Back to work

Unemployed workers were given jobs during the Great Depression.
A scrip labor crew works at grading Union Avenue NE at Cedar Street in 1932. Courtesy Grand Rapids Public Library

During the Great Depression, there were many approaches to meeting the needs of people suffering economic distress. In Grand Rapids, City Manager George Welsh started a municipal scrip labor program for unemployed workers. Between December 1930 and January 1933, the city employed thousands of men in various public works projects. They worked on everything from grading roads and improving parks to cleaning up the banks of the Grand River. They also built the pool at Richmond Park and constructed Welsh Auditorium (now part of DeVos Place). Instead of cash, the men received scrip — a temporary form of currency that could be redeemed at city stores for groceries, clothing, shoes and other basic supplies.

The program was far from perfect. Across the nation, relief programs excluded or limited relief provided to people of color, furthering economic inequality. Locally, scrip labor was also limited to men with families and the scrip could not be used to pay for necessities like rent. Despite the shortfalls of scrip labor, the program provided work for many and tangible improvements to public spaces. We can build on those ideas and improve them and, hopefully, provide better care for our citizens and neighbors today.

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