Theodore Dreiser, ‘Arbeitslose in New York’ TRANSLATION
Theodore Dreiser, ‘Arbeitlose in New York’
Posted here is an article by Dreiser that is not listed in Theodore Dreiser, A Primary Bibliography and Reference Guide, Second Edition, edited by Pizer, Dowell, and Rusch:
Arbeitslose in New York [Unemployed in New York]
Die Weltbühne [The World Stage]
Volume XXVII, Number 4, January 27, 1931
A PDF file of the original text is also posted here. The translation is by Roger W. Smith.
— posted by Roger W. Smith
Arbeitslose in New York [Unemployed in New York]
Die Weltbühne [The World Stage]
Volume XXVII, Number 4, January 27, 1931
Two to three hundred thousand people who would otherwise have jobs in New York City sit idle. And, as is so common with unemployment, lamentation and mental misery make themselves heard, and as a further consequence of this there is the usual talk about what should be done for the freezing and starving poor. Just glance at the front page of a New York morning or evening paper and note the sympathetic tirade of politicians, party leaders, cozy high-paid civil servants, bankers, financiers. One would think they had at last realized the existence and power of a rival economic system in the world, and were even to some degree frightened that the hungry, freezing, and unemployed might become so numerous as to think of a way in which their large number could be reduced.
Mr. Hoover and Mr. Woods, both well-to-do, salaried Party officials, opine with respect to unemployment, that they are prepared to “fight human misery.” Well, we will see that fight. But wouldn’t you like to know over what the masters want to fight? Perhaps by asking the good-hearted souls of the metropolis, city and village to do their duty with respect to the poor and miserable. Not only that! All the economic leaders will also unite, as they already have, to announce a massive revival in trade that will set everything right. The railroad, oil and industrial magnates are convinced that business is slowly picking up again and that unemployment will be eliminated.
But as for the immediate employment of the starving, those dressed in tatters, and the disconsolate, well, as I said, let’s wait and see. Very soon, when the worst comes to the worst, we’ll be ready to go back to the old ways: raising money through voluntary donations from the good-hearted, the well-fed, etcetera. In short, charity and unemployment assistance to the army of able and willing men and women who can, will, and have worked, but are now denied the opportunity because of the economic and social stew that calls itself government.
But not a word, as you will notice, about the four or five day Russian work week or a seven or six hour work day in any factory or organization or in the government itself to reduce unemployment. No banks, no trusts are willing to share in any way their already reaped profits. Wouldn’t that be communism? And can a large individual or capitalist state even consider communism? No. Then the last of the unemployed should instead perish, if this is necessary – in short: Hunger does not cancel the duty to die of it, any more than the duty to protect one’s country. This would mean the same as a narrowing of the deep gulf between the economic parasite now living on unearned money and the former employee walking the streets begging for alms. In short; strong, clever minds have no duties towards others, least of all towards a prosperous country that they created in the first place. Croesus is Croesus, Caesar Caesar. Pay him tribute and let the others go to hell. It seems to me that lawyers, trusts, politicians, millionaires and the government now automatically work on this principle. We’ve gone back to the infallibility of kings, only now his majesty is the Steel Trust, the Power Trust, or the XYZ Trust.
As I have said, there are about two to three hundred thousand people idling or roaming the streets looking for work. But work is not available. Of the six million residents of New York, two and a half million are employed, the rest are loafing or lazing about. These are the ones who are too rich, or shall we say, too lazy, unfit, too unsuccessful, or too young, too old, or too sick, too handicapped, or whatever. But they all don’t work.
But work is the pillar on which men build their lives and by which they earn their livelihood. If it is withdrawn from them, mankind develops the direst mental diseases. A. N., for example, a young lady I know, whose husband has recently been discharged, became about as insane as one might expect without confinement, because she was trying to support the whole family through temporary work, by serving refreshments at small gatherings. She’s completely mentally out of whack. L. S., an Irish poet, being unsuccessful as a chauffeur, who are as numerous as rats in New York, tried queuing at the docks, queuing, that is, with about two hundred longshoremen, of whom perhaps seventy-five will be singled out to have a newly arrived ship to unload. Because this man was passed over again and again, he became so crushed at the thought of having to live off a scornful, employed brother that his self-respect and with it all his faith in the world and its worth to him was lost. I read the other day of a certain Mrs. Vastale of Brooklyn, who committed suicide grieving over the loss of the money her husband, a barber, had invested in those wonderful stocks and bonds of 1929. Besides, who has all the money that was originally invested in them? Morris Klein, unemployed for three months, jumped out of his apartment in the Bronx; Harry Gordon, a Queens tailor who was also unemployed, hanged himself.
In short, in so many parts of New York life mirrors the misery that follows unemployment, You can feel it in the air. For example, last winter the bread lines in the Bowery provided charity for hundreds of the unemployed, But on April 1, 1930, when business was thought to have picked up slightly, if only temporarily, some of the soup kitchens were closed. Worse, if in previous years hundreds of people usually left the city in the spring to look for work abroad, last summer nobody left the city; moreover, hundreds from Buffalo, Detroit, and throughout the Industrial District of Pennsylvania and Ohio so added to the unemployed in New York that in May nine offices on the Bowery had to supply forty-four thousand overnight shelters, more than in any of the preceding winter months.
Last October I walked down the Bowery and, as in 1895, 1896, 1897, those bad years with their amazing American wealth contrasted with crushing poverty, I saw boys, healthy-looking men and old devils sitting on every step, crouching around every street lamp or sleeping in front of shops. A few had bundles of clothes, but most, I’m told, kept themselves “clean” by taking off their only shirt – and washing it in the Salvation Army laundromat – As I passed by, a jolly fellow called out to me, who wasn’t as discouraged as many others, quite friendly as follows: “You don’t have to worry about money, do you, uncle?” “No, just about the people,” I replied. I also noticed a lot of men with an inch of beard and it only costs a nickel to shave down there. But these people don’t even have a nickel; they exist by the soup kitchens, they do, and the Salvation Army’s two-cent buttermilk stand.
Credit is given by some organizations, such as the Bowery branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association. Here, in a modern building, people are admitted without a penny, their clothes aired or washed and ironed for forty cents, a bed for thirty cents, and a bed with meal for another thirty cents. In the first eighteen days of October this organization, which last year was eighty per cent self-supporting, had given 2,200 lodgings on credit against 1,300 the previous year. In the same period they formerly made more money for less occupancy than they do now. Now every night the better dormitories, which cost fifty cents a night, stand empty; they are not made available to anyone. The people don’t have the money. It sounds great that last year this company served a million and a half meals at eleven cents each and housed eighty-five hundred people with an average stay of sixty days on extended credit. However, only thirty-six people gained employment in the first sixteen days of October, compared to eighty-nine people for the same period last year. And it is their custom to accept only young people with prospects of employment, Also, a very large part of their clientele is from outside. In other words, this organization, which excludes many New Yorkers, most old men, and all the truly down-at-the heels, is focused only on one class. Under this class, however, exist those who sleep in the hallways of mission houses or speakeasies, or wherever else the surplus of the city asylums is sent: on the large barges of the East River, and Mr. Hoover and Mr. Woods want to confer on unemployment.
But the Bowery is home to only a part of the unemployed. Those housing projects that are on both sides of New York along the water, and where the residents depend so much on transport work, are overrun with the unemployed, loaders, supervisors, longshoremen only work one day a week, This is because, as a result of the tariff, they arrive with empty holds. The freight depots no longer offer the switchmen and brakemen as much work as they did a few months ago, then there are the garages, the only trucks still rolling are those of bootleggers. The trucks sit unused in garages or on the street for weeks. A young lad who had never driven a smuggled liquor wagon but now agreed to any work, was turned back because he was about to be sent to Bellevue. The foreman there told him that all the jobs which had otherwise become unfilled because people got drunk and didn’t come back, now were considered by them too precious to quit at that time. You’re too poor to get drunk, thank God.
But keep listening to me. The Relief Administration, which takes care of those families who are temporarily too poor to support themselves, now has two thousand six hundred in its care. That’s not 2,600 individuals, it’s 2,600 families. An increase of 100 families since last June and forty percent more than last year is attributable to unemployment.
Also, according to authorities in this field, the great decline in marriages during the first half of 1930 is considered to be due to unemployment. Six thousand persons were married in the City Hall wedding chapel last year during this period and only four thousand six hundred this year, that is a good or bad sign? Then, too, old people who can no longer support their families have turned to the newly approved state pension scheme by the thousands in New York. Many of these families have had to retire to small towns or farms in order to live more cheaply and to make do with the bare necessities preserved, And everyone today can see not hundreds but thousands of empty shops and dwellings. And families who used to live in fairly good circumstances are now turning every penny three times over. Ask your grocer, druggist, baker or butcher. Children’s music lessons will no longer be continued. Doctors explain that because of the two-dollar fee for some families, even when their child is seriously ill, the mother is reluctant to call a doctor. Doctor Wynne of our community schools tells us that the schoolchildren of Manhattan, of whom about seventy-five thousand have tuberculosis, are becoming more and more malnourished. The Henry Street Poor Sisters Society reports that the children of unemployed parents are suffering from severe food shortages. Another evidence of distressed families is seen in the fact that the New York Child Abuse Society is home to over two hundred and fifty children who are either grossly neglected or totally abandoned.
Also, more and more married men are resorting to bread lines to get some food for their children, while unmarried men have to do the same to make ends meet. So far, eighty thousand food stamps have been handed in in the “Little Church on the Corner” The socialist kitchen, which Mrs. Jacob Panken runs, and which Lowenstein supports daily with seventy-five pounds of meat, Mersay with fifty-one loaves of bread, and the dairy cooperative with milk, feeds five hundred to seven hundred people. Alas [sic; perhaps a typo for another word meaning fortunately], the soup servings are plentiful, too. The other night I saw about eight hundred people waiting for a cup of coffee and a piece of bread, each one being processed at St. Vincent’s Hospital on 7th Avenue. The Great New York Evangelical Mission on 8th Street feeds two hundred and fifty people absolutely free every night.
Despite the fact that strikes are seldom successful in hard times, workers who are being crushed by employers must try to protect their rights. And as I write this, the International Fuel Merchants’ Association announces a strike by three thousand workers. The children’s garment workers just ended one by submitting a wage increase question to arbitration. A dressmakers’ strike is now underway in the Fifth Avenue stores. Pickets are only allowed to wear a badge, and at that only a very colorless one, which, for example, may only say: “The workers of [Henri] Bendel are on strike. Moreover, they are not allowed to speak unless a policeman is kind enough to allow them to at least tell scabs the facts. It’s against the law, whether by national or association law, I don’t know, for pickets to call them “scabs.” I also noticed that when I wanted to speak to a picket, the police asked me to move on. The police also don’t allow distribution of leaflets to bystanders. The police take them away and tear them up. The police make their own rules on strikes, for example they only allow two people to picket.
Contradictory facts emerge as to what employers are doing about these conditions. But as I have said, and will say again, I believe that the desire of employers is to create the impression of permanent employment; a provision paid not by employers but by workers. Although less than half a percent of New York manufacturers show an active interest in present-day unemployment, many of the giant unions, such as the International Harvester Union, United States Rubber and Standard Oil Companies, which do not represent New York but the nation at large. Proctor & Gamble, which operates a Staten Island business, has guaranteed forty-eight weeks of employment per year. And some factories have pledged 70 percent of previous work hours to every employee who has been with them for five years. Many companies, not necessarily all based in New York, pay a few dollars a day when work is suspended. But on the whole the National Manufacturers’ Association, in their report on Unemployment Insurance, has presented the facts in a manner quite partial to representing English and continental European initiatives of this kind, so that I feel they are attempting to inhibit any initiative for improvement in this area. The Allgemeine Elektrizitats-Gesellschaft has introduced a new system of employee insurance, which is jointly maintained by the company and employees, but solely by the employees during times of need.
I would suggest: Instead of a structure which costs the unions not a nickel and is only intended to satisfy the public’s desire, that national legislation be introduced which covers all matters of work and unemployment. But we individualists of the Western capitalist world consider that to be communism or an attempt to possibly undermine a well-oiled and highly indifferent ‘capitalist’ country.
The outcome is preordained.
— translation by Roger W. Smith