Richard Bostwick Reminiscences
Cab Driving Stories
Welfare Office Stories
It was at this time that the federal government created the National Emergency Relief Administration, better known as the N.E.R.A. This federal agency took over the county's welfare program, as the county could no longer financially stand up under the increasing load. This required the services of an experienced social service administrator to supervise the disbursement of the federal funds involved. The county commissioners were fortunate to obtain such a qualified person from somewheres back east. His name was Tom Hendricks. He was a good-looking big fellow in his early forties. He replaced Mrs. Kennedy, who was demoted to the position of clerk typist.
Tom was an easy-going person who tried to be as fair and humane as possible under the existing conditions. Immediately, Tom started to increase the number of personnel in the relief office. As I previously stated, experienced social workers were at a premium, so Tom selected those who could qualify from the relief rolls to fill the new positions. That's how I came to work in the relief office. I received a salary-not much but enough to buy my own groceries and a few other needs, including my rent. In other words, I was still on the relief rolls but receiving minimum benefits along with my salary.
Tom Hendricks seemed to take a likening to me and we became good friends. After a week of working in the office, Tom put me in charge of the intake department. It was my duty to interview all applicants seeking assistance, which entailed filling out a lengthy schedule which contained such information as to their marital status, place of birth, number of dependents, any assets, and a whole host of other pertinent facts.
It was very interesting work and many of those whom I interviewed were either friends or acquaintances of mine. I was suppose to explain to each prospective client the meager assistance that was available to them, making it as least attractive as possible. While it was very meager, it was adequate. The maximum allowance for rent was $12.00 per month. There weren't many places available at that price. Most livable quarters rented for $18.00 a month. I really felt sorry for some of these people, for it was not so long ago that I was in the same fix as they were. My salary was quite meager, but it afforded me and my family a little more livable existence than some.
There were, of course, rules and regulations that all clients had to abide by, and some of them seemed rather harsh. There weren't any of the frills that you hear about in the present day relief program. Some regulations the client had to abide by were:
-If you were fortunate enough to own an automobile, you were required to turn in your license plates to the relief office for the duration of your period of assistance. This being a small town (35,000) most places were within walking distance.
-You were not allowed to have a telephone. Instead of paying the three or three and one half dollars rental for the phone, you were expected to apply that amount towards your own support.
I remember a mother who was on the local relief rolls had a telephone installed and paid for by her daughter who lived in a distant city. The welfare office informed her they were going to deduct the amount of the phone rental from her grocery allowance, ruling that if the daughter could afford the cost of the phone, she would have to apply that amount to her mothers' support. Instead, the daughter had the phone taken out.
No cash was ever issued to a relief client. Instead, each client received separate vouchers for each of their needs, such as food, fuel, rent, and all other essentials. In those days the large supermarkets were not as prevalent as they are today. You would take your grocery voucher to your neighborhood grocery store where the owner would credit you with its amount and you would then draw against it. The grocer, in turn, would present it to the county treasurer for reimbursement.
All other individual needs were purchased by you with your allotted vouchers. There were certain items that were not allowed to be purchased on these vouchers, such as candy, pop, tobacco products, or other non-essentials. If a merchant did issue such forbidden items to a relief client, he would be ‘black listed' for a certain period of time, during which he would be barred from receiving relief vouchers. As most if not all of his customers were purchasing their groceries with these vouchers, it meant he would be out of business.
You think you see a lot of people buying their groceries today with food stamps? Well most everyone during those troublesome times was buying their groceries with relief vouchers.
Each and every relief client in need of medical care was compelled to patronize the designated ‘county doctor.' In this case he was a senile old quack who often was rummy on some narcotic and whom the county paid a pittance for his services.
The relief office occupied an abandoned schoolhouse which had been renovated for the purpose. My office was on the main floor just off the foyer. It was very interesting to see the different types of people who passed my door. They ran the gamut of those that had never known any better style of life to those who at one time in the past had been very well off. Their dispositions were as varied as their appearances were. Some of them were docile and meek, apologetic sort of, reconciled to their fate. Others acted embarrassed and ashamed, yet others were arrogant or belligerent. Sometimes helping a person will change their personality. I've seen a fellow come into the office asking for assistance and being embarrassed and humiliated. Then after being helped for several months, this same fellow comes in, bangs his fist on the counter and demands better care. While the main purpose of the program was to feed, clothe, and shelter those in need, it also tried to keep it from being as easy means of livelihood and to discourage as many as possible by being austere.
During my employment in the relief office, I've seen many, many cases-some of them disgusting, very amusing, or pitiful. I remember one elderly fellow who came into my office demanding to see his caseworker, who was not in. I informed him of the fact, as had the girl at the front desk. His clothes were neat and of good material, yet quite threadbare. After accusing me of lying to him, he threw back his shoulders, standing as tall as he could, and glaring at me said, “Young man, it was not so long ago that my expense account was many times your salary.” With that, he stalked out of the office. I felt sorry for him, for I realized the frustration that must have been pent up in him.
Another time, a young boy about 17 years old came into my office, sat down across from me at my desk, and after asking him the usual question, “What can I do for you?” his answer was, “We need some help and you sons of bitches are going to give it to us.” Now as unusual as this was, I did not take offense for I could see this young boy was very scared and desperate. My reply to this outburst was, “Young man, if you were in my place and I came into your office and called you an SOB, would you be inclined to help me?” He then burst into tears and related the following story…
His father had passed away 8 or 9 months ago leaving the boy's mother and 3 young sisters with no insurance or other means of support. The mother, looking for some means to take care of her brood, decided to take in borders-an endeavor that she knew little about. She found many borders who could eat but not all could pay. It was not long before she was penniless and none of the family had eaten in the past 2 days. As a matter of fact, many of those who came into my office had claimed to have not eaten in the past 24 hours. I arranged for this boy to receive an emergency grocery voucher at once, enough to last his family for the next three days, during which time a caseworker would call on the mother and work out a schedule to care for all of their future needs. This was the usual procedure with most all cases that were accepted. The exception being if a family was not in immediate need, they would not receive any vouchers until the caseworker conferred with the head of the household.
Tom Hendricks and I had an arrangement worked out whereby at the end of the day I would drive him home to his apartment. After dropping him off, I would proceed on home, store the county car in my garage, then in the morning I would pick him up on my way to work. This was a handy arrangement for both of us and saved the county storage charges. Once in awhile, just as Tom and I would be preparing to go home and all caseworkers would be out, an emergency call would come in from someone reporting a case that needed immediate attention. In such cases, Tom would ask me to drive him home and then check out the call. I did not mind this at all. In fact, I rather enjoyed it.
I remember this one evening when a late caller reported a lady who was ill and in need of assistance. Tom asked me to check it out, so on my way home I proceeded to the apartment house in which the lady lived. Her apartment was on the third floor. After ringing the doorbell, I was told to ‘come on in.' As I entered, I noticed that the apartment was very well furnished. The lady sat on a chaise lounge, wearing a fancy housecoat. After introducing myself, the lady, who appeared to be in her fifties, informed me that some friends had told her that the county would take care of her medical needs. I then informed her that in order for her to receive county medical care, she would have to qualify for public assistance the same as all the other relief clients and would have to be treated by the county doctor. To that, she said she had her own doctor and would never think of making a change. I told her some of the other requirements that a relief client must abide by, whereupon she said to forget it, which I did. Several months later, again, as Tom and I were just leaving, the phone rang, and an emergency caller informed me of an elderly couple who were destitute and in need of immediate assistance. As usual, Tom asked me to check it out. So after dropping Tom off at his home, I proceeded to look up the address I had been given. It turned out to be a modest little cottage set well back from the street. As I approached the house, I noted the absence of any smoke coming from the chimney. This took place in the middle of the winter with the temperature well below zero.
I rapped several times before the door was opened by an old man who appeared to be in his late seventies. He was all bundled up in an overcoat, scarf and stocking cap. I informed him I was from the relief office, and that we had received a report that his wife and him were in need of assistance. He said they did not need help or wanted any charity. At this point I sort of invited myself on into the hallway and noticed there was no heat at all in the house. As a matter of fact, there was practically no difference in the temperature either inside or out. As I followed him on into the front room, I saw his wife sitting in a rocking chair. She too was all bundled up in an overcoat with blankets around her and her feet. He insisted he neither wanted nor needed any help. He said he never received a penny's worth of charity in his entire life and he was too old now to change. He was truly one of the old breed.
I asked him when he had eaten last, and he replied that they had had a good dinner. The front room heater was as cold as could be and so was the kitchen range. I walked on into the kitchen and took the liberty to look in the cupboard and the only item of food I could find was one hard frozen potato. I told him I must help him, and he again insisted he could not accept any charity.
I just couldn't believe anyone could live up to such spartan principles. I finally convinced him that for no other reason than the welfare of his wife, he should accept my help. He finally agreed and so I went next door, called Tom and told him what I had found. He told me to see to it that this family was taken care of. I next called a local fuel dealer, who the county had a contract with to handle such emergencies as this. I told them to send out some coal and kindling at once. I then went back to the office, got a grocery order and stopping at a nearby grocery store, I purchased all of the necessities for a good meal-bread, hamburger, spuds-and all of the other essentials.
By the time I got back to the old folks' home, it was past 7:00 p.m. It was dark out and very, very cold. The wood and coal had just arrived, so the first thing I did was to get a good fire going in both the heater and the kitchen range. I then proceeded to put on a pot of coffee, boil a few potatoes and fry some hamburger.
I finally got a good hot meal on the table and the three of us sat down and ate. When I left about 8:30 or 9:00 p.m., the house was nice and warm and the old couple was comfortable. I had banked the fires both in the heater and in the kitchen range. I knew they would be all right until morning when a caseworker would be out to care for their future needs. When I got home, my wife was worried as to where I had been, but I soon explained to her what I had done. She was glad I had taken care of those old people. I truly believe if I had not answered that phone as we were leaving the office, this old couple would not have survived through the night. Later on, their caseworker told me they were getting along just fine.
As I mentioned before, Tom was a very likeable fellow. We became very good friends and we got along real well. One day on the way home from work, he had me stop at a certain butcher shop. He had to see the owner regarding an upcoming contract for the county meat-canning project. When we stopped, I went in with him and after introducing himself he introduced me and to my amusement he introduced me as his ‘assistant.' Tom finished his business with the butcher and we went on home. The next day I stopped into the same butcher shop as it was near my home. I gave the butcher my order, and he not only wrapped up a larger piece of meat than I had ordered but he also wrapped up a nice big piece of calves liver. He shoved the two packages across the counter to me and said, “On the house, Mr. Bostwick.” I offered him the price of my purchase, but he would not take it and repeated, “On the house, Mr. Bostwick.” Well, a gift in those days was welcome. I thanked him and on my way home it dawned on me the reason for the butcher's generosity. Tom had introduced me to the butcher as his assistant and obviously the butcher was trying to gain favor with our department, thinking I really was the assistant director of the County Welfare Department.
Another chore I did, which was a little out of the ordinary, was a trip I made to the neighboring county at Tom's request. It seems there was a lady in her late fifties who was a legal resident of our county, who was working as a cook on a farm in the neighboring county. She had with her her grown son who was not only crippled but also a little retarded. She had lost her job for some reason unknown to me.
She had been on welfare in our county prior to taking the cooking job and now that she was out of work, she once more became dependent on our department as she had not been in the neighboring county long enough to qualify there for assistance. You see, in those days each county was responsible for their own residents and screened each applicant very close as to their home residence.
I had made this trip to transport this woman, her son and their belongings back to our county. It was on a Sunday in either November or December. The weather was very cold as usual during this time of year, down around 10 below zero. The trip consisted of about 200 miles. With all of the freeways of today, that would seem like a nice little jaunt. But remember this was 1930 and there were not the nice highways we have today, nor was there the maintenance. The official car I drove on this trip was a nice new Model A sedan.
After leaving home early that morning, I finally arrived at the farm shortly after noon. After eating lunch, I loaded up my passengers and their belongings in the car and headed for home. As luck would have it, it started to snow, and I do mean snow. It was late at night when I got to town. Now previous arrangements had been made for these people to move into some furnished housekeeping rooms that had been rented for them, so that is where I headed. But upon arriving at this rooming house, I was told the landlord had held the room as long as he could and then had rented them to someone else. Well, here I was-cold, tired and hungry after bucking snow drifts all the way home. But then, I guess my passengers were cold and hungry, too. It was the same story; I had to go down to the office, get a grocery order as well as a rental order for them and take them to a rooming house, which the county did considerable business with. I was lucky they had a vacancy. I had stopped at the grocery store on the way while the mother bought some groceries. After helping her and her son get their belongings upstairs to their two-room flat, I proceeded on my way home as I counted my blessings that I had a permanent home, a good wife, and all of my children were normal.
Continue to part 3
Institute for Regional Studies Home Page
Published by the Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU