The Progressive Party and the Disinherited, August-September, 1912

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The Progressive Party and the Disinherited.

Perhaps the most unusual phrase to be found in the platform of the Progressive Party, in so many respects an unusual political document, is that which advocates "the application of prisoners' earnings to the support of their dependent families." It has been pointed out that some states allow their convicts, if good, a penny a day, some states allow them, if good, a plug of tobacco or a drink of whiskey. In still other states, the convicts, if good, are allowed pay for overwork, but that all states allow the convicts' innocent family to suffer. The consciousness of this suffering is sometimes harder for the convict to bear than the imprisonment itself. Quite recently a man who was confined in a jail in Indiana was seen giving a bundle every day to his wife when she came to visit him. The package examined by the authorities was found to contain the prisoner's daily allowance of food which he was sending to his helpless children in order to keep them from starving.

I easily recall a dozen splendid women whom I have known to toil early and late in the forlorn hope that they might "keep the children together until he comes out."

A woman whose husband was in the penitentiary for seven years because he forged a check to make the last delayed payment on their little house, scrubbed in a downtown building with house from half past six to nine o'clock in the morning and from four to eight o'clock in the evening, so that she was always away at the very time that the children were home from school. She did not realize [page 2] until her oldest child, a boy of thirteen, was arrested for petty larceny that, in striving to take a father's place, she had also deprived her children of a mother's care. She worked on, trying to support three people on five dollars a week until her little girl was brutally assaulted on the street, when she gave up the struggle and sent the children to institutions only one year before their father's return.

Slowly we are seeing the stupidity of such neglect. The judge of the Juvenile Court in Kansas City has power to give pensions to the wives or widows of convicts for the support of the children and the judge of the Juvenile Court in Chicago has the same power in regard to dependent children. Only in six states however does the prisoner receive compensation for his labor and in only five does his dependent family obtain any assistance, although his earnings add steadily to the profits of prison contractors.

The care of the convict's family, therefore, is closely related to the whole question of contract labor in prisons, with its more serious feature of lowering the wages of free labor and competing the fair manufacturer out of the market. Certainly when one contractor in working men's shirts controls eight prisons in six states and when one furniture company controls the product of seven prisons in five states, it is important that a political party who has already pledged "the federal control over interstate commerce" to put its program into effect should consider "the abolition of the convict contract labor system."

The Progressive Party also advocates "the protection of home [page 3] life against the hazards of sickness, irregular employment and old age, through the adoption of a system of social insurance adapted to American use."

We all know many artisan families ever haunted by the dread that illness or non-employment may at any moment separate the members and scatter them into public institutions because America has avoided the insurance system so well established in other great nations.

Many Chicago people recall the young brass finisher who a year ago entered an office and at the point of a revolver held up the astonished business man only to drop the weapon at the stenographer's appeal that "he looked too good a fellow for such business." He was only twenty-three years old and had worked steadily in a brass foundry until he was discharged because he was ill from tuberculosis superinduced by the brass filings in his lungs. His discouraged wife, with her child in her arms, had told him that morning when he went as usual to look for work, that she hoped he would not return unless he could bring back some money for the baby had had nothing but tea for supper and breakfast. The desperate man confided his plight to a chance acquaintance and was by him induced to try "a sure way to get money." The path between industrial disease <unemployment> and crime is not often so direct, but it is only too easy to trace it to despairing poverty, to death and to orphanage.

Certainly mere public reports of industrial diseases must in time arouse the conscience of America, as we are slowly being aroused to the problem of unemployment by the knowledge that [page 4] a man of forty out of a job is afraid to wear his spectacles and often dyes his hair when looking for another. It is obvious that the unemployment of able, adult men under sixty-five years of age is abnormal and wasteful, not only of brawn and muscle but often of ripened judgement and valuable experience. Each day his unemployment is prolonged such a man ages perceptibly, loses his self-confidence, avoids meeting his old friends, wonders if life is worth living and, if his idleness is too long continued, he is in danger of becoming transformed from the man who is merely unemployed and looking for work, to the man who is unemployable and unwilling to work.

Even in a prosperous year from "one quarter to one third of the wage earners are turned out of work for various periods," for which the seasonable industries are largely responsible and these are added to "the ten per cent of wage earners engaged in manufactures who are kept as reserve to meet fluctuating monthly demands."

The campaign of the Progressive Party gives an opportunity for intelligent discussion of those state, municipal and private agencies for insurance against unemployment, which have been tried in Europe and which might afford ample information for the guidance of such enterprises. The results of this insurance might well recommend itself to the nation in connection with the estimate recently made by Professor Fisher of Yale that <of> the annual loss of $3,000,000,000 due to sickness accident and death over one half, or $1500,000,000 is preventable.

The platform further recommends the nation to consider the claims of old age to honorable insurance against want, claims [page 5] which until recently have been neglected even by the best of the widespread mutual benefit societies, America's finest contribution to industrial insurance.

The aged poor, forlorn and uncared for, are one of the most piteous sights in the world. I recall in my immediate neighborhood an old carpenter who is no longer "taken on" by the contractors, a French cabinet maker whose exquisite inlay work is no longer fashionable, an "embosser of wills and deeds" who has been displaced by the typewriter, all of them honest men, free from the petty vices of drinking or gambling, but actually suffering for lack of adequate food and shelter.

Certainly the Progressive Party "drawn from the people's hard necessities" will set itself to consider the needs of the humblest man, sore pressed in this industrial age.