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The Relief Check

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 05, 2011

An ideological artifact from the past — less a story than propaganda. Feel free to have at it.

From the Relief Society Magazine, September 1936 –

The Relief Check

Sadie Ollorton Clark

The first time Elizabeth accepted the Relief check, she rushed to her bedroom and slammed the door behind her so that the children should not see her tears of shame and humiliation. Twice she almost tore the pink slip in half, but the knowledge that Melvin, her eleven-year-old son had no shoes for the approaching winter, and that Robert, seventeen, and the oldest of her seven children, could not finish high school without a little necessary money, kept her from it. Other people took it without any pretense of shame, and few had as many mouths to feed with as little to give them as she, although, she reflected bitterly, she was glad that she was ashamed. Somehow it set her apart from the mob that so regularly collected on the steps of the Relief Headquarters building.

She was disappointed rather than surprised when her husband accepted the check calmly enough. She handed it to him saying, “I suppose this is the first time a Galbraith ever accepted charity.”

But he said simply, “Well, other people get it and we need it worse than any of them. And if it helps your pride any, you can remember you aren’t a Galbraith now. You’re a Hardin.”

Tears sprang again to her red eyes and her temper flared.

“Of course it isn’t such a step down for a Hardin to take charity,” she cried. “I suppose some members of your family have been on the city dole since the town was settled. Your brothers and your sister were the first to go on Relief here! They are all shiftless and poor! But I wasn’t raised that way. I shouldn’t have to be humiliated like this!”

“That’s just your Galbraith pride,” he said evenly. “When you’re poor you have to forget about things like that. As for my family, you must remember that your children are my family too!”

“That’s the reason I feel so badly. What will become of them? And it is just because you are lazy. You blame conditions instead of your own indolence when you don’t want to work. Why haven’t you plowed the land this year? Why have you let our best cows die from neglect this summer? Our land is mortgaged and we’ve hardly a herd of cattle left! Oh, what is the use anyway?”

“There isn’t any use with this drouth and the depression,” he said soothingly, still refusing to quarrel with her. “It doesn’t do any good to work. Your brothers just have better luck than I do, and they have better land, too. They never have liked me or they would help us now!”

She turned from him quickly that she should not remind him of how the Galbraiths had felt when she married him. He had been such a fine boy then – so superior to any of his family, yet he was a Hardin and the family pride had suffered at the union. But, as the years rolled on, she had been so proud to hear the relatives say, “Elizabeth has made a man out of Harvey!”

Running from the room she met Robert. “Why, Mother, what is the matter?” he questioned anxiously. “You’ve been crying.”

“Oh, I’m – I’m just sort of worried, son,” she said hastily. “We are so poor and the farm and everything has run down so much this year. I don’t know what we will do this winter.”

“If I could get a job I’d gladly stop school –”

“Oh, no! Not that. You have just this one year and you must finish. We will manage somehow.”

“If we had gone to the ranch this summer we’d have had the cheese,” he said, putting his books away.

“Why, Robert, you know I’m not strong enough to milk and do all that hard work, and the baby is so little. What do you expect your Mother to do, kill herself?”

“Well, you used to go up every summer and so did all the Galbraiths. You used to get a lot of money from the cheese, too. You used to keep chickens and milk cows and keep a garden. We haven’t done a thing this summer,” he muttered as he turned his face away.

“I’ve had enough work to do, just keeping house for the family,” she justified her lack of accomplishment as much to herself as to Robert. “I haven’t felt like milking cows and making butter. It is so much work and bother to move up to the ranch every summer. None of the family go up there any more.”

“I know it,” he mourned. “I just love to be up in the mountains, but they all think the work is too hard. Hardly any of the Galbraiths have gone to the ranch since Grandma died. Of course the rest of them can get along without the cheese money, but we can’t! We need it now!”

“I do all I can,” she insisted as she left him. “Everything we’ve ever had came from either me or my family.”

It was true, too. When her father died she had taken her growing family to the big old house to live with her mother, and when her mother too had passed on, not one of her many brothers and sisters questioned her right to continue there, even if she took her share of the farm inheritance, too. She had learned soon after her marriage that Harvey would always rather get a two dollar a day job than work in the fields, but she had managed to make him keep everything going until the depression and the subsequent Relief. Her own feelings of helplessness and inability only made it harder for her to do the tasks that she had once accepted as routine. The breaking point came when she first accepted the Relief money. After that they barely managed, and each month the pink check became more and more necessary.

She hardly knew whether to be relieved or worried when the wife of her wealthiest cousin took over the supervision of Relief work. Her pride took another blow when she saw the scorn in Eleanor Galbraith’s eyes at her regular appearance at the government headquarters. Yet she felt that Eleanor knew how to hold her tongue, and the knowledge of a Galbraith being on Relief would never go beyond the books.

So the winter passed and spring came with the approaching close of school and graduation for Robert. He was an honor student and the president of his class, a fine, handsome lad, ambitious and proud. Elizabeth had warned Harvey not to tell him of the dole. She felt he would never finish school if he knew of her shame. If he ever saw her near the government building he could easily account for it because of the relationship as well as the friendship which has always existed between his mother and her cousin.

He realized her struggle with poverty and she recognized his embarrassment when one day he came to her with a list of his needs for graduation – some new clothes, money for various expenses. Elizabeth read the items with desperation in her heart. There had been no income from any source but the Relief for months, and that check would never cover this additional burden. Would Eleanor see Robert’s need? Perhaps, Elizabeth hoped, she might lend it to him herself and allow him to work for her to pay it back.

That same afternoon she approached Eleanor in her office, but her cousin shook her head at the suggestion of a loan.

“Why hasn’t Robert been working and earning money to pay for these things? Other boys do.”

“Robert tried to get work, but he hasn’t had much time. I wanted him to finish high school credibly and I just haven’t pushed him.”

“He would have finished more honorably if he had helped pay for his education. I resolved when I took this work I would not give anyone a personal loan. I would have been penniless months ago if I hadn’t taken this stand. The only thing I can do for you is to advance your monthly check. Do you wish me to do that?”

Elizabeth nodded miserably. Eleanor started for the door to the outer room and as she touched the knob, Robert, rushing in from the outside, almost fell over her.

“Oh, I beg your pardon, Aunt Eleanor,” he gasped. “I was in such a big hurry and the clerk told me Mother was in here.

“Mother – could I get those white pants now? Bill Murray said he would let me drive the bus to the Ridgecrest dance tonight and give me my ticket as pay. I can’t go if I don’t have new trousers.”

Eleanor closed the door as suddenly as she had opened it. Elizabeth watched her turn deliberately to the desk and open a government checkbook.

“If you are willing for your Mother to take this, Robert, she could get you the things you want.”

“But – but that is a Relief check. You wouldn’t insult my Mother with a Relief check!”

“She hasn’t been insulted by them.”

“Mother!” he whirled on her, “you haven’t – you couldn’t have been taking dole?”

Elizabeth’s first reaction was of anger against her cousin.

“You needn’t have done this,” she cried. But the boy rushed to her and shook her shoulders.

“How could you take such money? Where is your pride?”

She turned from Eleanor to Robert. “Pride – what good is pride when you are hungry? You wanted to go to school, didn’t you? have you ever thought where the money came from? Your father hasn’t earned a penny for a year.”

“But the farm – hasn’t it always kept us?”

“You know how bad the drouth was last summer. Your father hardly attempted to work the farm.”

“But other people raised some crops. Uncle Ben has no more land than we and he wouldn’t accept Relief, would he?”

Eleanor spoke quickly. “Your Uncle Ben,” she said distinctly, “is a Galbraith.”

“But aren’t we Galbraiths, too? He is Mother’s own brother.”

“Your mother, Robert, married a Hardin, and she has become one of them.”

“Oh, I haven’t, Eleanor, I haven’t,” Elizabeth began to sob. “How can you say that?”

“I’ve watched you, Elizabeth. You’ve let down these last few years. Even if Harvey has failed, why should you refuse to work? Where are your chickens that used to bring you an income besides supplying your own eggs? Where is the vegetable garden? Where is the cheese?”

“I’ve had seven children, Eleanor. You’ve had only three. It takes all my time and strength to take care of them. You don’t understand.”

“That sounds like Ed Hardin’s wife, Elizabeth. I know you have had seven children, but your mother had nine. She was not as strong as you are, ever, but you know how much she accomplished. She ran the dairy ranch every summer, milked cows, made cheese and butter. She clothed all of you from this income. She milked cows all winter and sold the best butter in our little town. She almost kept her entire family in school through her own efforts. I know your father worked continuously, but it was all he could do to accumulate the estate he left his family. I’ve heard your Mother say that she never asked him for a penny for anything. Her idea of a wife was a help mate. What has yours been?”

“But Harvey –”

“You know Harvey needs someone behind him to push, Elizabeth. Have you done that? And even then, what he does shouldn’t stop you. You aren’t old. Your children are all able to help. Why should you give them a heritage of humiliation instead of one of pride? I’ve wanted to say this for a long time. You don’t have to accept this Relief check. Self respect is still yours if you would only work for it.”

Robert eased his sobbing Mother to a chair. “You are right, Aunt Eleanor. And I’ve been as bad as Mother. Here I am, nearly grown, and I asked her for money to buy me clothes – white trousers. I’m ashamed,” he choked, “but we won’t take that check. I’ll make old Bill pay me a dollar for that drive tonight instead of a dance ticket. And I can get a job with Uncle Ben for a month, planting. We can manage until it is time to go to the ranch.”

“The ranch?”

“Yes, the ranch. You’ll have to go up there and cook for us, Mother. You won’t have to make cheese. I know I can get Cousin Benjy to go there and look after his cows and use his truck to haul the milk to the cheese factory. The ranch isn’t as far away as it was when it took all day to reach it in a wagon.”

“But the house?”

“Well, Bess is fifteen, isn’t she? You said Aunt Martha ran the house when she was thirteen. And Dad will be here. There’s nothing wrong with Dad. He can run the farm himself if he has to. And Melvin and Margie are perfectly able to look after the garden.”

The garden! It was a patch of dry weeds and burrs now. But suddenly in her mind Elizabeth could see neat rows of green, promising food for her meager table.

“A virtuous woman,” the words sprang to her mind. “Her price is far above rubies. She considereth a field – with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.”

“You are right, son,” she said as she rose. “It will take about a month to get the garden ready before we can leave it. We must hurry home now and start to mend the fence tonight so that we will not have to worry about the chickens getting our seed.”



17 Comments »

  1. This is a little off. Usually the people who should feel ashamed of their laziness don’t, and people who have good reason to receive help are ashamed. Elizabeth didn’t fit either. But, eugenics wins again!

    Comment by Carol — September 5, 2011 @ 1:23 pm

  2. It’s simple eugenics. You never mate a Galbraith with a Hardin.

    Comment by Mina — September 5, 2011 @ 1:29 pm

  3. Y’know, I coulda sworn I read a newspaper story yesterday that resonated with these ideas:

    Comment by Coffinberry — September 5, 2011 @ 2:12 pm

  4. Whoops. Here’s the link.
    http://www.kansascity.com/2011/09/04/3120229/this-labor-day-americas-losing.html

    Comment by Coffinberry — September 5, 2011 @ 2:12 pm

  5. I’ve been poor, but I refuse to be shiftless.

    Comment by middle-aged Mormon Man — September 5, 2011 @ 2:24 pm

  6. I’m trying to imagine Helen Andelin’s reaction to this story.

    (And failing.)

    Perhaps all of Elizabeth’s problems would have been solved in the first five paragraphs if she had batted her eyelashes at her husband instead of getting mad.

    Sigh.

    I agree with Carol, who said the story is a “little off.” So what’s it propaganda for? The church welfare system? The ethic of hard work? Marginalizing your shiftless but not abusive husband? Pulling your kids out of school to make sure you can keep the farm running after the Utah farm economy has been depressed for several decades? I hope the last one wasn’t the take-home message! It was certainly a painful time as the economy changed and the country paused on the brink of World War II.

    But just think. If Robert went off to war, he would be eligible for the G.I. Bill, and all of his mother’s dreams for his education could come true.

    Comment by Researcher — September 5, 2011 @ 2:39 pm

  7. I come from a family of eight children. My father had to quit school while in the eighth grade to help care for his family when his father died and never was able to hold down a well paying job, partly because of pride when critisized.
    All of us older children worked every summer on farms in the surrounding area and bought our own clothes and school supplies. It was never a question of where that money was going to come from. We all did it from the time we were eight years old. And we went graduated from high school and most of us have attained a lot of formal secondary education while still working to pay the bills.
    The only point I am making, it seems to me that Robert should have been given the opportunity to work during the summers, and could have done a lot around the farm himself.

    Just my two cents worth.

    Glenn

    Comment by Glenn Thigpen — September 5, 2011 @ 4:30 pm

  8. Eleanor Galbraith? What kind of a weirdly, ironic name is that for a confused propaganda piece on the dole? Of course it had to be unintentional at least with regard to the Galbraith part as that Keynesian didn’t come to public prominence until the 1950s.

    Comment by Grant — September 5, 2011 @ 5:22 pm

  9. Harvey isn’t shiftless. He’s been in the shed making improvements to the tractor to speed up the dreadful farm work that he hates. Long ago Elizabeth stopped listening to him talk about how he loves the sound of machinery, so she has no clue. Robert will meet John Deere, Jr. when they go off to war, marry his sister and make a mint from his father’s inventions. Elizabeth will still grumble a bit and snub her cousin Eleanor.

    Comment by charlene — September 6, 2011 @ 11:53 am

  10. I’ll bet we have more fun with these stories than ever the readers did in the 1930s!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 6, 2011 @ 11:57 am

  11. Excuse me whilst I haul my jaw off the floor. Some medical assistance may be required.

    Goodness me! I knew an American Hardin, once. He’d have a real hissy fit if he thought his family name was being besmirched in such a way! I would argue a woman should never marry a man with two surnames as a moniker. ‘Harvey Hardin’ indeed, sounds feckless :-)

    Did this little gem come before or after the announcement of the Church Welfare Programme, just out of interest?

    Comment by Anne (UK) — September 6, 2011 @ 12:40 pm

  12. I really like charlene!

    Comment by Carol — September 6, 2011 @ 1:13 pm

  13. Anne, this was published five months after the announcement of the new Welfare Plan. I don’t know what lead time the magazine had, to guess whether this was already in the pipeline or whether it was a hurry-up writing job to illustrate something to do with the Welfare Plan. It seems to me, though, to be an ordinary “evils of the dole” propaganda piece — if it were written to teach something about the Welfare Plan (say, turning to the Church rather than to the government, or contributing what you could in return for what you received), there’s no real clue in the story, is there? I hope your jaw has been relocated without the need to call emergency responders.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 6, 2011 @ 1:40 pm

  14. A bit too heavy handed and simplistic for my taste. I’ve yet to know a real farmer who would let a cow die from neglect, or who so easily said “it doesn’t do any good to work.” Not planting,in the absence of a subsidy, also makes no sense. Most small farmers are eternal optimists, planting a crop against all the indications, hoping that something would work out. I should say were optimists, as there are hardly any small farmers anymore. The Idaho farmland I spent so much time on during my summers growing up were mostly 160 acres small family farms.

    Now, most of that farmland has been bought up by large corporate farms, several thousand acres usually. My uncle’s home where I spent those summers now serves as a dormitory for seasonal workers, and the grass yard is now just more equipment storage.

    Also, who really calls public assistanc “the dole” anymore?

    Comment by kevinf — September 6, 2011 @ 5:19 pm

  15. I’ve heard your Mother say that she never asked him for a penny for anything.

    So… mothers working their fingers to the bone is admirable, as long as it’s not outside the home.

    It’s as easy for a woman to bear and raise seven children as three.

    Backyard chickens are a profitable enterprise (ha!)

    There is no financial situation so dire that assistance should be considered. Instead, profitable opportunities exist around every turn.

    Government assistance is a slippery slope to addiction, justlike crack or pr0n

    Any other lessons I missed?

    Comment by The Other Clark — September 6, 2011 @ 8:04 pm

  16. Um, maybe one: Nobody ever runs out of resources, really; we all have spare dairy ranches lying around, left to us by our parents and not of interest to any of the other heirs. (Didn’t someone give a conference talk in the last three or four years about getting out of a financial pinch through being blessed to get a good price on the sale of spare real estate, as if that were an option for most people?)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 6, 2011 @ 8:39 pm

  17. I just read this; and it’s got me pounding my head on the wall. A month late you say, but last month was the end of summer and I am trying to learn how to walk. Again.

    SO September 6th I was walking backwards & sideways in my yard. Among other exercises & visits to my latest Physical Therapist. And racing against the end of summer – planting one more perennial or shrub in a container.. .and I just Keepa Issues to in my “to read later” file – there’s even a free App for that on my new ipad 2.

    Anyway I didn’t read this until now, no more gardening – it finally froze here and I am taking a break from physical therapy after mistakenly spinning and treading myself when I started the treadmill too soon with my elbow on the green start button. By some miracle I did not break anything. (Tho right away I was wishing my picture-addicted husband had caught this unintended slapstick on tape. Surely it would have been worth thousands!)

    But repeatedly pounding my head against the wall feels remarkably like running myself thru the treadmill, and not breaking anything does not mean it didn’t hurt –
    SO Ardis, tell me PLEASE; are there any other issues I should avoid? In, say, the last month?

    Comment by Diane Peel — October 21, 2011 @ 11:20 pm

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