Tag Archives: poverty

Jacob Riis, Investigative Reporter




Jacob Riis, 1849 — 1914, came to the United States as an immigrant at age 21. He became an investigative journalist, looking at social conditions. Here is an excerpt from his most famous work, How The Other Half Lives, 1890.


It is estimated that at least one hundred and fifty thousand women and girls earn their own living in New York; but there is reason to believe that this estimate falls far short of the truth when sufficient account is taken of the large number who are not wholly dependent upon their own labor, while contributing by it to the family’s earnings. These alone constitute a large class of the women wage-earners, and it is characteristic of the situation that the very fact that some need not starve on their wages condemns the rest to that fate. The pay they are willing to accept all have to take. What the “everlasting law of supply and demand,” that serves as such a convenient gag for public indignation, has to do with it, one learns from observation all along the road of inquiry into these real woman’s wrongs. To take the case of the sales-women for illustration: The investigation of the Working Women’s Society disclosed the fact that wages averaging from $2 to $4.50 a week were reduced by excessive fines, “the employers placing a value upon time lost that is not given to services rendered.” A little girl, who received two dollars a week, made cash-sales amounting to $167 in a single day, while the receipts of a fifteen-dollar male clerk in the same department footed up only $125; yet for some trivial mistake the girl was fined sixty cents out of her two dollars. The practice prevailed in some stores of dividing the fines between the superintendent and the time-keeper at the end of the year. In one instance they amounted to $3,000, and “the superintendent was heard to charge the time-keeper with not being strict enough in his duties.” One of the causes for fine in a certain large store was sitting down. The law requiring seats for saleswomen, generally ignored, was obeyed faithfully in this establishment. The seats were there, but the girls were fined when found using them.
Cash-girls receiving $1.75 a week for work that at certain seasons lengthened their day to sixteen hours were sometimes required to pay for their aprons. A common cause for discharge from stores in which, on account of the oppressive heat and lack of ventilation, “girls fainted day after day and came out looking like corpses,” was too long service. No other fault was found with the discharged saleswomen than that they had been long enough in the employ of the firm to justly expect an increase of salary. The reason was even given with brutal frankness, in some instances.
These facts give a slight idea of the hardships and the poor pay of a business that notoriously absorbs child-labor. The girls are sent to the store before they have fairly entered their teens, because the money they can earn there is needed for the support of the family. If the boys will not work, if the street tempts them from home, among the girls at least there must be no drones. To keep their places they are told to lie about their age and to say that they are over fourteen. The precaution is usually superfluous. The Women’s Investigating Committee found the majority of the children employed in the stores to be under age, but heard only in a single instance of the truant officers calling. In that case they came once a year and sent the youngest children home; but in a month’s time they were all back in their places, and were not again disturbed. When it comes to the factories, where hard bodily labor is added to long hours, stifling rooms, and starvation wages, matters are even worse. The Legislature has passed laws to prevent the employment of children, as it has forbidden saloon-keepers to sell them beer, and it has provided means of enforcing its mandate, so efficient, that the very number of factories in New York is guessed at as in the neighborhood of twelve thousand. Up till this summer, a single inspector was charged with the duty of keeping the run of them all, and of seeing to it that the law was respected by the owners.
Sixty cents is put as the average day’s earnings of the 150,000, but into this computation enters the stylish “cashier’s” two dollars a day, as well as the thirty cents of the poor little girl who pulls threads in an East Side factory, and, if anything, the average is probably too high. Such as it is, however, it represents board, rent, clothing, and “pleasure” to this army of workers. Here is the case of a woman employed in the manufacturing department of a Broadway house. It stands for a hundred like her own. She averages three dollars a week. Pays $1.50 for her room; for breakfast she has a cup of coffee; lunch she cannot afford. One meal a day is her allowance. This woman is young, she is pretty. She has “the world before her.” Is it anything less than a miracle if she is guilty of nothing worse than the “early and improvident marriage,” against which moralists exclaim as one of the prolific causes of the distress of the poor? Almost any door might seem to offer welcome escape from such slavery as this. “I feel so much healthier since I got three square meals a day,” said a lodger in one of the Girls’ Homes. Two young sewing-girls came in seeking domestic service, so that they might get enough to eat. They had been only half-fed for some time, and starvation had driven them to the one door at which the pride of the American-born girl will not permit her to knock, though poverty be the price of her independence.

The tenement and the competition of public institutions and farmers’ wives and daughters, have done the tyrant shirt to death, but they have not bettered the lot of the needle-women. The sweater of the East Side has appropriated the flannel shirt. He turns them out to-day at forty-five cents a dozen, paying his Jewish workers from twenty to thirty-five cents. One of these testified before the State Board of Arbitration, during the shirtmakers’ strike, that she worked eleven hours in the shop and four at home, and had never in the best of times made over six dollars a week. Another stated that she worked from 4 o’clock in the morning to 11 at night. These girls had to find their own thread and pay for their own machines out of their wages. The white shirt has gone to the public and private institutions that shelter large numbers of young girls, and to the country. There are not half as many shirtmakers in New York to-day as only a few years ago, and some of the largest firms have closed their city shops. The same is true of the manufacturers of underwear. One large Broadway firm has nearly all its work done by farmers’ girls in Maine, who think themselves well off if they can earn two or three dollars a week to pay for a Sunday silk, or the wedding outfit, little dreaming of the part they are playing in starving their city sisters. Literally, they sew “with double thread, a shroud as well as a shirt.” Their pin-money sets the rate of wages for thousands of poor sewing-girls in New York. The average earnings of the worker on underwear to-day do not exceed the three dollars which her competitor among the Eastern hills is willing to accept as the price of her play. The shirtmaker’s pay is better only because the very finest custom work is all there is left for her to do.
Calico wrappers at a dollar and a half a dozen—the very expert sewers able to make from eight to ten, the common run five or six—neckties at from 25 to 75 cents a dozen, with a dozen as a good day’s work, are specimens of women’s wages. And yet people persist in wondering at the poor quality of work done in the tenements! Italian cheap labor has come of late also to possess this poor field, with the sweater in its train. There is scarce a branch of woman’s work outside of the home in which wages, long since at low-water mark, have not fallen to the point of actual starvation. A case was brought to my notice recently by a woman doctor, whose heart as well as her life-work is with the poor, of a widow with two little children she found at work in an East Side attic, making paper-bags. Her father, she told the doctor, had made good wages at it; but she received only five cents for six hundred of the little three-cornered bags, and her fingers had to be very swift and handle the paste-brush very deftly to bring her earnings up to twenty-five and thirty cents a day. She paid four dollars a month for her room. The rest went to buy food for herself and the children. The physician’s purse, rather than her skill, had healing for their complaint.
I have aimed to set down a few dry facts merely. They carry their own comment. Back of the shop with its weary, grinding toil—the home in the tenement, of which it was said in a report of the State Labor Bureau: “Decency and womanly reserve cannot be maintained there—what wonder so many fall away from virtue?” Of the outlook, what? Last Christmas Eve my business took me to an obscure street among the West Side tenements. An old woman had just fallen on the doorstep, stricken with paralysis. The doctor said she would never again move her right hand or foot. The whole side was dead. By her bedside, in their cheerless room, sat the patient’s aged sister, a hopeless cripple, in dumb despair. Forty years ago the sisters had come, five in number then, with their mother, from the North of Ireland to make their home and earn a living among strangers. They were lace embroiderers and found work easily at good wages. All the rest had died as the years went by. The two remained and, firmly resolved to lead an honest life, worked on though wages fell and fell as age and toil stiffened their once nimble fingers and dimmed their sight. Then one of them dropped out, her hands palsied and her courage gone. Still the other toiled on, resting neither by night nor by day, that the sister might not want. Now that she too had been stricken, as she was going to the store for the work that was to keep them through the holidays, the battle was over at last. There was before them starvation, or the poor-house. And the proud spirits of the sisters, helpless now, quailed at the outlook.
These were old, with life behind them. For them nothing was left but to sit in the shadow and wait. But of the thousands, who are travelling the road they trod to the end, with the hot blood of youth in their veins, with the love of life and of the beautiful world to which not even sixty cents a day can shut their eyes—who is to blame if their feet find the paths of shame that are “always open to them?” The very paths that have effaced the saving “limit,” and to which it is declared to be “inevitable that they must in many instances resort.” Let the moralist answer. Let the wise economist apply his rule of supply and demand, and let the answer be heard in this city of a thousand charities where justice goes begging.
To the everlasting credit of New York’s working-girl let it be said that, rough though her road be, all but hopeless her battle with life, only in the rarest instances does she go astray. As a class she is brave, virtuous, and true. New York’s army of profligate women is not, as in some foreign cities, recruited from her ranks. She is as plucky as she is proud. That “American girls never whimper” became a proverb long ago, and she accepts her lot uncomplainingly, doing the best she can and holding her cherished independence cheap at the cost of a meal, or of half her daily ration, if need be. The home in the tenement and the traditions of her childhood have neither trained her to luxury nor predisposed her in favor of domestic labor in preference to the shop. So, to the world she presents a cheerful, uncomplaining front that sometimes deceives it. Her courage will not be without its reward. Slowly, as the conviction is thrust upon society that woman’s work must enter more and more into its planning, a better day is dawning. The organization of working girls’ clubs, unions, and societies with a community of interests, despite the obstacles to such a movement, bears testimony to it, as to the devotion of the unselfish women who have made their poorer sisters cause their own, and will yet wring from an unfair were the justice too long denied her.


The State of the Union~January 8th~1790 & 1964

The State of the Union~1790 and 1964

President Washington

President Washington

“Nor am I less persuaded that you will agree with me in opinion that there is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness. In one in which the measures of government receive their impressions so immediately from the sense of the community as in ours it is proportionably essential. To the security of a free constitution it contributes in various ways – by convincing those who are intrusted with the public administration that every valuable end of government is best answered by the enlightened confidence of the people, and by teaching the people themselves to know and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them; to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority; between burthens proceeding from a disregard to their convenience and those resulting from the inevitable exigencies of society; to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness – cherishing the first, avoiding the last – and uniting a speedy but temperate vigilance against encroachments, with an inviolable respect to the laws. Whether this desirable object will be best promoted by affording aids to seminaries of learning already established, by the institution of a national university, or by any other expedients will be well worthy of a place in the deliberations of the legislature.” ~ in the first ever State of the Union message, delivered January 8, 1790, President George Washington urges consideration of federal aid to education.

President Johnson

President Johnson

“Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope– some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity. This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort. It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it. One thousand dollars invested in salvaging an unemployable youth today can return $40,000 or more in his lifetime. Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization and support. But this attack, to be effective, must also be organized at the State and the local level and must be supported and directed by State and local efforts. For the war against poverty will not be won here in Washington. It must be won in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House. The program I shall propose will emphasize this cooperative approach to help that one-fifth of all American families with incomes too small to even meet their basic needs. Our chief weapons in a more pinpointed attack will be better schools, and better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities to help more Americans, especially young Americans, escape from squalor and misery and unemployment rolls where other citizens help to carry them. Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children. But whatever the cause, our joint Federal– local effort must pursue poverty, pursue it wherever it exists– in city slums and small towns, in sharecropper shacks or in migrant worker camps, on Indian Reservations, among whites as well as Negroes, among the young as well as the aged, in the boom towns and in the depressed areas. Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it. No single piece of legislation, however, is going to suffice.” ~ in the State of the Union message delivered on January 8, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson urges a national struggle against poverty




Robin Hood of the Depression

Many a starving farmer

The same old story told

How the outlaw paid their mortgage

And saved their little hold.

Others tell you ’bout a stranger

That come to beg a meal,

And underneath his napkin

Left a thousand dollar bill.

It was in Oklahoma City,

Twas on a Christmas Day,

Came a whole car load of groceries

With a letter that did say:

“Well, you say that I’m an outlaw,

You say that I’m a thief.

Here’s a Christmas dinner

For the families on relief.”

Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered

I’ve seen lots of funny men;

Some will rob you with a six-gun,

And some with a fountain pen.

–Woody Guthrie


Medieval England’s Robin Hood had troubadour Alan a-Dale to sing of his exploits. The Depression-era Pretty Boy Floyd had folk singer Woody Guthrie to sing of his. While Robin Hood had numerous folk tales told of him, in John Steinbeck’s classic novel of the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath, the character Ma Joad, the moral and emotional bedrock of her family, several times describes Pretty Boy Floyd as a young man driven to a tragic fate by economic hard times.

 On Monday, October 22, 1934, local law officers and FBI men, led by a top agent named Melvin Purvis, shot and killed 30 year old Charles Arthur Floyd in a cornfield near East Liverpool, Ohio as Floyd tried to evade capture. With unemployment at 21.7%, President Roosevelt demanding $10.5 billion to cure America’s economic problems and a corporate coalition including Dupont, Montgomery Ward, General Motors and Sun Oil opposing every New Deal measure, Pretty Boy Floyd was a hero to many poor, honest working people. When the burial took place back in Floyd’s home area in Oklahoma on October 28, 1934, an estimated crowd of twenty thousand people made it one of, if not the largest funeral in Oklahoma history.

Grave of Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd

 Charles Floyd was born February 3, 1904 in Bartow County, Georgia to a poor farming family of Welsh descent. When he was seven years old, the Floyd family, searching for better opportunity, moved to Sequoyah County, in the mideastern part of Oklahoma near the Arkansas border. By the time he was sixteen, Charles, nicknamed “Choc” for his fondness for home-brewed Choctaw beer, had worked as a hired hand here and there and become involved in a few minor run-ins with the law. As Prohibition led to bootlegging which attracted people anxious to make some quick money, Floyd grew involved, even though by 1924 he was married and had a baby son, whom he named Jack Dempsey Floyd after the famous boxer. Invited by friends, Floyd participated in a payroll robbery on September 11, 1925, which netted $11,929 for the bandits. (That would equal about $148,000 today). However police captured Floyd. He was tried and sentenced to five years in the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City.

 Following his release from prison, Floyd went to Kansas City, ready to apply his prison education in crime to making some serious money in hard times. In a boardinghouse he met his future girlfriend, Beulah Baird, who gave him the nickname “Pretty Boy.” For the next four years Floyd and several accomplices carried out a string of thirty or more successful bank robberies from Ohio to Oklahoma. Eager to impress the general public of Pretty Boy’s evil character, law enforcement implicated him in several serious crimes which he did not commit.

From a Wanted Poster for Floyd

On October 18, 1934, Floyd and an associate, with two women companions, left Buffalo, New York, headed west. While driving through northeastern Ohio in fog, Floyd lost control of his car and hit a telephone pole. No one was injured, but the car was inoperable Fearing they might be recognized from wanted posters, Floyd and his associate sent the two women to find a tow truck. The women accompanied the tow truck driver into a town to have the vehicle repaired while the two men waited in a field.

 Later that morning (October 19), a passing motorist saw two men dressed in suits lying by the roadside with no vehicle around. Feeling it was strange, he told Wellsville, Ohio, Police Chief John Fultz, who with two other officers, went to investigate. When Floyd’s companion saw the officers coming, he fled into the woods, pursued by two officers, while Fultz went toward Floyd. Floyd immediately drew his gun and fired. In the exchange of fire, Chief Fultz was wounded in the foot. Floyd fled into the nearby woods. The other two officers enlisted the help of local retired police officer Chester Smith, a sniper during World War I. Eventually they captured Pretty Boy’s colleague. Floyd remained on the run.

 At least three differing accounts exist of Floyd’s capture and death. The accounts agree that, after obtaining some food at a local pool hall owned by Charles Joy, a friend of Floyd’s, Floyd hitched a ride in East Liverpool, Ohio, on October 22. From that point on, the reports vary. He was spotted by police at which point he jumped from the vehicle and ran for a line of trees. Local retired officer Chester Smith fired first, hitting Floyd in the right arm, knocking him to the ground. FBI agents later attempted to claim all the credit, denying local law enforcement were even present at the actual shooting. According to the local police account, Floyd regained his footing and continued to run, at which point the entire team opened fire, knocking him to the ground. Floyd died shortly thereafter from his wounds.

 According to the FBI, four FBI agents, led by Purvis, and four members of the East Liverpool Police Department, led by Chief Hugh McDermott, were searching the area south of Clarkson, Ohio, in two separate cars. They spotted a car move from behind a corn crib, and then move back. Floyd then emerged from the car and drew a .45 caliber pistol, and the FBI agents opened fire. Floyd reportedly said: “I’m done for. You’ve hit me twice.”

 However, Chester Smith, the retired East Liverpool police officer and World War I sharpshooter, described events quite differently in a 1979 interview for Time Magazine. In an article entitled “Blasting a G-Man Myth,” Time Magazine, September 24 1979, Smith, was credited with shooting Floyd first. Smith said that he deliberately wounded, but not killed, Floyd. He added, “I knew Purvis couldn’t hit him, so I dropped him with two shots from my .32 Winchester rifle.” According to Smith, after being wounded, Floyd fell and did not regain his footing. Smith then disarmed Floyd. At that point, Purvis ran up and ordered, “Back away from that man. I want to talk to him.” Agent Purvis questioned Floyd briefly, and receiving curses in reply, ordered Agent Ed Hollis to “Fire into him.” Hollis shot Floyd at point-blank range, killing him. When asked if there was a cover-up by the FBI, Smith answered, “Sure was, because they didn’t want it to get out that he’d been killed that way.” Others denied Chester Smith’s allegations.

 In March 1939, almost five years after the death of Pretty Boy Floyd, troubadour Woody Guthrie, a native of Okemah, Oklahoma, wrote the song praising the outlaw’s life and adventures. Guthrie, one of the best known American singer-songwriters and folk musicians, left a vast musical legacyof political protest songs, traditional ballads, blues and children’s songs. Often he performed with a guitar bearing the slogan “This Machine Kills Fascists.” Guthrie traveled with migrant workers from Oklahoma to California and learned traditional folk and blues tunes. Many of his songs are about his experiences in the Dust Bowl era during the Great Depression, earning him the nickname the “Dust Bowl Troubadour.” Those hard times and those down-on-their-luck farmers inspired songs such as “The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd.” Songwriters and singers including Bob Dylan, Odetta, Phil Ochs, Judy Collins, Richie Havens, Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Billy Bragg and Tom Paxton have acknowledged their debt to Guthrie.


Woody Guthrie and his guitar

On September 26, 1992, The Peace Abbey, a multi-faith retreat center in Sherborn, Massachusetts,”dedicated to creating innovative models for society that empower individuals on the paths of nonviolence, peacemaking, and cruelty-free living. . . . by offer[ing] a variety of programs and resources that teach, inspire and encourage one to speak out and act on issues of peace and social justice,”posthumouslyawarded Guthrie their Courage of Conscience Award for his social activism and artistry in song which conveyed the plight of the common person.

 About song writing Woody Guthrie declared, “I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling.I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built. I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.”

 Maybe, just maybe, that’s why, when times are tough, ballads about characters like Robin Hood and Pretty Boy Floyd will find singers and appreciative audiences. Because in days like these, lots of us feel a bit angry about those who rob us with a fountain pen . . . or a computer . . . or a stock market scheme.