The Great Depression in Michigan

The stock market crash of 1929 defined the decade of the 1930s for Michigan and the whole nation. The people of Michigan, already struggling with economic troubles, moved into a new decade defined by a tidal wave of economic troubles and sharp conflicts over how governmental and private responsesshould be organized and funded.

Photo courtesy of the Detroit News Archives.The decade was a critical one for the Michigan Conference of Social Work, which was operating as it had since 1912 with volunteer efforts augmented by dues and conference fees. The Conference hired the first full-time executive, launched the Michigan Welfare News publication, and immersed itself in public policy during those trying times, culminating with the group’s legislative committee assisting in the revision of Michigan’s “Poor Law” at the request of the State Welfare Director.

Throughout the decade, the Conference was involved in the controversies over how to respond to the deep needs of citizens and conference members struggled to resolve their own disagreements over organizational matters.

Economically, Michigan fared worse than the rest of the country in the Depression. Between 1930 and 1933 the unemployment rate was 34 percent while it was 26 percent for the nation as a whole.  Employment in the auto industry, which had become a key industry in Michigan’s economy, declined precipitously in only a few years – between 1928 and 1932 employment at GM was cut in half.

Soup kitchen display at Michigan Historical MuseumLocal governments and private charities were unable to find resources to meet the needs of the growing number of economically strained and destitute people in the state. The January 1933 Welfare News reported that local and private groups could fill only an estimated 15 percent of the need.

By the mid-1930s a movement to reorganize social services and relief work into a state program was gaining momentum. It was recognized that support was needed not just for those with disabilities, children and other vulnerable people but many more who were willing to work but could not find jobs.

Still, the forces in favor of local control of relief work continued to be very strong. In 1937, the Michigan Legislature created a single state level system with integrated local programs only to have it overturned in 1938 by a referendum vote.

The 1939 Welfare Reorganization Act, intended to implement aspects of the 1935 federal Social Security Act, created a dual system of local control and state supervision of welfare and relief programs that satisfied neither the advocates of a single state welfare system nor the defenders of local control.

The welfare and relief challenges and conflicts that developed in Michigan apparently generated controversies within the Conference. For most of the decade Conference members debated programmatic issues and the name the organization should have.  Still, the Conference continued to work on a range of issues, regained its organizational footing, and expanded its activities.

In 1933 the Conference initiated Michigan Welfare News and later added a Journal and a Legislative Bulletin to its publications program.  The first edition of Michigan Welfare News appeared in January1933. It opened with a letter from Conference President C.R. Hoffer: “1933 is a year of responsibility and opportunity for social work in Michigan….”First edition of Michigan Welfare News

The four-page newsletter reported on the status of welfare relief including $11 million in federal loans for the “destitute,’’ “paroles” from the Kalamazoo State Hospital, and a resolution sent to Gov. William Comstock that estimated  $35 million in public relief was needed for 1933.

The Conference was very active in the Legislature in 1937, supporting 19 different proposals for public assistance, correction and mental health reforms.

And, notably, it backed the 1937 legislation to reorganize Michigan’s welfare system.

The League’s first executive, John McClellan, was hired in 1938. (Since the hiring of McClellan the League has had an additional nine leaders with President & CEO Gilda Z. Jacobs the current executive.)

The League closed out the 1930s with a new program of work and a new name – the Michigan Welfare League.  Other suggested names up for debate were: State Council of Social Agencies, State Charities Aid, and Citizens Welfare League.

The Welfare League’s program, adopted in 1940, focused on three areas of work: (1) education regarding social welfare objectives, problems, and methods, (2) improvement of standards in the field of social welfare, and (3) assisting in the development of an adequate and effective public welfare program.

By the end of the 1930s, the League had a substantial volunteer effort, a full-time director, ongoing publications and a long list of human services concerns.

–Jim Lunday

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