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The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

WELFARE/RELIEF - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

WELFARE/RELIEF. The relief of destitution has been a responsibility of local government since Colonial times. Territorial laws to prevent extreme suffering and death (but not to relieve poverty) existed before Cleveland's founding and settlement. Relief was kept low and unattractive, lest workers be lured into dependency, requiring more taxes from other workers. The unattractiveness of relief was found in all 3 forms: indoor relief (admission to the poorhouse or infirmary), outdoor relief (aid to sustain independent living), or in-kind relief (material goods such as food, coal for heating, etc.). Provision was always well below levels of adequacy, and the recipient was usually made to feel demeaned by dependence. The universal poverty of relief recipients occurred even in Cleveland, the nation's most generous large city (measured by electoral willingness to be taxed for relief and per capita donations to UNITED WAY SERVICES and Catholic, Jewish, and other charities). In a centennial publication, former city relief director Lucious Mellen wrote that Cleveland residents had always shown their willingness to be taxed for public charity and to give money and service to the less-fortunate. Such willingness was reaffirmed in 1986, when 80% of the voters approved renewal for one of 2 health and human service tax levies.

The first poor law affecting Cleveland was that of the Northwest Territory (1790, later amended). Township justices of the peace appointed unpaid overseers of the poor, who reported to the justice on the needs of the poor, and who received instructions as to the type and amount of grants. The justice levied taxes to support the program. The township was required to maintain "proper houses and places, and a convenient stock of hemp, flax, thread and other ware and stuff, for setting to work" the able-bodied. Poor children could be apprenticed. Those who cared for the poor were paid twice a year. The territorial poor law was retained by the State of Ohio until 1805, when Ohio enacted its own poor law, with only minor changes. Overseers were responsible for the care and management of the township poor but could give aid only with the approval of the trustees. Contracting was retained, but not responsibility of relatives for their dependent kin. The Ohio law also allowed payment for overseers. An 1807 law required black settlers to post a $500 freehold bond, in case of dependence on relief. The bond was eliminated in 1829.

A decade-long economic slump began during the War of 1812. In 1816 Ohio enacted a law permitting county commissioners to operate poorhouses for all destitute persons. Cleveland was able to set up a poorhouse because Cuyahoga County did not. Cleveland's wooden 11/2-story poorhouse went up in 1827, conveniently near the ERIE ST. CEMETERY. Ohio's canals vitalized the limp economy, providing more reliable public funds, thus allowing a change in the requirement that overseers wait for trustee approval, before giving aid. In 5 years (1832-37) the population rose from 1,500 to 9,000, and in 1836 the Ohio legislature gave Cleveland the status of a city. But 1837 brought another episode of national depression. The Cleveland poorhouse housed about 2 dozen poor, sick, and insane while underpaid local physicians cared for about 200 more. In 1849, under a new state law, CLEVELAND CITY COUNCIL voted to levy a tax to pay for a hospital and a new poorhouse. Nearby villages and townships paid Cleveland for infirmary care for their paupers, making it the county relief. Ohio law changed poorhouse to infirmary in 1850. An 1853 law eliminated the overseer and assigned the duties to township trustees, who issued relief and signed annual contracts for the care of paupers. In 1855 the decrepit poorhouse was finally replaced by an infirmary built near the location of its descendant, Cleveland Metropolitan General Hospital. The gathering clouds of depression brought another panic in 1857; 25-50% of the city's workers lost their jobs. In 1858 the City Infirmary housed 187 "inmates" aged 1 month to 80 years; 15 were insane. Economic problems persisted until the Civil War revitalized Cleveland's economy.

The number of dependent survivors of dead, disabled, and missing Civil War soldiers led to a new burst of institutional development. Ohio's 1865 poor-law recodification broadened and improved relief. The new law required election of infirmary directors (for 3-year terms), bringing political values into infirmary operations. The infirmary board made rules for infirmary management, signed contracts, and allowed purchases. Directors received up to $2.50 a day, and the appointed superintendent managed the infirmary under their authority. The infirmary housed paupers, the insane, "idiots," and children too young to be apprenticed. Cleveland's population doubled between 1860-70, and the growing economy rewarded many with material plenty. Still, poverty was visible, and sympathetic persons established nongovernmental agencies to relieve the poor. Ohio became the second state to establish a board of state charities (1866) to study such institutions. The board's first annual report (1867) presented a bleak picture. Five years later, the Ohio legislature enacted new requirements, such as a performance bond of $2,000-30,000; itemized bills for all labor and purchases; and the superintendent's signature on every bill. Decisions of the directors were opened for public inspection.

Hard times started again in 1873 and continued. Between mid-January and April 1875, over 7,000 gallons of soup and 10,000 loaves of bread had been given out in Cleveland soup lines. Recovery began to be felt in 1878. In 1886 the Ohio general assembly enacted a relief program for Civil War veterans and their dependents, administered by local commissions. In the depression of 1893-97, local unemployment estimates ranged from 15,000-25,000. In the winter of 1893-94, about 9,086 persons received $37,365 in relief, about $4.11 per, person. Some cleaned horse droppings from Cleveland streets at $.10 an hour. A Citizens' Relief Committee raised funds. Local relief costs rose, arousing fear that Cleveland's generosity had attracted "a horde of paupers from neighboring cities." Each case was investigated before aid was given. In 1898 Ohio became the second state to establish public aid for the blind. Late in 1907, an economic panic occurred, and unemployment again rose. On the initiative of voluntary relief agencies, Cleveland officials hastened planned public construction and ordered wagons, boilers, and other products early, to stimulate business. An estimated two-thirds of the common laborers were destitute.

The celebrated Ohio Children's Code (1913) established a program of public relief for mothers of children under 16, if the breadwinner was dead, had deserted, was in prison or a state hospital, or was disabled. The juvenile court administered the program. By 1914 Cuyahoga County's mothers' pension budget of $75,000 enabled many children to remain with their mothers. The 1914-15 depression was more serious than a Mayor's Committee on Unemployment believed. The Labor Exchange, which helped find jobs, in just 1 week registered 11,000 jobless persons willing to work at any job at any pay. In Mar.-Apr. 1915, a canvass of 16,851 families found 11.6% unemployment; 2,358 jobless workers, who, with their families, totaled 67,787 dependent people. Mayor NEWTON D. BAKER†'s Cleveland Citizens' Relief Commission tried to find work for men through "Hire-a-Hand." The commission's effort to raise $100,000 for work relief drew opposition from a private agency, which feared it would lose charity donations. The campaign raised $86,000, and harmony was restored by giving private agency clients priority service.

The depression of 1920-21 was felt in Cleveland in the fall of 1920, and continued through a second winter until more than 125,000 workers were out of work at the end of 1921. The City of Cleveland Division of Outdoor Relief granted only in-kind relief (coal, shoes, and groceries). Private agencies let their clients accept public aid to reduce the burden on the private agency budget. In 1921 the voluntary Welfare Federation allocated some charity funds from the Community Fund to the public State-City Free Labor Exchange, because the service was badly needed and the public funding was insufficient. The city hastened to carry out 6 large (public) construction projects costing $15 million. Again, however, private agencies tried to cope with the situation with minimal governmental involvement.

Volunteer and professional opposition to governmental relief weakened, then vanished, during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The same agencies that, in 1923, had persuaded Cleveland to stop giving outdoor relief asked for city funds for their relief programs in 1931; funds were provided. Cuyahoga County's first public-relief endeavor, the Cuyahoga County Relief Administration, was planned by a committee, of voluntary agency representatives and put into operation only after the very last day private agencies were permitted by federal law to distribute federal relief monies (see CANNON, A. V.†). On 1 Aug. 1933, the entire voluntary agency relief staff became county employees, performing the same roles in the same locations. The dollar cost of relief in the Depression was estimated by HOWARD WHIPPLE GREEN† at $200 million, about one-sixth of the $1.2 billion the unemployed would have earned. From 46,000 to 219,000 people were without work during each month of the 1930s. Pres. Franklin Roosevelt's relief programs were followed by the Social Security Act of 1935, which created the country's first national system of welfare assistance. Within a few years, larger numbers of destitute Americans received larger amounts of welfare aid than local relief recipients had received before. After 1935, the poor law was the only major assistance program left under state jurisdiction (see also WORK PROJECTS ADMINISTRATION).

After 1946, state law allowed consolidation of relief and welfare functions in county agencies. Cuyahoga County established a welfare department on 1 Jan. 1948 (later CUYAHOGA COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES). Ten years later studies urged further consolidation. In Feb. 1958 relief cases of the Soldiers' & Sailors' Relief Commission were transferred to the county (see CUYAHOGA COUNTY SOLDIERS' RELIEF COMMISSION). Ohio government has not always been sensitive to the decline of the local economy. Between 1953-63, Cuyahoga County experienced a net job loss of 40,000. During the latter part of this period, however, state welfare payments were reduced, and the state failed to adopt federal improvements to reduce the county's welfare burden and help more destitute persons. State inaction resulted in the loss of more than $1 million for aged, blind, and disabled aid programs alone.

When the U.S. declared war on poverty in the 1960s, it seemed that Ohio had enlisted on the enemy side. A 1966 U.S. Civil Rights Commission study found that the small payments could not support children in health and decency. The Cleveland Welfare Rights Organization was created that year to protect the rights of the poor; among its leaders was LILLIAN CRAIG†. In the winter of 1967-68, Mayor Carl Stokes (see MAYORAL ADMINISTRATION OF CARL B. STOKES) appointed a Commission on the Crisis in Welfare in Cleveland, in part because of the growth of poverty among Cleveland children. Its report described serious problems in the welfare system, which still existed in 1980. Changes in the industrial needs of the nation have affected the local economy. Many jobs vanished in the 1960s and 1970s, leaving lifelong workers without employment. By 1980 one-third of Cleveland's children lived in poverty. Changes between 1980-86 enlarged the, Cleveland poverty population (all ages) by 40%. The withdrawal of the federal government from "safety net" and other programs also contributed to the problem. Relief rolls grew by 6% from Jan. 1984 to June 1986 (42,629 to 45,234 persons) and during the same period, costs rose by $1.2 million (from $4,115,857 to $5,354,461). Cleveland's genius for generosity and civic know-how were well-established by its centennial in 1896, but the declining economy and growing poverty posed unprecedented challenges, threatening bleakness for the city's bicentennial.

Earl E. Landau

See also CLEVELAND METROPOLITAN HOUSING AUTHORITY; PHILANTHROPY; ECONOMY; and specific charitable and welfare organizations and agencies.

Last Modified: 23 Jul 1997 11:24:12 AM

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