Nobody's Burden: Lessons from the Great Depression on the Struggle for Old-Age Security

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9780739165317: Nobody's Burden: Lessons from the Great Depression on the Struggle for Old-Age Security

Nobody's Burden: Lessons on Old Age from the Great Depression is the first book-length study of the experience of old-age during the Great Depression. Part history, part social critique, the contributors rely on archival research, social history, narrative study and theoretical analysis to argue that Americans today, as in the past, need to rethink old-age policy and accept their shared responsibility for elder care. The Great Depression serves as the cultural backdrop to this argument, illustrating that during times of social and economic crisis, society's ageism and the limitations in old-age care become all the more apparent.

At the core of the book are vivid stories of specific men and women who applied for old-age pensions from a private foundation in Detroit, Michigan, between 1927 and 1933. Most applicants who received pensions became life-long clients, and their lives were documented in great detail by social workers employed by the foundation. These stories raise issues that elders and their families face today: the desire for independence and autonomy; the importance of having a place of one's own, despite financial and physical dependence; the fears of being and becoming a burden to one's self and others; and the combined effects of ageism, racism, sexism and classism over the life course of individuals and families. Contributors focus in particular on issues of gender and aging, as the majority of clients were women over 60, and all of the case workers - among the first geriatric social workers in the country — were women in their 20s and early 30s. Nobody's Burden is unique not only in content, but also in method and form. The contributors were members of an archival research group devoted to the study of these case files. Research was conducted collaboratively and involved scholars from the humanities (English, folklore) and the social sciences (anthropology, communications, gerontology, political science, social work, and sociology).

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About the Author:

Ruth E. Ray is professor of English/liberal arts at Wayne State University. Toni Calasanti is professor of sociology at Virginia Tech.


Old people who are also poor are more or less forbidden to actualize any form of personal identity and are nonetheless punished for it, facing both casual and systematic discrimination. During the Great Depression, as today, many were arbitrarily denied adequate means of survival, even if family members or social workers came to their aid. Editors Ray (English, Wayne State Univ.) and Calasanti (sociology, Virginia Tech) have drawn on the archives of the Luella Hannan Memorial Home in Detroit, Michigan, to produce this narrowly focused but often-moving history. The contributors show how, between 1927 and 1933, the city's poor elderly banded together in support groups and endured years of humiliation and social stigma and how advocates spread awareness of their plight until it became one of the central political issues of the New Deal. The book traces dozens of intersecting story lines--many of them in first-person narratives, case notes, and letters--that together show how ageism in the US fails vulnerable people who seek only to eschew their own vulnerability. The parallels between their era and the contemporary world are uncanny and quite frightening. Summing Up: Recommended. All levels/libraries. (CHOICE)

As a gero-historian and grandchild of the Great Depression, who has experienced reversals of fortunes (economic and otherwise), I read Nobody's Burden with great admiration. Ruth Ray, Toni Calasanti, and their collaborators have mined archives to give us vivid history from the bottom up. They have recovered voices from the past which, richly informed by theory and narrative, should heighten our common resolve to fight sexism and ageism as we care for the needy. (W. Andrew Achenbaum, University of Houston)

Located in a particular time and a particular place, this unique interdisciplinary study reaches out across the years and across the globe to illuminate and inform our understanding of who might care for, and about, old people in the twenty-first century. Couched firmly within a tradition of feminist gerontology, it is a riveting and evocative exploration of what it was like to live into old age during the Great Depression. Marrying detailed archival research with perspectives drawn from anthropology, English studies, communication, sociology, political science and social work, the editors and contributors paint a vivid picture which resonates all too often with current preoccupations: at times disconcertingly, at others poignantly. This 'living story' will speak to everyone concerned with the ethics of elder care, social justice and the need for policy reform. (Miriam Bernard, Keele University)

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