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Kansas in the Great Depression: Work Relief, the Dole and Rehabilitation

Author(s):Fearon, Peter
Reviewer(s):Sorensen, Todd

Published by EH.NET (November 2007)

Peter Fearon, Kansas in the Great Depression: Work Relief, the Dole and Rehabilitation. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2007. x + 316 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-8262-1736-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Todd Sorensen, Department of Economics, University of California, Riverside.

Peter Fearon’s book, Kansas in the Great Depression: Work Relief, the Dole and Rehabilitation, is a thorough examination of the role that the Kansas state government, the federal government, and the relationship between the two governments played in providing relief to those hardest hit by the Depression. Fearnon’s work is rich in information drawn from primary sources. Probably the most important of these sources is the personal papers of John G. Stutz, the head of the Kansas Emergency Relief Committee, which was responsible for distributing the bulk of state-administered aid.

Fearon, Professor of Modern Economic and Social History at the University of Leicester, begins his book with a detailed examination of the beginnings of the Great Depression in Kansas. This first chapter describes not only how the economic downturn affected the Kansas economy, but also the first responses by the state government to the crisis. As we later see, the state’s early adoption of a number of reform measures eased its adaptation to New Deal policies and distribution of New Deal aid.

The economic and demographic changes that took place in Kansas throughout the 1920s are described in detail. Fearon notes that during the decade before the Great Depression, manufacturing employment declined significantly (though at a lower rate than in many other states). On the agricultural side of the economy, an unusually moist decade created excellent farming conditions that in turn lead to a “curse of plenty” with downward pressure on wheat and other crop prices, creating economic distress for an already heavily mortgaged farm sector.

Records from the 1920s also allow us to gain some insight into the prior state of the social safety net that would be greatly transformed in the years ahead. The poor laws that existed in the 1920s had changed very little from those that were set up shortly after statehood was granted in 1862. These laws put a strong emphasis upon the ideal that able bodied men should have no problem obtaining employment. A result of this was that serious stigma was attached to aid dispensed to these “undeserving poor.” Two important institutional details of the pre-depression poor laws were that all responsibility for aid rested in the hands of the county, and aid was restricted to those who had been residents of the county for at least six months.

The first large New Deal-like spending from the Hoover Administration came from the Emergency Relief and Construction Act. Kansas was receptive to the type of money that would be available from the Emergency Relief Division (ERD), which was created under the act. The ERD would provide low-interest federal loans to states to undertake projects that would help reduce unemployment. The administration of these projects, however, would still rest with the states. Then Democratic governor, Harry H. Woodring, created the Kansas Federal Relief Committee (KFRC) to administer this money. The KFRC’s members generally supported aid that would consist of work relief rather than handouts, and would be means-tested. The executive secretary of the KFRC was John G. Stutz, who went on to play an important role in the administration of relief throughout the New Deal. The KFRC also created similar style committees in each of Kansas’ 105 counties.

With the November 1932 election of Franklin Roosevelt, federal involvement in state relief efforts was set to change significantly. At the same time, Alfred Landon, a Republican, was elected as the new Governor of Kansas. An important early decision made by Landon was to retain the majority-Democrat KFRC from the prior administration. While this was probably done more due to practical considerations for preserving continuity, it likely had positive political repercussions for the KFRC’s future dealings with the new Democratic administration in Washington.

As mentioned above, Fearon’s key primary source is the papers of John Stutz, whose role in the administration of relief is discussed throughout the text. Stutz was raised in Kansas and had degrees in political science and sociology from the University of Chicago. From the time of his graduation until his involvement with relief administration, Stutz was the executive director of the League of Kansas Municipalities, where he had become well respected nationally among those involved with city management. His efforts to exchange ideas with people in his position in other states lead to the founding of the American Municipal Association, the precursor to the National League of Cities. Fearon cites Stutz’s already established managerial and bureaucratic talents when considering his role in the development of a nationally-respected infrastructure to provide relief support in Kansas. Stutz is credited with the development of a professional and well-educated network of social workers that distributed Kansas’ federal aid dollars efficiently and effectively.

While a Republican himself, the level of respect that Stutz enjoyed from Democrats (at least initially) is evidenced by the fact that it was a Democratic governor who appointed him to his post with KFRC (later the Kansas Emergency Relief Committee (KERC)). Fearon also notes the initial lack of political tension between Washington and Topeka. This truce held reasonably well until the run up to the 1934 elections, in which Landon was able to secure a second term. During the election, Stutz faced a number of personal and political attacks alleging instances of patronage and politicization of relief. At the same time, Democrats seemed to be promising that federal patronage to the state as a whole would increase should they strengthen their share of the state congressional delegation and retake the governorship. Political tensions increased even more as Governor Landon sought the Republican nomination and later challenged Roosevelt in the general election of 1936. While Fearon makes no direct comparisons to other states, it would have been interesting to see if there was an overall increase in the politicization of relief throughout the country in the run up the 1936 election, whether this effect was limited to states with Republican governors, or whether it was specific to Kansas, the home state of the Republican presidential candidate.

In addition to explaining the “why” of economic and political factors that determined how New Deal aid was administered throughout the 1930s, the middle chapters also lay out in great detail the “how” and “what” of the workings of these programs. For instance, Fearon describes how the availability of funds for future relief efforts was influenced greatly by the 1933 approval by the state legislature of Landon’s reforms to the tax code. Landon adopted the first state income tax, and levied a number of excise taxes. This was done both to broaden the tax base to allow for greater expenditures as well as to address equity concerns. These reforms allowed Kansas to move away from a revenue flow that was so greatly dependent upon property taxes; more revenue was to be collected from sources on the basis of ability to pay. Landon also required all taxing entities in Kansas to work on “cash basis” in order to avoid any deficit spending. While expanding relief spending, Landon also embarked on an austerity program that involved salary cuts to state employees, including himself.

A preference shared by both Kansas and the Federal government was the use of work relief over direct “dole” payments. The sources of funding to Kansas’ counties evolved from Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) grants at the end of the Hoover Administration to the Civil Works Administration in the first year of the Roosevelt Administration to the Federal Emergency Relief Administration through 1935, and finally to the establishment of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The last of these changes was probably the most significant to Kansas, as it meant the federal government taking over direct administration of relief spending.

Given Fearon’s focus on the political struggles between Washington and the state government and alleged further politicization of aid leading up to the 1936 election, a longer in-depth discussion of the political motives behind the establishment of the WPA would have been beneficial: can this be seen as a case of the federal government taking over administration of a program from the states in order to increase the ability of the incumbent to spend money for political benefit?

The effect of the establishment of the WPA upon the KERC was profound: its funding was decreased dramatically and its mission was being tackled by another competing agency. KERC’s preference for work relief over the dole meant a great loss to the WPA in terms of its effective scope. Democrats in Congress, frustrated with Stutz’s running of KERC, were eager to have one of their own in the new post that would oversee the WPA’s activities in the state. In the summer of 1935, Stutz was passed over for this position in favor of Evan Griffith, the state’s re-employment director. Stutz resigned from his position with KERC and ended his role in relief administration in January 1937, after the defeat of the Republican gubernatorial candidate.

In addition to chronicling the development of the administration of New Deal relief in one state and providing some insight into the political and bureaucratic matters that governed this process, the book makes a number of other smaller contributions as well. Not least of these is a chapter on relief and the agricultural sector, to which Fearon devotes a fair portion of the book. While substantial, this is clearly less of a focus than his study of relief efforts outside of the agricultural sector.

Fearon also spends a notable amount of time discussing the plight of women on the relief rolls (or in many cases, merely trying to get onto the rolls). There are also illustrative accounts of tensions between natives and Kansas’ small Mexican migrant community and of the relatively minimal racial tensions that arose as a result of the allocation of New Deal spending. Fearon gives several very informative accounts of how spending programs affected Kansas’ relatively small African American community.

When examining why the Kansas relief administration was a success, Fearon concedes that some of the differences between Kansas’ experience of relief during the Great Depression and the experiences of other states may have stemmed from a relatively less severe economic downturn in Kansas, a relatively homogeneous population, a significant out migration from the state that helped relieve pressures, and a lack of open hostility to relief in principle. However, he maintains that a great deal of the superior performance of Kansas’ relief administration can be attributed to John Stutz and his managerial ability.

One thing that is lacking in the book is a more thorough discussion of how Kansas was different ? apart from the contemporary opinions expressed by federal officials involved in relief efforts. The book would have benefited from a more consistent set of measures to compare how the administrative structure of the relief programs was different from other states, how the politics behind the development of this structure differed, and how ultimately these may have affected outcomes of those dependent upon relief.

All in all, Kansas in the Great Depression provides a well laid out description of the economic circumstances, political factors, and institutional details that lead Kansas to have what was widely perceived to be “a microcosm of what welfare professions were trying to create throughout the country.”

Todd Sorensen is an Assistant Professor at the University of California, Riverside. He works in the areas of labor economics, migration and economic history. A recent work, “Migration Creation, Diversion, and Retention: New Deal Grants and Migration, 1935-1940,” studies how New Deal spending affected internal migration during the Great Depression.

Subject(s):Macroeconomics and Fluctuations
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII