the brickyard to a new construction site. And maybe you can go down there and pick up a day, day and a half. So it’s a constant struggle to find work.

The best a lot of these people can hope for is a week’s employment. But the idea of stringing together two weeks, or three weeks, or four weeks of consecutive employment is fairly unusual. So it’s incredibly hard work to be poor in a place like Baltimore, just like it’s incredibly hard work, as Barbara Ehrenreich described, to work as a rent-a-maid, or to work at a truck stop, or to work in any number of other settings in the American economy of today.

PETER: So you, Seth, focus on labor power and what workers do. And the people you’ve studied in the casual labor market did much of the work to build the Baltimore that you’ve studied. What was the physical cost of being a laborer under the conditions in Baltimore in the antebellum period?

SETH ROCKMAN: Oh, the costs were tremendous. And they were written on people’s bodies. The missing fingers that got snapped off when a hogs head of rum rolled off of a ship. The arthritic fingers that came from being a seamstress who took piecework from a local merchant tailor. When you look at the records of the institutions where low end workers found themselves when they were too injured or too hurt or too elderly to work, it’s clear that the physical tools of this manual labor were stupendous.

PETER: Rockman says that most of Baltimore’s working poor would remain poor. And yet the way they were finding work and earning wages helped create the modern labor market.

SETH ROCKMAN: For the founders, the idea that an adult white man who had to sell his labor to someone else for a wage would hardly be deemed a potential citizen.

PETER: No. Not independent.

SETH ROCKMAN: Not independent at all. And so the remarkable thing, 80 years later, on the eve of the Civil War when people like Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass can claim that the right to earn a wage and keep that wage is a fundamental component of being free, this is a huge transformation. The wage earner was not free in 1776. The wage earner was the epitome of freedom in 1865. And how we get from point A to point B could be understood as a sort of celebratory story of more market relations organizing more of our world to provide more people with more opportunity.

But if we tell it that way, we lose sight of the degree to which the market and the compunction to work or starve, as the market increasingly directs, this could be as coercive as the world of unfree labor that preceded it. And so looking for that moment where people who are economically vulnerable are able to put their finger on whose responsibility for the fact that their wife is cold, or that their children don’t have shoes, looking for that moment when people can’t say that it’s Colonel Smith or Mr. Jones. But rather, it’s this thing called the market.

PETER: Seth Rockman is a historian at Brown University and author of Scraping By: Wage, Labor, Slavery, and Survival in early Baltimore.

Earlier, we heard from historian Alexander Keyssar of Harvard University. He’s the author of Out of Work: The First Century of Unemployment in Massachusetts. We’ll link to a previous version of that story, broadcast in 2010.

ED: We recently heard from listener, David McKay in Chicago. He reached out with a question regarding a generational shift in attitudes about unemployment.

DAVID MCKAY: One major difference I see are the changes that have occurred that are felt by different age groups. Millennials are often seen as lazy because they aren’t walking into businesses and asking to be hired. My question is, how have perceptions of people who are unemployed changed throughout American history?

ED: Well, David, that’s a big question. We reached out to historian Scott Sandage to help answer it.

PETER: Sandage says attitudes towards people who’ve lost their livelihood took on a harder edge in the 19th century. That’s when Americans first embraced the idea that anyone with the right attitude could get ahead. Sandage says this was especially true for the middle class– farmers, shopkeepers, and other small businessmen.

SCOTT SANDAGE: During the 19th century, ambition becomes the American way of life. And what America means is that anyone who is born in any circumstance, through hard work and talent, can change their status. But there is a flip side, a double-edged sword to that, which is that if you want credit for success, you’re going to have to accept blame for failure.

PETER: Sandage notes that these ideas of personal success and failure took root at a time when workers had less and less control over their financial lives. The American economy in the 1800s was prone to extreme cycles of boom and bust, which triggered bankruptcies and mass unemployment across the country.

SCOTT SANDAGE: When the Panic of 1819 happened, people in Ohio or Western Pennsylvania are suddenly, literally not able to get their hands on any money, and by and by they hear that something has happened at a place called Wall Street. And this is very difficult to process when you don’t know anybody in New York, and you don’t do business with anybody in New York.

PETER: So sort of abstract. It’s at a distance.

SCOTT SANDAGE: It’s very abstract. And what is really happening is that America is developing a national economy that’s being assembled out of various local and regional economies. Everybody is connected whether they see it, or understand it, or not.

PETER: Right. So Scott, let’s back up a little bit. Before this nationwide event, and it’s even a Western worldwide event, bad things have been happening throughout history. Tell us a little bit about the changing understanding, or we should say, misunderstanding or incomprehension, that that leads to.

SCOTT SANDAGE: Well people had always had some sense that you are responsible for yourself. What they didn’t have in the late 1700s and early 1800s that we have today was a sense of personal failure. So they understood that if I go bankrupt, I’m responsible for that. But that doesn’t mean that I personally am a failure. My business failed.

PETER: Right. I get it.

SCOTT SANDAGE: They even used different sentence structures then we use today. So if you look in a private letter or a diary entry of someone who’s lost his business in say, 1810, they will say, I went into business and I made a great failure of it. So there is a sense of responsibility there. But saying, I made a failure and saying, I am a failure is a very different psychological construction.

PETER: Scott, for your period in the early 19th century, you can’t really talk about unemployment because you don’t have employment in the modern sense of the word. But people do lose jobs, their businesses fail. Tell us a little bit about how you can fail in the early 19th century.

SCOTT SANDAGE: I can give you a for instance. There’s a Philadelphia merchant named Joseph Horner. He’s a hardware merchant. And he decides to invest in a new fangled technology called a steamboat. But he really doesn’t know anything about the shipping and the freight business. And when the panic comes and he loses his boat. And this causes him to lose his hardware business as well.

And I dug out his diary, which is at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. And he says, if I fall– he doesn’t use the word fail– he says, if I fall, it won’t be my fault.

PETER: You weren’t what happened in the market to you. You can distance yourself from that.

SCOTT SANDAGE: Right. And the irony is that there is a greater understanding that if Peter doesn’t pay Scott and Scott goes out of business, there’s a connection there. And yet the people that I don’t pay, because I haven’t been paid by you, are not going to blame you. They’re going to blame me. And so there’s a growing understanding that we’re all connected. And at the same time, there’s a growing sense of individual responsibility.

PETER: But Scott, isn’t it true that notions of personal responsibility, you might call it the legacy of that heroic individualism, don’t some of those attitudes persist?

SCOTT SANDAGE: Yes, they certainly do persist. For example, during the Great Depression when 25% of Americans are unemployed in 1931, 32, so one in four people who want to be working can’t find a job, you would expect that if there was ever a time in American history when there would be no shame or stigma associated with not being able to earn your living and take care of your family. And yet the Great Depression is a time of deep shame and deep stigma that people internalize and impose upon themselves.

And it’s a bit like anybody who is in a tight spot. We tend to say, well yes I understand that the economy is bad, and yes I understand that millennials are graduating from college and there are no jobs. But I should be able to overcome that. And that’s part of individualistic pride that the country is in bad shape, but I’m smart, and I work hard, and I should be able to overcome that. And so if I’m not, that re-doubles the sense of stigma and shame, and people beat themselves up.

PETER: Scott, the conditions of employment and job security are changing dramatically. In some ways, it almost seems like a return to an older world in the gig economy where you have to do all kinds of things. What happens now when you realize that there are forces beyond your control, and maybe the good jobs that we’re losing will never come back?

SCOTT SANDAGE: I teach college. And millennials, in particular I think, are still trying to process the fact that the world that they were educated to believe in doesn’t quite exist anymore. That if you worked hard, and filled up your resume, and played soccer, and played in the band, and were on the debate team, and went to a good school, that the world would be waiting for you when you got your degree. And none of those things have turned out to be true.

And so I think younger people today are trying to reconsider how we can hold on to success without being mired in failure.

PETER: Scott Sandage is a professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University, and the author of Born Losers: A History of Failure in America.

BRIAN: We’re going to turn now to one of the many programs implemented in the early 1930s to address skyrocketing unemployment in the Great Depression. There are no precise numbers, but between 500,000 and two million Mexican-Americans, or Mexican nationals, were forced or convinced to leave the United States. This little-known event is known as Mexican Repatriation. But those affected say that word is a white wash.

ED: Now there never was a coordinated program or a top-down mandate from President Hoover or Roosevelt to expel people of Mexican descent. But the White House did set the tone by staging raids across the country to deport Mexican-American families. Francisco Balderrama, a historian who has studied these repatriation programs, says the goal was to ease unemployment for Anglo-Americans.

FRANCISCO BALDERRAMA: This expulsion of Mexican nationals or American citizens of Mexican descent is done frequently because of the argument there’s not enough jobs, that jobs were for real Americans.

ED: Balderrama says the Mexican nationals were targeted because they were one of the more recent immigrant groups to arrive at the start of the 20th century.

FRANCISCO BALDERRAMA: And the key thing to keep in mind that in more prosperous times, particularly the roaring 1920s, Mexican workers regarded as essential. But now with the Great Depression, they are regarded as foreign, they’re regarded as unwanted, they’re regarded as they’re not supposed to be here.

ED: The private sector also tried to get Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans to leave the country. In some cases, businesses would simply refuse to hire Mexican workers.

FRANCISCO BALDERRAMA: At the same time, we have private businesses. We have US Steel, Southern Pacific Railroad that are telling their Mexican workers you would be better off in Mexico, and providing them with transportation to the border into Mexico.

BRIAN: Anti-Mexican sentiment was so pervasive that it even trickled down to local governments. Balderrama says Los Angeles County is a perfect example.

FRANCISCO BALDERRAMA: And it’s important to focus on LA county, because it had the largest concentration of Mexican nationals and American citizens of Mexican descent at that historical moment. And it became kind of the model about how to do this elsewhere in the country.

CHRISTINE VALENCIANA: This is an interview with Mrs. Emilia VAlenciana.

BRIAN: Christine Valenciana has spent the past four decades collecting stories of those affected by this Depression-era repatriation, including her mother’s.

CHRISTINE VALENCIANA: OK, mama. Why don’t you start by telling me where you’re from first?

FEMALE SPEAKER 3: Los Angeles, California.

CHRISTINE VALENCIANA: When were you born?

FEMALE SPEAKER 3: April 10, 1926.

BRIAN: Valenciana recorded this interview back in 1971. It was part of a college oral history project. She collected the voices of people who’d been affected by LA county’s repatriation program.

CHRISTINE VALENCIANA: My grandfather, [INAUDIBLE], who had been here in Los Angeles since 1909, he was employed as a stonemason bricklayer, skilled craftsmen. And then there’s no work for him.

FEMALE SPEAKER 3: You know, here he was left with a family and a couple of children to raise and no work, living off of welfare. And we went to Mexico, because my dad asked the county to be sent.

CHRISTINE VALENCIANA: My mother was nine years old when this happened. She had never been to Mexico.

FEMALE SPEAKER 3: My dad asked who wanted to go with him. We told him, yes. Our place was with him. He was our father. We weren’t going to be left here and be made wards of the state. That’s what we would’ve been– wards of the state. So we left with my father.

CHRISTINE VALENCIANA: Do you know for sure if he asked the county?

FEMALE SPEAKER 3: He told me. He told me he asked the county that he wanted to be sent back to Mexico. I guess they paid for our fare, Christine.

BRIAN: Many of Valenciana’s interviewees said the same thing. Noe one had forced them to go to Mexico. Rather, their families wanted to go back. And they went of their own accord.

CHRISTINE VALENCIANA: Perhaps listeners are going to say it’s voluntary. Well that’s the easy way out. And that’s not really looking at the complexity of the problem. We’re really looking at human beings. I mean, I can’t believe that my grandfather who had been here since 1909 had any intentions of ever returning to Mexico.

BRIAN: But she says Los Angeles County actively encouraged people to leave. One of the county officials who ran this program was Rex Thompson. He was the head of charities for Los Angeles County during the early 1930s. Valenciana interviewed him in the early 1970s. Thompson acknowledged that he weighed the cost of providing aid to a Mexican family versus sending them to Mexico.

REX THOMPSON: We had thousands of Mexican nationals who were out of work. A Mexican family were costing us $110 a month. I can remember those figures. We could ship them back and feed them well and decently by train for $74 a family.

FRANCISCO BALDERRAMA: There was a campaign to get Mexicans to be removed. And so the county agencies, they would send out people. They were recruiters basically.

REX THOMPSON: Social workers that were Americans of Mexican descent, but naturally fluent in the language. Or that were Mexican nationals fluent in their language to go out, and I want to emphasize, offer, repatriation to these people. Well I’m glad to say that they were a proud people and most of them didn’t want to be on relief.

FRANCISCO BALDERRAMA: That interview’s very important because it really is the voice and the thinking of the time of the policymakers and the predominant voice that people think they’re doing something good. I mean, he really believed that what he did was the greatest humanitarian act that could have been done.

ED: The reality was harsher. Balderrama says these social workers didn’t explain the full consequences of repatriation.

FRANCISCO BALDERRAMA: According to American law that if a county pays for your transportation to return to Mexico or to go to Mexico, then your stamped that you can’t re-enter the country.

CHRISTINE VALENCIANA: Well in the case of my grandfather’s passport, and again he had been here since 1909, stamp it, deported. Well he had no way to get back here.

ED: Balderrama says that more than half of those who went to Mexico during the Great Depression were American citizens.

FRANCISCO BALDERRAMA: Well simply, it’s unconstitutional, because you cannot deport an American citizens from his or her country.

ED: Many of them were children who had never even been to Mexico.

FEMALE SPEAKER 3: Because the kids used to pick on me because I was an American citizen. A lot of people did discriminate against us because we were Americans. We didn’t belong there. I was in a strange– now here the Anglos discriminate against us because we’re Mexicans. So really where do we belong?

ED: Valenciana’s mother eventually made it back to the United States, but many others never returned to the land of their birth.

FRANCISCO BALDERRAMA: It’s a lost generation. I mean, there are people that were lost in Mexico, people without the documentation, people that were denied their right to a life as an American.

ED: It’s hard to know if these programs actually provided more jobs or relief for so-called real Americans. But Valenciana thinks that’s beside the point. If the government wants to ease unemployment, they should try to help all Americans.

CHRISTINE VALENCIANA: In terms of unemployment, well who has the right to be unemployed? Who has the right to make that determination?

FEMALE SPEAKER 3: I feel that this country should’ve done something for their citizens instead of getting rid of them like the way they did.

BRIAN: Christine Valenciana and Francisco Balderrama helped us tell that story. Valenciana is a professor emeritus in education at California State University- Fullerton. Balderrama is emeritus professor at California State University- Los Angeles, and co-author of Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s.

BRIAN: hosts, as I listened to the last couple of stories, it occurred to me that you can’t really talk about unemployment without talking about lots of movement, movement to find work, basically. I mean there were the people who flocked to Baltimore looking for work. And we just heard about forced emigration of Mexican-Americans during the Great Depression.

ED: And I actually have some audio to share with you regarding exactly this issue. It’s a voice from the Great Migration in the early 20th century.

PETER: Hey, slow down for a minute, Ed. Tell us a little bit about the Great Migration.

ED: Let me just give you the encyclopedia entry, all right? So the Great Migration is a period from 1915 to 1930 when over a million African-Americans migrated from the South to the North to work in the factories that had been vacated by the cessation of immigration during World War I.

PETER: This is a great and conspicuous movement of people, in some ways more conspicuous than the influx of immigrants to American port cities, because of course, they absorbed immigrants. There were immigrant neighborhoods. But here was a movement almost across the landscape that you could track and time.

ED: Yeah, and people both in the North really wanted it because they had a supply of these jobs and we needed it for the war. On the other hand, they were really kind of worried about what would it mean to get all these black people living together in the North for the first time? And to be living in cities for the first time in these massive numbers? So it was dual migration. It was across the landscape, but also from countryside to city.

I want to play for you now an excerpt from an oral history that was recorded back in the 1980s. Now this is a man named William Brown, who moved north from Jacksonville, Florida during the Great Migration. You’re going to hear him describing what happened when he went to apply for a job in the office of a Philadelphia real estate agent.

WILLIAM BROWN: He said to me he didn’t have no opening like that at this particular time. What he said to me, now we do have an opening for a janitor. And if you knew anybody that you would recommend, we would accept. And I thanked him and walked out. And I poured over that conversation. And I explained it to a person that I knew.

And he said to me, he said, you know he was just offering you a job. A mop and broom, that’s all he was doing. And I found out, to my consternation, that the white man up North was perfectly satisfied to ride with you on the subway cars, on elevator trains, and sit by the side of you, because when he got up to go to where he had to go, he got up with his briefcase and went to his office. But when you got up, you went a mop and broom, because there was no office for you to go up here.

But in the South when colored men rode in the back of the buses and the trains, when they got up, they went to their occupations which was bricklaying, cement finishing, carpentering, mechanical engineering. But they had to ride in the back of the buses and the transportation facilities. So it was the same thing, only just painted with different colors.

ED: That was William Brown, record by oral historian, Charles Hardy, in 1985 as part of Hardy’s five-part series on the Great Migration, Going North. We’ll link to the entire thing on our website,

Well that’s pretty powerful, guys. What do you think?

BRIAN: I found it very moving. But I want to ask you about the nostalgia for all those supposedly better jobs in the South. I did find that a little questionable.

ED: No, that’s actually true, Brian. Economic historians have studied this and found that the wage rates were actually higher in the South than in the North, because as Mr. brown suggested, there was a much broader range of jobs that were available to African-American men. Because there were large black business districts, ironically, because of segregation, there were black men who performed all those skilled trades that Mr. Brown talked about. And so people would often give up jobs where they would have had a greater economic advantage in the South, but simply could not stand anymore the daily degradation, not having the vote, not being able to testify in court, not being able to display the property that you had. All those things, people traded for a lower status job and a clean chance in the North.

PETER: And that reminds me of slavery days when the escape to freedom could be into highly segregated and repressive North, but still you’d be free.

ED: Exactly. They could not sell your children.

BRIAN: Well, guys. Do you think that that’s really one of the central tensions that we’re talking about throughout this show? This American birthright of freedom means also the freedom to lose your job.

PETER: Brian, I think that’s a great question. Freedom does mean risks, choices that may lead to unhappy outcomes. But it’s the very fact of being able to make those choices, the very ability to move and to try for a better future for yourself and your family, knowing full well that you’re facing a lot of risks. I think that’s a sense in which the thing itself, that is, the sense of being a free person and making your own choices trumps the outcomes.

ED: You know what, Peter, what I like about that is that it reminds us that unemployment’s just not a matter of numbers or bureaucracies, counting how many unemployed there are. I think it’s the wonderful tapes we’ve heard during this show remind us, unemployment is a deeply individual, deeply felt, fact for each person caught in it.

ED: Not surprisingly, there’s a pretty direct connection between unemployment and what we now call welfare. Starting the 1930s, the federal government began helping men and women who had lost their jobs, or who simply didn’t make enough to stay out of poverty in the first place.

BRIAN: I think you guys know that before I became a history professor and radio host, I worked in a welfare office in New York City.

ED: My understanding is the city has almost recovered from that episode.

BRIAN: Stop it, Ed. This was back in the late 1970s, early ’80s. And I remember that a few of my colleagues would talk about an even earlier period in the ’60s, when they used to do home visits with welfare clients. They’d go into the homes of women on welfare, looking for evidence of a man in the house.

That’s because under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, that was the basic welfare program, only households headed by single moms could get that public assistance. If a woman was living with, or even just romantically involved with a man, the man was expected to support the family, not the government.

FELICIA KORNBLUH: It was completely unrealistic, and actually destructive for the government to say, as soon as you get involved with somebody, he should be paying your bills and he should be paying your kids’ bills.

BRIAN: This is Felicia Kornbluh, a professor at the University of Vermont. She says that women in the 1950s and ’60s started pushing back against that rule.

FELICIA KORNBLUH: You know, the women said, we have a right to go on a date. And nobody’s ever going to want to get involved with us if they’re going to have to start paying our bills right away. That’s just a non-start basically.

BRIAN: I sat down with Kornbluh to talk about how men in the house rules eventually became a civil rights issue.

FELICIA KORNBLUH: Any time they know that you’re involved with somebody sexually or romantically, they’re going to consider him the effective father of your children, and consider him legally responsible for your kids, such that you can no longer receive welfare benefits. And they could find out about that through a rumor, through gossip, through a nosy neighbor.

BRIAN: Well those people I talked about it in New York City, they were doing home visits to look for evidence of a man in the house. You know, the wrong size shoes left out in view.

FELICIA KORNBLUH: That happened sometimes too. Sometimes there was a woman who was involved with the father of her children. Maybe they were thinking of getting back together, or maybe they wanted to be involved romantically, but he really couldn’t afford to pay for the kids or whatever. And it created all kinds of strife, and trouble, and there’s stories of men jumping out the window to get away from the welfare caseworker. And the kids hiding daddy’s clothes, or shoes, or whatever. And it did create a lot of worry and a lot of people who got caught in that mess.

BRIAN: One of the things that happened in the ’60s and the ’70s was that the Supreme Court weighed in on a series of decisions about welfare. I’d like for you to talk to us about one of them, the case about Sylvester Smith. And it’s the one that involves, very specifically, the man in the house rule in Alabama. Tell me, who was this woman, Sylvester Smith?

FELICIA KORNBLUH: Sylvester Smith was raising kids on her own. She was in a relationship, an ongoing sexual relationship with a guy who lived elsewhere, and who was married to somebody else, and had children with another woman. And she walked in to a storefront legal office, told the lawyers there that she had been cut off from welfare, and she thought it was wrong. And they agreed to help her.

And then ultimately, they took the case all the way up through the state courts, into the federal courts. And finally, the ACLU took over the case and took it all the way to the United States Supreme Court for a landmark decision in 1968.

BRIAN: And what did the court actually rule in this case?

FELICIA KORNBLUH: So they overruled Alabama’s man in the house rule, but that meant for the whole country. No more man the house rules. They said that the point of that program was to provide for children in their own homes so that the kids wouldn’t have to be placed in foster care or put up for adoption. And that this contravened that principle.

BRIAN: Yes, and it must’ve underscored something that became quite prominent, the welfare rights movement, which is that welfare was a right. If you fell below certain levels of income, it didn’t really matter what your neighbors thought. This was a right, an entitlement.

FELICIA KORNBLUH: Exactly. So people had thought that welfare was something like an entitlement before this case. But this is the first time the Supreme Court really said it. And it really became a legal entitlement. And today, of course, that sounds like a dirty word, entitlement. It sounds like we’re talking about lazy people, or an excess of government or something. At the time, it was an enormous achievement to get the Supreme Court to come out and say, right if you meet these qualifications– and they could be very stringent qualifications– but if you meet them and you’re poor, then you get help.

BRIAN: What were the long-term implications, if any, from King v. Smith

FELICIA KORNBLUH: In some ways, it lasts. So King v. Smith, it’s powerful in its own time. And people think, oh thank God. We’ve gotten this stuff before the high court. Now we’re really going to get somewhere. We’re going to get the Supreme Court on the record to say that we can’t have extreme poverty in America, that poverty, in a sense, is illegal or unconstitutional.

But they never get there. And already by the early ’70s, there’s a huge pushback on the part of many, many voters and many politicians against what they call welfare excesses. It kind of re-channels a lot of anger, and frustration, and concern toward the welfare recipients instead of toward the welfare system, or toward the economic system that’s producing all this poverty and unemployment.

BRIAN: Felicia, what’s the relationship between welfare on one hand and unemployment on the other? Was this aid to families with dependent children ever about work or not working? Or was it something else?

FELICIA KORNBLUH: I think welfare is about unemployment in a bunch of ways. One thing that I think we need to remember is that unemployment is kind of a spectrum. And there’s also underemployment, which is rampant today, and which was rampant certainly in some communities in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s. And a lot of people were receiving welfare benefits were people who did do some work for some wages, but not much and not enough.

BRIAN: And not steadily consistently.

FELICIA KORNBLUH: It was true for men, these low-income men who may have been working in the agricultural economy in the South, in the cotton industry, or they may have been working in the North in factories that were on unsteady ground by the 1970s. And it was true for women. And Sylvester Smith herself, she worked in a cafe. She got up at four o’clock in the morning or something to go in for her shift. And she worked hard, but she certainly didn’t work hard enough to get her family out of poverty.

So welfare is kind of a backdoor way of acknowledging that our economy doesn’t work 100%. We have this system which acknowledges it that some people are going to fall between the cracks. But then we also treat those people so badly, because we really still, I think, can’t deal with it. We can’t deal with the fact that it’s not a total opportunity society.

BRIAN: We do tend to blame the people who fall between the cracks rather than the system that seems to produce, pretty regularly, some pretty cavernous cracks.

FELICIA KORNBLUH: I think that’s right. I think that’s right. And there have been periods in our history when we’ve done better, and we’ve been less ambivalent. So I think that’s part of the reason why King versus Smith and the 1960s push to get the Supreme Court to think about these issues is important. It teaches us that there was a time when it was a little different.

BRIAN: Felicia Kornbluh is a historian at the University of Vermont, and author of The Battle for Welfare Rights: Poverty and Politics in Modern America.

PETER: That’s going to do it for us today. But you head over to our website to let us know what you thought of the show. While you’re there, send us your questions about our upcoming episodes. We’ve got a great show in the works about local power in America, you know, sheriffs, mayors, mafia, and more. Just head to You can also reach out with email to

We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, @backstoryradio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

ED: BackStory is produced by Andrew Parsons, Bridget McCarthy, Nina Earnest, Kelly Jones, and Emily Gadek, Jamal Millner is our engineer, and Diana Williams is our digital editor. We have help from Brian [INAUDIBLE]. [INAUDIBLE] assistants with research. Special thanks this week to California State Fullerton Center for Oral Public History for allowing us to use their interviews on Mexican repatriation.

BRIAN: BackStory is produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Major support is provided by the Shere Khan Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional funding is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment. And by History Channel. History made every.

FEMALE SPEAKER 4: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is Professor of History Emeritus at UVA, and Senior Research Fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

BRIAN: BackStory is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.