Federal Relief in West Virginia During the Great Depression

Journal of the House of Delegates
Second Extraordinary Session

Pursuant to H. C. R. No. 13 - "Raising a joint assembly to hear address of the Honorable Howard O. Hunter",

The Senate met in the hall of the House of Delegates and the Speaker presented the Honorable Howard O. Hunter, who addressed the joint assembly, as follows:

Mr. Speaker, and Ladies and Gentlemen of the West Virginia Legislature:

While it has never been made very public in the United States, it is a fact that last March there were approximately 4,500,000 families or about 21,000,000 people in the United States living on public relief. One out of every six persons in the United States at that time was dependent for the barest necessities of life upon grants from public relief agencies.

With the increased employment in the country and the beginning of a general business recovery, this number has been considerably reduced, but at that, in November of this year there were about 3,000,000 families or nearly 15,000,000 people still on public relief.

In this state of West Virginia there were at one time last spring one person out of every three in the state existing on public relief. Even today there are over 100,000 families or nearly half a million people, or about one person out of every four in this state dependent for their food and shelter upon public relief.

May I say that this does not take into account other thousands of people who are unemployed, but who through the resources of friends, relatives and their own ingenuity, have managed to stay away from the public relief office.

I would like to ask you to think of what it really means to a state to have over one person out of every four existing today, and day after day upon a public relief system. Think of this, not only as it affects these people themselves, but also of the general effect upon the state itself of having such a tremendous proportion of its population entirely dependent upon some form of public aid.

Now, I would like for you to get a picture of what this public aid means to these families. What have we given them and how have we given it, and what is it doing to them?

Well, in the first place, we have been giving to one person out of every four in the state of West Virginia public relief to the extent of about forty cents a day per family. And this is all they have been getting, which covers food, clothing, shelter, fuel, etc. I wonder if any person in this general assembly would be willing to state that it is a fair and just proposition to establish a living standard for twenty-five per cent of the people in the state on a basis of forty cents per day per family.

While there may be many justifiable criticisms to the effect that some people have received relief who are not entitled to it, it nevertheless remains a fact that the vast majority of these people are not only entitled to the meager dole which we hand out, but are also entitled to a more intelligent consideration. In the main, relief has been administered in this state as in other states in the country, on just as decent and fair a basis as it is possible to administer any public relief. At its best, public relief is still a discouraging and unpleasant matter. It is particularly discouraging when it is done on such inadequate and hand to mouth basis as it has been necessary to do it in West Virginia.

Some of the stories we have heard and some of the things we have seen in West Virginia about the conditions in some of these relief families would make your hair stand on end. There are true stories of conditions which, if published, would almost amount to a national scandal. Children by the thousands have stayed at home this winter instead of going to school because they have no shoes and clothing. Thousands of children in families in this state never see a bottle of milk. Other thousands of people are living in shelters which are a disgrace to the state. It was impossible to put many thousands of men to work in this state on our civil works program, for instance, until the federal government had made a special grant of money to purchase clothing.

In other words, this is the most real and most critical situation that has ever been faced in this state and it is even more critical to these half a million people who are entirely dependent on public aid for their very living.

Now, who has paid for what has been done for these people? The serious question which I am presenting to you today is the fact that the state of West Virginia, as far as any practical action goes, has ignored this problem.

Ninety-six per cent and more of all the money that has been spent for public relief in this state for relief the past year has come from the federal government. The other small amount has been squeezed out here and there from local communities. The state itself has yet to show any evidence of a sense of responsibility for this great problem.

As you are probably well aware, the purpose and intent of this federal relief act of May, 1933, is to aid states in meeting this unemployment relief crisis. It is not the intent of the federal relief administration to supplant the aid which should be given by states and localities. The very wording of the act itself makes it very directly the responsibility of states and localities to utilize every possible resource to meet this unemployment crisis and to call upon the federal government only for supplementary aid.

However, in your state it has been true all during this year that practically the entire cost of relief has been met by the federal relief administration. During the past twelve months more than $18,000,000 has been granted to this state by the federal relief administration, without any money whatever being put up by the state.

Repeated efforts have been made since May of this year to get this state to assume some responsibility. These efforts have been continuously met on the part of the state by dodging the issue and presenting various and sundry excuses as to why it did not act.

This kind of a situation is not fair to the people of West Virginia or to the other states in the Union. Other states have met this responsibility. In most of the states of the United States, state and local governments are carrying a heavy share of the relief burden, and on top of that these other states and local communities, for several years past, have spent large sums of their own before the federal government even entered the picture at all.

This situation is not fair. It is not fair to have a state like West Virginia, which has the largest percentage of its population on public relief of any state in the Union, to dodge this responsibility any further. In fact, the federal relief administration will not continue to be a party to any such arrangement. We have more than met our responsibility and we have been more than fair to this state, hoping that the state government would soon recognize an obligation which has been recognized by nearly every other state in the Union.

May I call your attention to the fact that not only have we poured $18,000,000 of relief funds into this state, but we have also made it possible to employ over 70,000 persons on civil works projects for which we are also paying practically the entire bill. This means an additional sum of $7,000,000 to $8,000,000 which will be spent in this state in the form of wages between now and February 15th.

On top of this, we are also distributing in this state to the needy unemployed millions of dollars worth of food commodities.

Our latest official communications with this state stated, very definitely that we would, continue to be responsible for this relief business only on a weekly basis until such time as this Legislature took proper action. Included in the call for this session was the question of relief legislation. At the present we are granting relief funds to the state weekly until you act, provided such action is taken promptly.

This means that at no time do the people in this state have any assurance of getting this relief beyond, the immediate week unless you face this problem and act accordingly.

The federal government is in no way required or obligated to carry this entire load any longer. In fact, we are pretty definitely convinced that unless the people in this state recognize this responsibility, there is no further reason why we should "tear our shirts" in trying to take care of your own problem.

If this thing is real to you, if you are concerned about the very existence of over twenty-five per cent of your population, then you will take proper action and we will go along and do our share, and more. The form of legislation which you decide to use in meeting this problem is your business. We are convinced that there can be legislation passed which will produce funds for relief in this state. We are not at all interested in arguing about what kind of legislation you pass - we are not interested in arguing back and forth about some isolated, actual or imaginary case of poor local relief administration, but we are intensely interested in seeing this great state of West Virginia make a reasonable effort to take a reasonable share of its own local problem.

At the conclusion of the address by Mr. Hunter, on motion of Mr. Hodges the joint assembly was dissolved.

Great Depression

West Virginia Archives and History