Interview with Louis Heilbron
Interview with Louis Heilbron
Interview Date: December 20, 1992

Camera Rolls: 318:86-88
Sound Rolls: 318:45
Interview gathered as part of The Great Depression .
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Editorial Notes:

Preferred citation:
Interview with Louis Heilbron , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on December 20, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.

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INTERVIEW
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QUESTION 1
INTERVIEWER:

Let's start off with a general question. If you could just tell me what role you played in the relief issue in California during the 1930s.

LOUIS HEILBRON:

Well, I was employed by the Department of Social Welfare to make a survey of the welfare laws of the state, with the idea of revising them and codifying them. And that caused me to go down to the various counties of the state, interview district attorneys with reference to relatives' obligations to people in need, and generally to become acquainted with the welfare situation in the state and accumulate a good deal of data with reference to these matters. Then, at the end of 1932, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation made available moneys to the states to relieve the growing unemployment crisis. And it just happened that since I had this information, and since perhaps others did not readily have access to it, I was asked to go back to Washington and deal with the RFC and obtain loans to the state of California for purposes, for the initial purpose of relief. To begin with, there were I think seven counties in California that were in distress, six of them in the south and Monterey in the north. And the final negotiations for these seven counties were concluded on the morning of the inauguration of the new president FDR.

INTERVIEWER:

What kind of, of burdens were the counties facing at this point? Why was, why was your work so important?

LOUIS HEILBRON:

Up until 1933, practically, the private charities of the state were handling, usually sectarian charities, were handling the crisis of the unemployed as part of the welfare program. We were used to dealing with what was called the indigent program, the alms house, the burial of, of paupers. And, as a matter of fact, there was a, a statement from a supervisor in San Francisco, Mr. McShea, who was, had engaged in malapropisms from time to time, saying, "We owe a solemn duty to our indignant dead." Those, that was the, that was the, that was the people, the, the kind of people that were ordinarily dealt with in the welfare system. But suddenly here are people who are in need due to unemployment. They were able-bodied people. They wanted to work. They were welfare recipients in the usual sense of the term. And California, particularly, had a problem dealing with these people. We had a law which required three years residence in the state and one year in the county in order to be entitled to a welfare rate. I might say that, beside private charities, there always was some amount of welfare or aid to special classes, such as aid to dependent children, aid to the aged, aid to blind. There were welfare departments dealing with indigent people. But the state and the counties wanted to be protected from obligation by these, by this kind of statue, which is one of the laws that I was working on for possible, possible revision. And certainly when people came pouring into the state, the three year/one year law was not working very well. To begin with, the effort was made to send them back to their home state, and there home states were receiving them. But when the flow got to be too great, and when the transportation costs were out of proportion to what was reasonable. It was recognized that assistance had to be given to them here. And accordingly, we revised, for purpose of federal assistance, our law to one year, and we even permitted transients to be assisted, because the federal government was financing the, financing the program.

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QUESTION 2
INTERVIEWER:

Let's talk a little bit about later on the decade. The flow, really, as you were saying, continued to increase. And it got to be so, so great. What, how did, how did some towns try and respond to that? Was it, was there a certain kind of desperation that began to arise? Or...

LOUIS HEILBRON:

Well, I would say that even in the beginning, in 1933, Mr. Hopkins advised that each state should create an Emergency Relief Administration, State Emergency Relief Administration. And that was done, and federal funds, from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, were funneled through this agency. And this agency made available funds to the counties and then directly assisted people in need, and determined what the budgets for families should be. And the system spent a great deal of money, both federal and state. The federal contribution, I think, by 1934, was about $180 million. I know it was about $14 million a month for quite a long time. And this helped a lot of people. The appropriation in 1934, or 5, rather, from the federal government, was $4 billion for the county. And that meant about eight percent of that whole sum came to California. So it, the program was, was, was pretty well funded, but when you deal with these astronomical figures in general, they don't amount to too much when you get down to the individual, because even on work relief, where people had public works job, but they, people were drawn from the relief rolls. The average figure was around $50 a month. Now, of course, this has to be viewed in terms of what money bought in those days. For thirty-five cents, you could get a three course meal at a modest restaurant, and for a dollar you could get a good meal. And so in terms of the price of groceries and fundamentals, you, the money stretched much further than it would now.

INTERVIEWER:

There were, the, something else we talked about is how important the federal assistance really was, because it was just a burden that was too great for the state to take care of on its own, the number of people that were coming into California.

LOUIS HEILBRON:

Oh, I...there's no, there's no doubt about it, not only for people coming in, but for the residents. Of course, California was, I think, stricken later than the eastern manufacturing states, and perhaps did not ever have as great a need for its residents as people from the eastern states. But people who came in California from the Dust Bowl, the Arkies and the Okies and the people that John Steinbeck called attention to, these were considered by our state government, by people, by county people, as really constituting a problem beyond the state's obligation to, to meet entirely. And federal funds were essential to meet that need. And the bulk of the funds, throughout the entire decade, were, decade, were federal funds, although California did contribute on its own a good number of appropriations. $48 million at a time, $24 million, and so on.

INTERVIEWER:

That's a lot of money when you consider that the state's got its own economic Depression to cope with. OK. That's fine. We can change. We have ten—

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QUESTION 3
INTERVIEWER:

We had talked about some of the more extreme responses that some area residents in some counties had to the load of people coming in. Can you talk to me a little bit about some of the things that you're aware of?

LOUIS HEILBRON:

Well, of course, the migratory workers who came in from the Dust Bowl mainly did swell the number of agricultural workers in the field. California agriculture, has you know, has been dependent upon a migratory group of people moving according to the products to be harvested from county area to county area, from south to north, beginning in the Imperial Valley. And when the harvest season for one county is over, they proceed to other counties. And in one situation that I recall, a report was received that, the harvest season being over, and a harvest season not being ready to begin in the adjacent county, the supervisors, the board of supervisors of the upper county sent a note to the supervisors in the lower county that these people, these migratory people tried to cross the border, they'd be met with shotguns.
** So that gives some idea that, that there was tensions in the fields, and tension because of the number of people coming from the, from the outside.

INTERVIEWER:

That really, it seems like, again, it's another example of the way the state was so overwhelmed. I mean, it was more than relief rolls could handle.

LOUIS HEILBRON:

For a time, some people thought if we just met these people at the border and convinced them that California was not the place to come, they'd, they'd turn back. But that wasn't a very practical solution.
** I don't think it was carried to any extent.

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QUESTION 4
INTERVIEWER:

Yeah. There were some efforts in '36 to do that. But you're right. It didn't last too long. I wonder if you can describe a little bit for me the kind of atmosphere that there was at some of these emergency relief committee hearings. Was there a great deal of debate about how to provide, what we should do, what our responsibility was?

LOUIS HEILBRON:

Well, the, the Emergency Relief Administration was headed by an Emergency Relief Commission, and that commission appointed its, its executive. And the commission determined policy with reference to the expenditure of funds within limits set by the legislature. I recall that Archbishop Hanna was the first chairman of that commission. And if there were too many protests and the meeting was almost about to get out of hand, he would recess, count his beads, and then resume when things were calmer. Most meetings were business-like and calm, but there protests from relief workers who felt that their wages were not sufficiently high, or their for budgets for their families, the family, were too low, or that there were better ways of extending relief than the Relief Administration was administering, that the work projects were either too extensive or not extensive enough. There was criticism from many that the work program represented too high a cost, that it was better to keep people on the dole. And to have work relief, that there were too many leaf clearing projects, and not enough substantive ones. But the commission a deal with all these matters and felt that work relief was the better procedure, that people might get used to living on the doles. Matter of fact, the migratory workers were somewhat affected by that. And in the transient camps, if they felt a little bit more comfortable there, because the facilities provided by the ranches and farms where they were working were not very good, there was a, there was a little tendency in some places to remain in camp and not to go out into the fields. So the methods of relief were a matter, were a matter of discussion. And then there were the self-help people who felt that the whole program should be converted to helping self-help cooperators, which I can discuss in more detail if you wish.

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QUESTION 5
INTERVIEWER:

What I wanted to ask is was this whole issue of how we provide for poor people really a critical question during those times, do you think?

LOUIS HEILBRON:

Well, of course, the best procedure was always an issue, and the federal people were more and more convinced that work relief should be superseded by some kind of secure wage. They had what they called the Civil Works Administration for a while, and then the WPA came in. The WPA, I think, was the most ambitious of the federal programs, employed the most people. I think that we're talking, generally speaking, between relief and WPA, and so on, about three quarters of a million people. About 250 thousand families and then single people added, so it was a very, very large problem. And, but...

INTERVIEWER:

It didn't go away.

LOUIS HEILBRON:

It didn't, it didn't go away, although after, well, I guess it was in some respects, it was at one of its peaks in 1934 during the EPIC campaign. And that campaign, you may remember, was to elect a governor, Upton Sinclair, a socialist who believed a huge network of self-help cooperators was the solution for the relief program, that if the state financed and managed cooperatives taking over idle factories and idle farms, that the, that was the solution to the whole relief program.

INTERVIEWER:

Yeah, the 1930s were really this time where there's this great debate about how do we solve this problem.

LOUIS HEILBRON:

And this was a kind of a semi-socialist solution, because the state was to manage the, the general cooperative program through subsidies and some regulation. But that, he didn't succeed in, in, in election, although some of his ideas on helping self-help cooperatives persisted and were, were in a way provided for, not on the level that he would have recommended, and not on the basis, because what was done was to make loans to cooperatives, self-help cooperatives for what they called "production for use." So that let's say, a teacher might give a Spanish lesson, and in exchange have a tooth pulled. Now, that's a little exaggerated. But that was the idea, the pooling of productive capacities and the exchange of products and services.

INTERVIEWER:

It sounds like a good idea. It's just a little hard to execute, I'd say.

LOUIS HEILBRON:

Yeah. I think there were around, there were around 6,000 people involved in these cooperatives, mostly around Los Angeles. And they did do some good work, and they reduced relief subsidies to some extent.

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QUESTION 6
INTERVIEWER:

It, it seems like the, the Depression was a time when the nation was really exploring what government's responsibility was in the area of providing for the indigent or unemployed. And was that something that the state and that the nation itself was stilling struggling with at the end of the decade, do you think? Did you really figure out what to do?

LOUIS HEILBRON:

Well, I, I think that, that it was generally realized that when there was undue, when there was extensive suffering and hunger, and that there are times that government has to step in. Even toward the end of the decade there was still need, although by that time the relief program of the state reverted to the department of social welfare, and the WPA program was tapering off. I think in 1939, in the middle of July, the WPA Theatre Project came to an end, right during the time that _The Swing Mikado_ was doing its, performing its excellent performances at the, at the World's Fair. And I'm sure that they were so successful they didn't need relief—

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LOUIS HEILBRON:

—or WPA support by time. And there were—

INTERVIEWER:

We should cut. Sorry. We just ran out of film. We'll just put in another roll, and there's only one or two more questions, I think. [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] How's your voice holding up?

LOUIS HEILBRON:

All right.

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INTERVIEWER:

I wonder if you can talk to me a little bit about what questions the relief crisis raised for the nation.

LOUIS HEILBRON:

I suppose the first question was, "How did we get there? What was it that produced financial crisis when the stock market crash occurred in 19—1929? And when these issues occur, questions occur, who's, who's ultimately responsible?" I think that people felt that their government was responsible. After all, Mr. Hoover had been the relief leader and director of Belgian Relief. Presumably, he had all the qualifications for leading a relief program. But he felt that the economy would right itself on a market basis. But people felt that the economy was in a way the government's responsibility. And it's happened time after time, even in the present. The issue in the last election was who, what should be done about the economy, that has government has large responsibility with respect to the condition of the, of the economy, and that, that issue was widely discussed and, and during, during, during the Depression.

INTERVIEWER:

What, what lessons did we learn about how to cope with poverty during that time?

LOUIS HEILBRON:

I think because of the Depression we certainly hastened the Social Security Act, if it were ever going to be passed, as a bulwark of savings against a time when people were old and had to rely either on their families or on their savings. Social Security was certainly one of the developments. Unemployment insurance that could be extended and was a dignified way of bridging the gap to employment. We realized we couldn't do away, probably, with welfare or relief entirely, but these were certainly constructive, constructive answers. Some lessons, I don't know that we learned at the time of the Depression, but we developed them, I think, the answers, incrementally. I'm thinking about, for example, the migratory workers. Toward the end of that decade, when defense industries picked up in connection with helping the Allies at first, and then of course we got into the War itself, that, that, that, that period answered its own questions.

INTERVIEWER:

Yeah, I was going to say, what really pulled us out of the [unintelligible]?

LOUIS HEILBRON:

Well, I would, I think the defense industry to a great extent, and then war...people went to the shipyards. People lost their domestic help. Even migratory workers found it a little bit tempting to go into the defense industry. The result was that conditions for migratory workers, because of labor competition, improved during the '40s. And that might not have been the case. That wasn't a lesson from the Depression, that was a lesson in, in competition. And gradually, over the years, I think that regulatory acts with reference to what owners of land have to provide for migratory workers have improved. But I don't think it was necessarily a lesson from the Depression. And similarly, I don't think we—

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LOUIS HEILBRON:

—realized from the Depression how important education is in connection with getting out of a, of a recession, let's say, or a possible depression. Because in the '30s, it was just assumed that when there was recovery, people would go back to work pretty much in the industries that they left. Now, there may be a little different situation where technology is so changed that people have to be re-trained. But one way or another, the government apparently has to step in.

INTERVIEWER:

OK. Thank you. We just ran out, so—

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[end of interview]