Chapter 3: Race and rumor
Apr 5, 2023
Season 6 | Episode 3

Chapter 3: Race and rumor

How a rumor about welfare cheats transformed a small city.

“There’s a sign in [a] Montgomery [Alabama] or Atlanta railroad station that says ‘Go to Newburgh and get paid for not working.’ That’s what we’re up against.”

So reads a 1961 newspaper article about Newburgh, New York, and its war on welfare.

Starting in the 1950s, a rumor about signs telling poor Black people to move to Newburgh to live off welfare riled up the town. When leaders hired a new city manager, Joseph Mitchell, he essentially declared war on welfare — and the people who received it. It laid the groundwork for what would become a national fight over reforming welfare laws.

Across the country, suspicions grew about welfare recipients and the issue of “government dependency,” just as more Black people started gaining access to welfare benefits. 

In this episode, host Krissy Clark and producer Peter Balonon-Rosen go back in history to tell a surprising origin story about part of our welfare system — and put a magnifying glass on how we determine who deserves help and who doesn’t.

Krissy Clark: Hey, it’s Krissy. This is The Uncertain Hour. If you’ve been listening to our whole season, you’ll know last episode was about the maze of work requirements that Darnetta Harris had to contend with to get welfare benefits. All that red tape she had to wade through that was monitoring whether or not she was doing the labor she’d been told to do in order to get government help in a time of need. Now, we’re asking how that work requirements system came to be? Not just for Darnetta but for people across the country, which is why Uncertain Hour producer Peter Balonon-Rosen went searching for one of America’s first examples of a Welfare to Work system and found himself in Newburgh, New York.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: I visited Newburgh, New York on a chilly week at the end of November. It’s a small post industrial city, about an hour north of New York City. If you take a ferry across the Hudson River from the closest train station to get there. And just like that river, Newburgh itself has ebbed and flowed and changed. Wilbur Higgins grew up in Newburgh, a quiet kid who likes math. One day, at the end of the 1950s. Wilbur was heading home from elementary school. When these people caught his eye, white men going up and down his street carrying clipboards, knocking on doors and wearing suits, which was weird.

Wilbur Higgins: To see him suits because the work really was a working man’s town. And I remember they came to our house. My father told me to go in the other room. And listen, don’t say anything, just listen.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: He hid in the kitchen. Wilbur heard these men in suits say they were there to conduct official business on behalf of City Hall. And they wanted his house.

Wilbur Higgins: So they came in and made their spiel about how they want to buy the house. And this is what the offer is.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: Today Wilbur is in his 70s black man with gray mustache and kind of brown eyes. The house he grew up in was a few blocks up from Newburgh waterfront shopping district, an area that had once been super lively full of shops and department stores and banks. But things had started to slow down in the 50s Newburgh was becoming poor. factories have closed, department stores shuttered and the shopping district by the river began to fade from its former glory. Like many people in Newburgh Wilbers dad had moved there. He was from South Carolina.

Wilbur Higgins: And he left mainly because of the Klu Klux Klan being the dominant factor in South Carolina. in

Peter Balonon-Rosen: In Newburgh Wilbur’s dad worked his way up to dietician at the Veterans Hospital, he started a family and he saved up enough to buy this three storey brick row house, but hiding in the kitchen, Wilbur heard these white men in suits saying the government was going to pay his family to leave.

Wilbur Higgins: If you don’t accept the offer within a certain period of time, we will take your house through eminent domain.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: It was part of a plan to buy up properties in areas city officials declared were on their way to becoming slums, or already were to knock down existing buildings and replace them with newer, better ones. And the cash offer to get people to go.

Wilbur Higgins: It was a low price.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: It was it just you guys and this was happening to?

Wilbur Higgins: It was the whole street.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: Wilbur’s family took the money and moved. This was all part of a coordinated government campaign to change Newburgh to get certain people to leave. City officials picked 235 properties to demolish, which displaced 24 white families and nearly 300 Black families. And when you look at government reports from this era for why they had to knock down certain areas of the city, this wasn’t just about renewing blighted areas. This was also in many ways all about welfare. According to an appraiser hired by the city, taxpayers and businesses were leaving Newburgh because of the presence of welfare recipients. Poor black people that elected officials said had supposedly migrated from southern states to live off welfare. So to save the city, city officials needed to destroy blighted areas and get rid of welfare recipients. Wilbur’s family lived in a targeted area. They weren’t welfare recipients. He didn’t know any personally. But he’d heard this rumor.

Wilbur Higgins: I heard rumors you know, they said put the flyers and bathrooms in the south saying Kota Newburgh you can get on welfare and not have to work.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: How did you hear about that?

Wilbur Higgins: Swear it was word of mouth.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: It was just like the buzzer on town. When you heard about the fire in the bathroom, what was your reaction to that?

Wilbur Higgins: The Newburgh was a nice community, working man’s community and the native welfare recipients housed in Newburgh.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: In the late 50s. Wilbur tells me this rumor was going around about welfare, how migrants, specifically poor black people from the South, were moving to Newburgh to live off it. And the rumor came with this explanation.

Wilbur Higgins: Well, they knew they could get on welfare and make just as much money on welfare as working.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: And like any good rumor.

Wilbur Higgins: It grew and grew and grew.

Krissy Clark: That rumor going around town about flyers and bathrooms and how they were drawing new poor black people from the South to Newburgh for the welfare. It turned into this whole explanation for why the city was changing. Why the old commercial district was crumbling, why potholes couldn’t get repaired. Why areas of Newburgh needed to be knocked down and renewed. People in town connected all those problems. Back to this rumor that new black people were coming to Newburgh, coming and draining the city’s budget, because they’d rather get a government check than work.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: The rumor kind of turned into gospel, a local paper did a piece about the changing city in a man said quote, there’s a sign in Montgomery or Atlanta railroad station that says, Go to Newburgh and get paid for not working. That’s what we’re up against. Even today. There are still people in Newburgh who say, “Oh, yeah, I totally remember that sign in that rumor”.

Speaker: They said, like there should be a sign down there saying come up here.

Speaker: People got bus tickets, and were shipped to Newburgh to collect welfare

Eleanor Mackay: Posters, they told people to move to Newburgh for the welfare.

Krissy Clark: People say, Oh, yeah, there was signs down there saying come to Newburgh for free welfare.

John: We had a beautiful town, and all of a sudden, it was a ghetto.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: Now I’ve tried to find hard evidence for this sign. I’ve talked to historians, archivists, scholars, people around Newburgh, but no one can show me a picture or any real proof of a sign existing. And the thing about a rumor is, once you say it enough, it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s true. It can create a city where fact and fiction blur. The rumor was just the start. Shortly after those men knocked on Wilbur’s store, a new city leader would take power in Newburgh and essentially declare war on welfare and the people who get it. He’d lead a harsh crackdown on welfare recipients that would catapult Newburgh into the national spotlight, a chain of events known as the Battle of Newburgh that included publicly humiliating welfare recipients, instituting some of the nation’s first welfare work requirements, and stirring up national controversy over the idea that certain people turn to welfare simply to evade work. An idea still sounds oddly familiar today.

Film Reel (1930’s): We challenge the right of freeloaders to make more on relief than when working. We challenge  the right of those on the relief to loathe by state and federal edict. And we challenge the right of people to quit jobs at will and go on relief like spoiled children.


Krissy Clark: Welcome to The Uncertain Hour, a show from Marketplace about obscure policies forgotten history, and why America’s like this. I’m Kristy Clark.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: And I’m Peter Balonon-Rosen. Over the next two episodes, we’re going to tell you the story of that rumor about a sign that said go on welfare to get paid for not working, and how city officials used that rumor to transform welfare in Newburgh, New York, they launched an experiment to strip welfare recipients of their benefits and run them out of town and experiment that would impact welfare laws across America.

Krissy Clark: Because what happened there, it was one of the first punches thrown in this bigger fight that’s still sweeping across America. Let’s fight over who really deserves help and what they should have to do to get it.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: The story of Newburgh helps tell the larger story of where the whole idea of the Welfare to Work system that we have today first came from, and what those early attempts at Welfare to Work were designed to accomplish.

Krissy Clark: Even though people often think of the 1990s and welfare reform as the moment when we first started requiring welfare recipients to work. The ideas behind work requirements go much, much further back. And their history reveals a lot.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: Chapter 3: Race and Rumor.

Krissy Clark: We’ll get back to Newburgh and that rumor that showed up there in the 1950s In a moment, but first I want to zoom back in history to an even earlier time, because going back centuries, there have been examples where a society’s impulse to help people in need gets complicated by its fears about who really deserves the help, and who’s just being lazy. So, I want to give you a very, very abridged kind of genealogy of work requirements. First off the 15th and 16th, hundreds in Elizabethan England. Back then, there were laws that literally divided poor people into three different categories. There were the deserving poor, that is people who were too old or young or sick to work. They deserved help. There were the idle poor, people who it was thought could work but refused. They were whipped in the streets. And then there were the able bodied poor people who wanted to work but couldn’t find a job. They were usually required to do labor in return for aid. Fast forward a few centuries and jump a few 1000 miles across the pond to the 19 teens in America. And you see some laws that divide people into who deserves help, and who doesn’t falling along a different line.

Ife Finch Floyd: So this is a newspaper clipping from the Greenville News, October 2nd, 1918. That was a Wednesday.

Krissy Clark: Headline, quote.

Ife Finch Floyd: “Negro Women to be put to work city ordinance soon to be passed.”

Krissy Clark: That’s Ife Finch Floyd, Director of Economic Justice at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. She studied welfare policy for years. She read me this old news article from a paper in Greenville, South Carolina, published during World War One. during that war, women across the country white and black, whose husbands were fighting got small monthly allowances from the War Department. The money was meant to help make ends meet while their men were risking their lives on the other side of the world. But that monthly war allowance became a point of contention in some parts of the country because as this newspaper article from the time explains, it appeared to be causing a very specific kind of labor shortage.

Ife Finch Floyd: It is exceedingly difficult for families who need cooks, and laundresses to get them.

Krissy Clark: The article goes on to say that members of the city council had been getting complaints from white residents about how black women who’d been getting the war allowance were refusing employment when it was offered to them, because according to the article, they could get along without working thanks to this government help. In response, the city was considering this new law that would require able bodied black women, not all women, just black women to be employed. Quote, regardless of whether they want to or have to.

Ife Finch Floyd: At its special meeting yesterday afternoon City Council discussed the situation with regard to this class of loafers at some length. And it seemed that all members of Council were agreed that steps should be taken to compel them to engage in some useful occupation.

Krissy Clark: Just to pause on that, for a moment, the city was going to pass a law forcing black women to work because some white people in town were having trouble finding people to cook their food and wash their underwear. Now, there were plenty of white women who were getting more allowances too. But this law would not require them to work. It was just for black women. And if a black woman was found not to be working, she could be fine or put in jail.

Ife Finch Floyd: The proposed ordinance will require them all to carry a labor identification card, showing that they are regularly and usefully employed. And the labor inspectors and police will be charged with the duty of rigidly enforcing the law.

Krissy Clark: That is just remarkable. Yeah. Ife he points out this ordinance holds in it clear echoes of slavery. What eBay calls the original work requirements.

Ife Finch Floyd: Enslavement, establish this inherent expectation that black people could not have their own freedom they had to work for economic gain of a white master.

Krissy Clark: As news spread of these proposed racial work requirements in Greenville and similar ones across the south, the NAACP sent a telegram to the White House, urging President Woodrow Wilson to condemn them as insidious and un-American. He did not. But meanwhile, around the same time as those white folks in Greenville and other places in the country, were fretting about the effects these government war allowances were having on the labor supply for black cooks and laundresses. There was another government benefit program that was not creating the same kind of worry. Namely, something known as mother’s pensions, small monthly pensions meant for poor families without male breadwinners, the precursor to the cash welfare system we have today. Back in its early incarnation, it had no work requirements. In fact, kind of the opposite. Mothers got these small monthly payments, so they could stay home and raise their kids. But there were certain mothers these programs had in mind. In the words of a White House Conference in 1909. They needed to be mothers…

Ife Finch Floyd: Mothers of worthy character deserving mothers.

Krissy Clark: Of course, worthy and deserving. They’re pretty subjective terms.

Ife Finch Floyd: And often, that looks like white widows.

Krissy Clark: So often, that by 1931, when the US government tallied, who was receiving this kind of aid anywhere in the US.

Ife Finch Floyd: About 3% of the families were black.

Krissy Clark: 3% is a pretty small number.

Ife Finch Floyd: 3% is pretty small.

Krissy Clark: Way out of whack with the number of black families living in poverty at the time. In the deep South, where most black people lived, the mismatch was even worse. There in that year, almost 3000 white families got this help, but only 39 Black families did not 39% Just 39 families. A few years later, in the throes of the Great Depression as part of New Deal legislation. Congress turns these mothers pensions into a federal program, and gave them a new name, aid to dependent children or ADC. Same idea cash aid for poor families without male breadwinners. And even though ADC was supposed to be a broader, more accessible program than the one that came before it. It had a lot of the same biases, especially in the Jim Crow South. In one case, an ADC field supervisor was asked why so few black families were offered assistance. The supervisor said the agency didn’t want to, quote, interfere with local labor conditions and explained.

Speaker: Black families, quote, have always gotten along. And if made eligible for assistance, quote, all they’ll do is have more children and quote.

Film Reel (1930’s): The welfare of the nation depends upon the welfare of its children.

Krissy Clark: There’s this film reel the government put out in the 30s to promote ADC to provide

Film Reel (1930’s): To provide for children who have lost their breadwinners, the state and federal governments provide monthly cash payments so that these children may grow up at home with their own families.

Krissy Clark: As the narrator speaks. A little boy drinks a glass of milk. A mother watches her kids frolic in the yard. Another mother cradles an infant, every person looks to be white. And like I said in the early days of ADC when it was imagined to be serving these white families. The program was pretty under the radar, and pretty uncontroversial. But over the years that started to change, the program started to get more scrutiny. And Ife says there were a few reasons for this. For one, the welfare rolls started increasing, and so did their costs. Partly because ADC had expanded into more states and average payments to families went up. But the roles weren’t just growing. Also, the race of who was on the rolls was changing. Specifically, the percentage of ADC recipients who were black. It had more than doubled from 16% in 1940. To 44% in 1961.

Ife Finch Floyd: Policy makers begin to raise eyebrows and say you know what’s going on here?

Krissy Clark: There were a few things going on he faces during World War II many women, White and Black had shared and a little prosperity sometimes for the first time Rosie the Riveters earning money in good paying factory jobs while men were fighting overseas.

WWII AD: In towns all over the United States. Women are called upon to leave their homes and take jobs. They discover that factory work is usually no more difficult than housework, how do you like it? I love it!

Krissy Clark: But of course, then the war ended.

WWII AD: There’s other guys who helped when it borrows against the Nazis and the entire nation welcomes them home

Krissy Clark: And all those Rosie the Riveters.

Ife Finch Floyd: You know they had to make space for the returning soldiers right that they needed those jobs more than women. The first to be let go were were the black women workers.

Krissy Clark: And for the women who tried to find new jobs.

Ife Finch Floyd: Black women were because of occupational state segregation, we’re again thrust into the lowest paid jobs, exploitative jobs.

Krissy Clark: Jobs that left those black women more economically vulnerable, more likely to need assistance at some point. And at the same time that more black women were turning to ADC, a lot of white women were leaving it. Thanks to a new law that kicked in. In 1940, widows started getting access to social security survivor benefits, benefits that their late husbands had earned through their jobs. These benefits could pay double or triple what ADC paid. But most black widows couldn’t access those more generous benefits at first, because Social Security had initially excluded workers in the two main industries where black people worked agriculture and domestic work. In other words, many white women had other safety nets to rely on. But ADC was one of the only safety nets that black women could access. On top of that, there were all these bigger demographic shifts happening.

Ife Finch Floyd: Many black families had migrated out of the south for the promise of higher paying jobs.

Krissy Clark: They were looking for work, not welfare. But some of those jobs that had lured people North dried up, the rust belt was starting its decades long decline. And in the north, when a black family did hit hard times, they might have slightly better luck getting cash assistance than in the south, where caseworkers were most notorious for keeping black people off ADC. So that changed the color of the welfare rolls to Still, despite all these things that helped explain why the welfare rolls were changing. You didn’t hear a lot of politicians talking about those forces. Instead, what you started to hear just as the ADC roles were getting increasingly black, were these alarm bells sounding about this new problem of so called welfare dependency.

Tamara Boussac: This is what’s wrong with welfare. Now there’s too many people that can do the work, they stay home and sleep.

Speaker: Public assistance roles are increasing because of the increase in social maladjustment. The shift, if you will, and the moral tone of the community.

Ife Finch Floyd: And I won’t mention the ethnic group involved. But the theory was that the welfare load was so happy because the husband would… There is a collective understanding of many policymakers and stakeholders that this is not supposed to be for them. Right? These are not the deserving mothers that we were talking about. This, this is another group and therefore they must be taking advantage of, of the program or, you know, they’re just having kids to get on the program. You know, it’s not that dissimilar from some of the rhetoric we hear today.

Krissy Clark: Ife says it was that kind of rhetoric that got her interested in studying welfare professionally. When she was growing up in the 90s. She remembers hearing politicians talking about the problems of welfare dependency.

Ife Finch Floyd: I didn’t exactly understand what was going on. I was 10 or 11. But I remember thinking that it was about black women, that somehow black woman weren’t doing what they were supposed to do, or they were having too many babies and some, you know, right, like, and I didn’t fully understand that at that age. But that stuck with me. And so when I, you know, turn to public policy, I started looking at, you know, what was this what was going on back then?

Krissy Clark: And once you started looking back through the history, to see how we got here. There’s this one place that kept popping up.

Ife Finch Floyd: You see this city in New York State, kind of catching my attention in the research.

Krissy Clark: That city was Newburgh.

Ife Finch Floyd: Really putting the blame of larger economic change on black families who are really just trying to do what a lot of American families are doing to provide better opportunities for themselves and for their children.

Krissy Clark: How a fight over welfare in Newburgh that would change America forever. got started. That’s after a break.

Amy Scott: Before the break, we learned how welfare started off as a little noticed, mostly white program. But as the number of black people on the rolls grew, the program became more controversial. And one of the places that really started scrutinizing welfare was Newburgh, New York, because as producer Peter Balonon-Rosen told us, there was that rumors swirling around that people were moving to the city because they’d rather live on welfare than work. Here’s Peter again.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: Before things really popped off in Newburgh before it got a national reputation for being cruel to welfare recipients. Before any of that Newburgh was already changing. New highways opened up pulling people and businesses away from the city. local factories closed taking jobs and people with them and the city started to look different.

Eleanor Mackay: This is Second Street. Okay. And Montgomery Street.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: Eleanor Mackay White Lady 94 when we talked pink sweater, she was there. And she showed me an oil painting in her dining room of what Newburgh had looked like in her childhood.

Eleanor Mackay: Reminds me of when I was young.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: A painting of a city street with three and four storey buildings. The street goes down a hill ends at a ferry station on the banks of a river.

Eleanor Mackay: When I was small, I would get 10 cents and you could go to five and 10. And you’d be surprised what you could buy with 10 cents, candy and ice cream and stuff and we hang out on this corner. That was the Chamber of Commerce on the corner. But they all closed.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: Eleanor was in her 30s A housewife when she heard the rumor, those whispers going around that explained why Newburgh was changing.

Eleanor Mackay: They claimed that in the south, they had dug posters, and they told people to move to Newburgh, for the welfare.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: You heard about that?

Eleanor Mackay: I heard about that.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: Eleanor had heard the story about signs and posters telling people move to Newburgh for the welfare and how poor black people had answered that call. And in the late 50s, that story spilled out of the rumor mill and took hold across the city.

Eleanor Mackay: Now I couldn’t tell you how I knew about it. Just there was a rumor you know.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: The Newburgh City Council took that rumor and ran with it. They began to ask why. Why had stores like Eleanor’s local five and 10 closed? Why was Newburgh’s waterfront shopping district on the decline? And rather than point to new highways pulling people in shops out of town? They pointed to that rumor in Newburgh changing demographics.

Eleanor Mackay: It wasn’t something you could say well, yeah, now, you know they’re here and it just was a gradual thing. But it did change.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: In the 50s waves of black people had moved to Newburgh from the south, but not for welfare. They were following family members like many who worked in local brickyards. Over the decades Newburgh went from one in 16 new burgers being black to one in six. It was part of the great migration, black people fleeing Jim Crow laws and looking for work in the more industrial north. Right as the demographics changed in Newburgh, city officials started to officially warn of this threat that so called migrants were moving to Newburgh to get welfare when they could be working instead, welfare payments were higher in New York state and other states. They said that had to explain it. And new faces moving into places like Eleanor’s neighborhood were the proof.

Eleanor Mackay: Down near the river, you know, all black people started clicking there.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: And what was the reaction to that?

Eleanor Mackay: We moved. We moved. That’s what everybody did. I didn’t think that much about it. You know, just what you did. You just moved.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: What, what were people saying?

Eleanor Mackay: That was the start of when things changed. Because they just weren’t used to living the way we do.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: When you say that they didn’t live like you did. What do you mean by that?

Eleanor Mackay: Well, I don’t know. They just they were quite poor.

Tamara Boussac: So what the city is claiming is that property values are going down in Newburgh and especially this neighborhood because of the presence of African Americans who allegedly came to the city to get welfare.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: This is Tamara Boussac. Who yes sounds French because she is French. What would happen in Newburgh with welfare would be such a big deal that people like Tamara all the way in France still study it today. She teaches American Studies at the Sorbonne in Paris and is currently writing a book about Newburgh. She says At the time, welfare recipients became an easy scapegoat for any of the city’s problems.

Tamara Boussac: That this is why the area is becoming so deteriorated and that of course no business wants to settle or to stay in the city where this is happening.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: So city councilors in Newburgh turned to outside help to deal with their so called welfare crisis. They hired a new city manager for Newburgh, a man who turned their welfare problem into much more than they bargained for. Who’d crack down on supposed welfare cheats in a way that would alarm much of America and change the national conversation around welfare.

Film Reel (1930’s): Newburgh city manager Joseph McDonald Mitchell here at a meeting of the City Council.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: A balding middle aged white man often dressed in a pressed suit and tie. City Manager Joseph Mitchell was prone to fiery speeches that riled people up. He vowed to put an end to people using welfare instead of working.

Film Reel (1930’s): We challenged the right of freeloaders to make more on relief than when working. We challenge the right of those on the relief too loathe by state and federal edict. And we challenge the right of people to quit jobs at will and go on relief like spoiled children.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: Reporters describe this new city manager as charming and ambitious. He was a compulsive smoker who drove a flashy salmon colored Chrysler convertible. “I like hot cars” he wants told reporters. One of his first moves as city manager was to offset a city budget deficit by cutting 30 families off from cash welfare assistance. When news reached eight officials they intervened and stopped the change. City Manager Joseph Mitchell was clear he felt welfare was wrecking Newburgh.

Film Reel (1930’s): The wreckage of an entire business and residential district, emptying the city of responsible taxpaying citizens and filling it with those who create and contribute to crime and violence.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: Basically, welfare is not just costing the city. But as he put it, it brings quote, parasitic migrants from southern states.

Film Reel (1930’s): And welfare is a positive factor in slum growth as it attracts the poor rather than repelling them.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: So to repel welfare recipients, the city manager hatched a plan, a new requirement to get welfare that anyone new to the city who wanted welfare should have to prove they move to Newburgh, not for welfare, but for work, a way to stem the flow of the so called Black migrants that Newburgh City Council was up in arms about

Film Reel (1930’s): Mr. Mitchell is reassuring. employment situation is good. And we found that anyone who really wants work can find it.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: In front of a gathering of Newburghers, the city manager stands behind a podium, dressed in black suit, a neat tie. He makes a declaration.

Film Reel (1930’s): And we have no intention of depriving the truly needy of aid and comfort.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: But he tells the group, lots of people on the roles are not actually needy.

Film Reel (1930’s): The truly destitute isn’t the minority.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: He raised his eyebrows to the crowd, like challenge me. I wish you would. But Tamara says actually if you zoom out like way out, there was something else going on that had nothing to do with people migrating, nothing to do with welfare cheats.

Tamara Boussac: It’s a period of of rising actually unemployment in the US at the time because the US is just coming out of of a national recession.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: National recession, you know, when people lose their jobs, when places stop hiring, when people need an extra hand from the government. In 1960, the country was hitting a national slump following a period of post World War II prosperity, something that could explain why someone might need welfare. But big picture economic issues were not what Newburgh officials, like city manager Joseph Mitchell were publicly concerned about. Instead, the company line out of City Hall was that people turn to welfare, not for help, but because they were lazy, freeloaders.

Tamara Boussac: People are not unemployed because of the recession or they’re not unemployed. Because, you know, because there are no jobs available. They’re unemployed because they don’t want to work. And if they want to get some sort of assistance from the government, then there’s no reason why you should be allowed to get welfare without working.

Peter Balonon-Rosen: And so in the name of cracking down on welfare cheeps city manager Joseph Mitchell decided to take a hardline approach to step hard on a problem hoping it go away. He decided to launch a sneak attack on the city’s welfare recipients. This police led ambush to make people prove they actually deserved welfare, a trap for welfare recipients that would rile up people across Newburgh that would alarm state and federal authorities and would transform how many people have Across America, think about people who get welfare. And for those people getting welfare things we’re about to change what

Speaker: The welfare game gives me and the kids every angle that I can make this monstrous that’s what I do.

Speaker: We tried to save pennies which is completely impossible because you just can’t stretch the money that far.

Wilbur Higgins: Then the system turns around and says, “Yeah, but they did it to themselves”.

Speaker: A politician can figure out your vulnerabilities and your fears, he’s got you hooked.


Krissy Clark: That’s next time on The Uncertain Hour. This episode was written and reported by me, Krissy Clark and Peter Balonon-Rosen. Grace Rubin, Peter Balonon-Rosen and I produced it. Editing from Michael May and Catherine Winter. In researching this episode, the book “The Despised Poor” by Joseph Ritz was crucial to our understanding of Newburgh’s 1961 War on Welfare. Check that out if you’d like to learn more. Research and production assistance from Marque Greene, Tiffany Bui, Muna Danish and Daniel Martinez. Betsy Towner Levine provided fact-check support. Scoring and sound design by Chris Julin. Jayk Cherry mixed our episode. Caitlin Esch is our Senior Producer Bridget Bodnar is Director of Podcasts at Marketplace. Francesca Levy is the Executive Director of Digital. Neal Scarbrough is Marketplace’s VP and General Manager.

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The team

Krissy Clark Host and Senior Correspondent
Caitlin Esch Senior Producer
Marque Greene Assistant Producer
Grace Rubin Assistant Producer
Michael May Editor
Chris Julin Scoring and Sound Design