The Community Pulls Together

The tradition of community self-help was strong in Ann Arbor. The Community Fund supported eleven private welfare agencies and the city's Poor and Cemetery Committee provided emergency aid to indigents and transients. But as unemployment soared, the usual means of support proved totally inadequate. With the help of the Boy Scouts, the Community Fund redoubled its annual campaign appeals. Allocating most of its resources to the Family Welfare Bureau, the Community Fund focused on immediate relief problems by sponsoring clothing drives and soup kitchens. Civic groups directed their charitable activities to the relief problem and the League of St. Andrew Thrift Shop expanded its operations. Spontaneous events like a community dance and the post-season Michigan Chicago football game in 1930, as well as regular events like the Police and Fireman's Ball, added funds to the community welfare effort.

Despite widespread cooperation, these efforts were not sufficient. The bulk of the relief burden fell to the city. The immediate tasks of a hurriedly expanded Unemployment Committee were to allocate funds for emergency relief, register job seekers, and locate work. As available jobs in business and industry disappeared, a door to door canvass sought odd jobs, and the city hired increasing numbers to cut wood and to sell sandbags and onions. By 1931 all unemployed job hunters reported directly to the Parks Department and the Board of Public Works.

From the beginning Ann Arbor advocated municipal work relief as an antidote to unemployment. According to Mayor H. Wirt Newkirk: "The men don't want charity, they want work." For thirty cents an hour, often paid in scrip, these men pulled weeds, built stone fences, and planted grass, trees, and flowers along roadways and the Huron River. New baseball diamonds, swings, slides, and picnic tables were added to city parks and playgrounds. An eighteen-hole municipal golf course was improved. Potatoes, cabbage, and onions were harvested from forty acres of city gardens. The unemployed contributed to the construction of additional sanitary and storm sewers, sidewalks, and curbs and in 1932 to the addition to the post office.

In addition to providing jobs, the city distributed relief funds for food, clothing, and rent. By 1931 a full-time volunteer was directing the welfare funds and a city store was opened to provide food and clothing at the lowest possible prices. The city also operated a dormitory and a restaurant to provide temporary help for indigents. An investigator was hired to check all claims for aid.

Despite unemployment and the relief burden, most Ann Arborites remained optimistic enough to vote for President Hoover in the 1932 election. A Daily News editorial commented that Hoover should not be blamed for the depression and that the country's economy would automatically recover regardless of the outcome of the election. When the votes were counted, Washtenaw County was one of the few areas in Michigan which maintained its traditional Republicanism. Hoover received 15,368 votes to 12,552 for Roosevelt. The city and county offices were held by Republicans. Only the second U. S. Congressional District, of which Washtenaw County was a part, elected a New Deal Democrat, John C. Lehr.

But the city could not provide relief and jobs indefinitely. The number of families on relief jumped from 162 in 1931 to 405 in 1933. Monthly welfare costs skyrocketed from $2,000 to $14,000 per month. Increased expenditures were juxtaposed against the city's rapidly shrinking revenues. Despite several municipal bond issues for the city's public works projects and continued borrowing from the annual contingency fund, the welfare fund was always low. Traditional financial revenues had decreased by almost sixty per cent, due to the rising rate of tax delinquency and declining valuations of local property. Even special emergency relief bonds amounting to $150,000 passed in November 1932 were exhausted within six months.

On May 10, 1933, the Daily News headlined "City Welfare Fund Emptied," and only cases of "dire necessity" would receive aid. Fortunately, in the following week implementation of state and federal welfare programs rescued Ann Arbor's welfare fund with Reconstruction Finance Corporation loans of over $10,000 and established the pattern of state and federal cooperation in local relief efforts. Longer than many other cities, Ann Arbor had shouldered the burden of relief and had reason to be proud of its community spirit and welfare accomplishments. The confidence of city leaders had been justified.