Part one of this series analyzed the history of the Bonus Expeditionary Force (BEF) and their actions during the Great Depression, and how its influence dramatically affected how the US government treated its brave men and women that go to war. In this second installment, I will take a look at a key tension that has persisted from the days of the BEF up until our modern era. It is important to consider the historical context of these tensions when attempting to understand how we serve our nations military veterans.
The Public vs Private tension continues to work its way into social welfare discourse in the 21st century, but during the 1930’s it was just as rampant. In regard to social work, public represents services administered by a public agency, while private represents services provided through private charities, individuals, and groups. Previous to the Great Depression, by and large the aid and relief services were provided by private charities and local governments. Once the Great Depression hit, these private agencies were stressed to serve the needs of the millions who were suffering and starving; many of the available services at the time could not even shelter the homeless or feed the hungry.
Before the 1930’s and the Great Depression, issues like poverty and unemployment were primarily viewed as problems with the individual, rather than problems with the environment that individual lived within. Through that perspective, the common approach of the time was to address individual problems through private charity. With millions beginning to suffer from the Great Depression, the perception of social welfare began to shift. More people started to see that issues surrounding poverty had to be elevated to a public issue rather than maintain the narrow scope of a private or individual issue.
During this paradigm shift, it became evident to social workers and policy makers that the rising needs brought on by the Great Depression could only be addressed by public agencies . “Voluntary charity simply could not cope with the situation; only public agencies could deal with the collapse of the economy, mass unemployment, and widespread destitution”(Trattner, 1999) . As a result of this change in perspective, we created the U.S. Social Security Act of 1935, among several other programs. Public assistance worked its way into social policy and between 1929-1940 the number of persons on assistance or work- relief programs rose from less than a million to 9 million.
This tension between Public vs Private assistance took time to play out, and it had a direct impact on the wait time that veterans in the 1930’s seeking their Bonus had to endure. This was due to the observable conflict among political powers during the Bonus March era. President Hoover was adamant that assistance to the needy had no place for the public sector for a variety of reasons: “[f]or him, relief was a moral, not merely an economic, matter; private charity (such as he had distributed in war-ravaged Europe) was fine, but public aid, especially from national government, was a ‘dole’” (Trattner, 1999). As a result of these conflicts, it created several barriers to passing legislation that supported public assistance.
Subsequently, although the Great Depression proved that public agencies were the only group capable of providing adequate aid to those in need, tension existed and continues to this day. Unfortunately, the veterans of the Bonus Expeditionary Force just happened to be caught in the middle of all of it. Present day, those who are in need of services, including veterans, get caught in tension between the power sources who advocate for Public vs Private assistance.
In the next two parts of this series, I will be analyzing Micro vs. Macro and the long term implications of these paradigm shifts. Please stay tuned.
Fisher, J. (1980). Social Work: The thirties as a watershed. In J. Fisher, The response of social work to the Depression (pp. 233-241). Boston, MA: G.K. Hall & Co.
Gordon, L. (1992). Social insurance and public assistance: The influence of gender in welfare thought in the United States, 1890-1935. American Historical Review 97, 19-54.