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“Democracy Can’t Live in These Houses”: Senator Paul Douglas Advocates a Federal Housing Program to Clear Slum Areas

The Federal Housing Administration, established in 1934, helped middle-income families buy new homes and improve existing ones. Federal loans for low-cost housing, however, became available only after passage of the Wagner-Steagle Housing Act of 1937, and then only in modest amounts. To address a growing crisis, President Harry S. Truman, as part of his “Fair Deal” initiative, called for new slum clearance and housing legislation. Despite accusations of “socialized housing” and opposition from the real estate and construction industries, on July 15, 1949, Truman signed into law a bill providing $1.5 billion in loans and grants.Available to localities, this money would, in the President’s words, “open up the prospect of decent homes in wholesome surroundings for low-income families now living in the squalor of the slums.” In the following article published just prior to the bill’s passage, Illinois Senator Paul Douglas, a professor of economics and former New Deal supporter, argued for effective legislation. Despite the law’s progressive intent, urban renewal programs ultimately destroyed formerly vibrant neighborhoods. These programs were also used throughout the South and in Northern cities to strengthen segregation by relocating African-Americans away from white school districts.

Democracy Can’t Live in These Houses

Whatever the federal government has done or proposes to do about housing, it is a dangerous fact that millions of Americans are shabbily sheltered and living in filthy, malignant slum areas that are growing both in size and in their threat to the physical and political health of our country. Any slum-clearance legislation passed by Congress would have to be followed up by action in states and cities, and by continuous Congressional action.

We Americans like to think of the typical home as a vine-clad cottage, with roses growing on trellises, and trees and grass in the yard; and with all this we associate the pleasing and lively sounds of healthy children at play. It is one of the glories of America that so many of our homes are of that kind—or, at least, equally attractive.

But it is one of our moral, political and economic responsibilities to do something to lift more homes at least to the minimum level for satisfactory living. The 15,000,000 or more Americans who live in the blighted areas are not inferior to the rest of us. They are only less fortunate. Imagine how you would feel if you and your family were housed as they are. Trouble does not come from men who live agreeable lives. It breeds among men who are frustrated, ashamed and envious.

Some people seem to think that slums are what they are because of the character and capacity of the people who live in them. That is not true. Environment to a considerable degree determines the way men act. The extremely strong or the extremely lucky can break free from the handicaps which surround them. Unfortunately not many have exceptional luck or strength.

Clifford R. Shaw made a careful study of bad localities in Chicago, and in his book, Delinquency Areas, he presents some facts that will bring you up short.

For example, he found slum areas in which years ago most of the residents were Irish. The juvenile delinquency rate was from 12 to 14 times that of normal neighborhoods. The Irish in these blighted areas began rising in the world, and moved out. Italians moved in. Juvenile delinquency among the Italian youth was almost exactly what it had been when the Irish were there. The Italians moved out and Jews moved in. The delinquency story was repeated. The Jews moved out, and Negroes moved in. Again, the delinquency rate in these blighted sections was some 12 to 14 times that of cleaner neighborhoods.

If I can interpret facts, this means that the living conditions, and not race or religion or color, largely determine delinquency rates.

When the Farm Security Administration began its relief activities in the days of the depression, only rural families who were completely down and out could qualify for its program. If a farmer had means or could get credit, Farm Security could not take him on. Failure was the qualification for getting in under Farm Security. In the South, and elsewhere, this meant that only those who generally were thought of as “shiftless” or “worthless” were assisted. And what do you think happened?

Faith in Human Nature Justified
When the government helped them, about 90 per cent of these people moved swiftly to better living than they ever had known, and paid back the loans the government had made to them. Of those who did not make good, some were sick, and a few—perhaps 5 per cent—were shiftless and worthless.

Farm Security first found reasonably fertile land and reasonably habitable houses for those in need of help. Then it set them up with loans for equipment and work clothes, and even a few dollars for window curtains.

That window curtain item evoked some loud yells of protest, but it was wise. Curtains, bright colors, mean something to women. These people, who had not imagined they ever could have such a luxury as curtains, aspired to new heights of living when they saw them in their own homes. Hundreds of thousands of “shiftless” and “worthless” rural slum dwellers, who never had known the possibility or even the meaning of thrift, became thrifty producers and canners of food. Never before had they had a reason for storage shelves.

These people could not have done this by themselves, and private landlords could not have done it for them. They had to have help, and the national government was the only source from which effective help could come at that time.

The people who dwell in the urban slums today can’t get out by themselves, either. They require help. Where is it to come from?

The fact that upward of 4,000,000 dwelling units exist in blighted areas—and many of them are very old—is pretty good evidence that private capital cannot solve the housing problem.

Private enterprise is always alert for profitable investment. It must make a profit in order to survive. If slums could have been cleared and decent dwellings put up for the slum families, at a profit to private investors, it would have been done. But private enterprise should not be expected to commit suicide by plunging into enterprises that cannot possibly pay out. Men who finance great private works do so, usually, partly with the money of other persons. They have no right deliberately to lose it, even for the worthiest of social causes.

I would favor solving the housing problem by private effort, if it could be done that way. But since it cannot, I think the national government must do it. When the soil resources of this nation were threatened by erosion, the national government properly set to work to save them. It must act similarly when human resources are threatened. States and municipalities generally have not the means to do what must be done.

Anyway, the problem, the responsibility and the dangers are national. . . .

The Danger of Complacency
Some of you may imagine that because you live in nice small towns where the refreshing air of heaven circulates freely, the cleansing rays of the sun penetrate every room and yard, and rats do not congregate nightly around garbage cans and outside privies, you are immune to the threat of the blighted areas. I beg you, if you imagine yourself safe, to stop and think. If, because of depression in some future decade, we should have dangerous unrest, the consequences would not be confined to the areas where the unrest is most likely to develop first. If some dreadful disease should begin in one area, it might spread anywhere.

Responsibility to do something to clear the blighted living areas is not limited to morality or to national pride. National internal security demands that something effective be done. National health demands it. Protection of your own health and protection of you and your family from crime require it. . . .

Source: Paul Douglas, “Democracy Can’t Live in These Houses,” Collier’s , 9 July 1949, 22, 50.