I’d Rather Not Be on Relief Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This song, penned at the Farm Security Administration's Shafter Camp in California, describes life as a migrant worker during the Dust Bowl drought in the 1930s. In the song, migrant workers arrive at the camp in droves, seeking work on farms, but finding limited employment with minimal pay. Lester Hunter sang about the workers' preference to work on a farm instead of living on federal government programs, like the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Meanwhile, the song's lyrics read, the migrants lived in shanties, wearing ragged clothes and suffering from hunger while they searched for work.

Summary Overview

This song, penned at the Farm Security Administration's Shafter Camp in California, describes life as a migrant worker during the Dust Bowl drought in the 1930s. In the song, migrant workers arrive at the camp in droves, seeking work on farms, but finding limited employment with minimal pay. Lester Hunter sang about the workers' preference to work on a farm instead of living on federal government programs, like the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Meanwhile, the song's lyrics read, the migrants lived in shanties, wearing ragged clothes and suffering from hunger while they searched for work.

Defining Moment

Beginning in 1929 and lasting through the early 1940s, the Great Depression was one of the most tumultuous periods in modern American history. One of the major contributors to its longevity was the severe drought in the American South and the Great Plains, creating what would be known as the “Dust Bowl.” The devastation caused by this event sent migrant farmers into exile as they searched for employment and lived in abject poverty.

The causes of the Dust Bowl date back several decades before the Depression. During the 1860s, Americans, enabled by the passage of the Homestead Act (1862), moved westward, establishing farms in the semi-arid Plains as well as the Midwest and South. Quickly, the region's grasslands were cleared by overgrazing. Adding to the depletion of the area's natural ground cover was the demand for wheat. Wheat requires a deep plough, and during periods of adequate rainfall, this deep ploughing would pay off with a rich bounty of wheat, one of the most sought-after crops of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. When there wasn't sufficient rainfall, however, the soil quickly became unusable.

The lack of grass (caused by decades of overgrazing), unusable topsoil, and drought conditions converged to create the Dust Bowl–so named because high winds would kick up huge amounts of dry topsoil, creating dust storms that darkened the skies for days and made life unbearable for residents. Farms across this vast region went out of business, and farmers began a mass exodus westward in search of new employment.

A major destination for these millions of migrant farmers was California, drawn by word of that state's wide range of fruit, cotton, and vegetable farms. These migrant workers arrived in California with nothing but their families and whatever they could pack in their vehicles. They built shanties and even tents alongside the road during their journey and continued to live in such conditions when they arrived. When President Roosevelt's New Deal became law, these workers were given opportunities to work for the government, migrant camps in which to live, and direct monetary aid.

Although the area affected by the Dust Bowl spanned from the Plains states through the South, many migrant farm workers that evacuated for California were from Oklahoma and Arkansas. “Okies” and “Arkies”–called so by the locals, regardless of where they actually came from–arrived in tremendous numbers, settling in federal Farm Security Administration camps and searching for employment on the nearby farms. Here, they lived alongside Mexican and Filipino immigrants, who had long worked at these farms before the Dust Bowl migrants arrived. Their wages were low, even when the federal government provided struggling states with relief grants to aid the needy migrants.

Life in the camps was difficult, as workers lived in cramped, decrepit shelters, eating little and wearing shabby clothes. To pass the time while they either worked or looked for work, many of these migrants wrote songs about their experiences on the road to California, the hardships they endured, and the conditions in which they lived.

Document Analysis

Written by a migrant farm worker named Lester Hunter, “I'd Rather Not Be on Relief” is a song about the migrant worker experience during the Depression. The lyrics describe the conditions in which the migrants lived, even while receiving direct benefits from the federal government. Hunter also describes the simple desires of these workers–to find a job that pays them a reasonable wage for their work and to not be obliged to live off government support.

Hunter–who had arrived at central California's Shafter Farm Labor Camp–uses his song to tell the story of migrant workers, who, “like a swarm of bees,” came in droves from all over the country looking for work. These people, “worse off than a bum,” had little more than tattered and worn clothing, lived in “lean-tos” (three-walled, roofed houses usually used as temporary shelters), and barely ate enough to live. Their haggard appearance, along with their impoverished way of life, led would-be employers and the federal government officials on site at Shafter to treat them with little respect. Employers only offer workers a dollar per day, Hunter writes, in light of the workers' status as “gypsies.”

According to Hunter's lyrics, the migrant workers simply want gainful employment, not federal government handouts. They would prefer not to live in the camps or to earn meager wages, but the stark reality is that they will take whatever money they can get to feed their families. These workers live in shanties and tents that become cold at night. Some don't even have a lean-to in which to live when the workday is over.

“I'd Rather Not Be on Relief” is an acknowledgement of the hardships migrant workers faced, having left their homes and moved more than a thousand miles away. While they hoped to one day get a more lucrative job, they settled for whatever work they could find. Still, as the song goes, the workers were given assurances that work and better wages would come, especially if they joined the labor unions–the last line of the song cites the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Although there was little promise for better jobs until the Depression came to an end, the unions–by advocating on their behalf in negotiations with employers–at least gave the disenfranchised migrant workers some hope their work conditions might improve.

Essential Themes

Like many of the songs written by migrant workers during the Great Depression, Lester Hunter's “I'd Rather Not Be on Relief” paints a grim picture of the lives of migrant workers in federal camps. The song describes the conditions in which migrant workers lived, the treatment they received, and their outlook on the future.

As the song demonstrates, migrant workers and their families arrived at camps, like the one at Shafter with little more than the ragged clothes they wore. Many of these workers lived in lean-tos and other temporary shelters. Food supplies were, as the song's lyrics read, half of what was needed to feed a family. There was some work available on the nearby farms, but the migrants competed with others for those jobs, which paid meager salaries for a hard day's work.

These conditions, Hunter's song reads, made the workers feel less like qualified laborers and more like “bums” and “gypsy workers.” There was an obvious social stratification that occurred between those with steady jobs and the migrants. Migrant workers did not embrace their lesser status. The song suggests they knew that the quality of work they were offered might, under normal economic conditions, enable them to earn enough to feed their families, not to mention buy a home and new clothing.

Because the migrant workers of the song arrived with skills and abilities, along with a personal desire to find gainful employment, they were reluctant to accept federal assistance. They accepted their positions, living conditions, and government aid out of an obligation to support their families. However, as the song's title suggests, the migrant workers' ideal situation was to simply find gainful employment without turning to the government for assistance.

Even as they lived as impoverished outcasts in California, the migrant workers continued to show optimism about the future. The song's lyrics suggest that the Depression would one day come to an end. In the meantime, however, organized labor offered some promise that some of the wage issues with which the workers were grappling would be addressed. “The times are going to better,” the song concludes, reminding the listener that even under these conditions, the “Okies” and “Arkies” would not fold under the weight of the Depression.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Babb, Sanora. On the Dirty Plate Trail: Remembering the Dust Bowl Refugee Camps. Austin: U of Texas P, 2007. Print.
  • “Dust Bowl Exodus: How Drought and the Depression Took Their Toll.” Bill of Rights in Action. Constitutional Rights Foundation, 2005. Web. 24 June 2014.
  • Fanslow, Robin A. “The Migrant Experience.” Library of Congress. Library of Congress, 6 Apr. 1998. Web. 24 June 2014.
  • “Farm Labor in the 1930s.” Rural Migration News 9.4 (October 2003). Web. 12 Sept. 2014.
  • “Great Depression and World War II: The Dust Bowl.” Library of Congress. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 24 June 2014.
  • Worster, Donald. Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.
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