Popular Science Monthly/Volume 86/April 1915/American Municipal Problems and the European War
|AMERICAN MUNICIPAL PROBLEMS AND THE EUROPEAN WAR|
NATIONAL MUNICIPAL LEAGUE, PHILADELPHIA, PA.
THERE was great uncertainty in August and September of the year 1914 as to the immediate and ultimate effect of the European cataclysm. No one was willing to hazard a guess as to what was going to be the outcome of those events following the outbreak of the war, which unsettled at least for the time the whole machinery of international life. There was a prevalent conviction that the old foundations had been swept away, and there was no assurance as to what were to take their place. The feeling extended to every sphere of life, and notably to municipal affairs. Attention was everywhere directed to the war, its progress and probable results. In the words of one commentator on the situation:
And who, a Unitarian clergyman (John Haynes Holmes) asks, in quoting the above, "cares a fig about the social movements"? Jane Addams, usually so calm and sane, declared
When a million men are suffering in trenches wet and cold and wounded, what are a few children suffering under hard conditions in the factories? Take old-age pensions, upon which England, France and Germany have been working. With widows and fatherless children numbered by the thousands in each of these countries, what are a few old people more or less? It will be years before these things are taken up again. The whole social fabric is tortured and twisted.
Infant mortality is one of the things which we are just beginning to deal with.
But what are half a million new-born children in comparison with such a slaughter—the hideous, wholesale slaughter of thousands of men a day?
Social and civic workers in large numbers shared this lament and the feeling and conviction back of it. It really did seem in those first days as if all that had been gained through years of toil and painful effort had been lost; that the foundations, as well as the superstructure, of modern society, which is so largely urban in its character, had been undermined—but first a few, and then many more students began to ask questions, and make inquiries. What effect is the European war having' and likely to have upon the municipal situation, and especially in this country? Has it diverted interest? And if so, in what way? Has it interfered with the orderly functioning of the city? Has it stopped public improvements? Has it hurt municipal credit, and the development of sound municipal sentiment? Has the war diverted interest in city affairs?
From a Los Angeles editor (and I may say in passing that the great bulk of the testimony I shall offer will be from well-known editors of long experience as trained observers of public opinion in their respective localities) comes this message:
Pasadena, Cal., reports:
From Santa Ana, a small California city of 12,000 people in the midst of a purely agricultural section of country, remote from the great industrial centers and with very little connection or relation with them, we hear this testimony:
In San Francisco at first there was
Another editor in the same city writes that:
A Portland, Oregon, editor writes:
Seattle reports that thewar "has not appreciably affected municipal conditions in Seattle, unless perhaps it may be in bringing more sober attention to matters of taxation and the like," certainly a most desirable result, and right here it may be pertinent to remark that increasing federal and state expenses are destined to have the same effect.
So far as the Pacific coast is concerned there is practically but one story. The same is true of the central sections. The report from Duluth, Minn., reads:
That from South Bend, Indiana, is to the same effect:
and Louisville, Ky., likewise:
A well-known editor of Kansas (William Allen White of The Emporia Gazette,
Another declares thatthe war is making little difference with politics in Minneapolis. We have the
The northwest generally, being near the wheat-fields, is not much affected by the war at present.
A Chicago editor in September felt that the war was likely most seriously to divert attention from local politics, and declared that the primary elections showed a distinct falling off, due to the absorption of interest in the war. The November elections, however, do not seem to have been any less hotly contested and their results can hardly be said to have reflected any war influence. In most places, the decisions reached were about the same as were anticipated before the war broke out.
From a Lexington, Ky., publicist comes the observation that
This letter brings up a question that has no doubt occurred in connection with the other testimony so far adduced. To what extent is the difficulty of marketing bonds and therefore of undertaking improvements, and to what extent is the demand for retrenchment and greater economy of administration, to be attributed to the war; and to what extent to the financial stringency and hard times that existed before the war? That the war has accentuated the difficulties of the situation rather than caused them is the opinion of many students of the drift of municipal conditions and opinion.
New England's testimony is remarkably like that which comes from the. Pacific coast and the central west. Only in the south does the war seem to have been directly responsible for a greater stringency—and that has been due to the fact that it has in the past so largely depended upon a few crops, mainly cotton and tobacco, rather than upon diversified industries.
writes a Portland, Maine, editor,
and Springfield, Mass., reports that
In New Haven, Conn.,
And the same is said in Hartford, where there is no evidence that the foreign situation has diverted attention from public welfare.
In the Middle Atlantic states the same general situation may be said to prevail. Let me quote from just two letters: one from Harrisburg, Pa., and one from Wilmington, Del. From the former we learn that, so far as careful observation goes, while the war is undoubtedly attracting considerable attention,
A Wilmington editor
There is not any probability of the war influence affecting public improvements adversely. Work on our greatest improvement—the joint city and county building—is progressing finely. Private building operations are going on as usual.
These views selected from a great mass of correspondence are typical, and unquestionably reflect the fact that the American municipal citizen, while profoundly interested in every phase of the greatest of modern wars, nevertheless is going about his municipal business just about the same as usual, but with somewhat more care and thoughtfulness than formerly, and, perhaps, with a greater concern about beginning improvements, and about their execution, when once determined upon.
Generally speaking, the influence by and large of the European war on these phases of American municipal life has been much less than had been reasonably anticipated.
Nor has the war interfered with the orderly functioning of the cities. While there has been a natural conservation in the undertaking of new work and the assumption of new functions, so far as reported, there has been no abandonment of those lines of activities previously assumed, and regularly carried on. It must be pointed out, however, that if it had not been for the war, the new year would have seen the greatest development of municipal activity the country has ever witnessed, along both physical and general lines, and I am not at all sure that the war will check the latter. That it has seriously interfered with the former, however, there can be no doubt. This condition is partly due to the unsettled financial condition of the country, and would have prevailed even had there been no war. Municipal credit, as such, however, does not seem to have been seriously hurt, or jeopardized.
There has been a naturalof capitalists to invest in municipal, or, for that matter, in any other issues, although this timidity and unwillingness is beginning to show signs of disappearing with the opening of the stock exchanges and the reestablishment of the financial machinery. This hesitancy to take municipal issues in large blocks has accelerated the tendency to market municipal bonds in a new and more democratic way, namely, in small denominations, over the counters of the city treasurer. In this way municipal undertakings will be brought more directly home to the attention of the voters and their interest in the construction and up-keep thereby stimulated. In addition municipal finances will be placed upon a more substantial basis in that cities will consider more carefully their expenditures for permanent capital account and for maintenance, and will eventually cease to borrow on the future for the expenses of to-day. Here again, however, the war has helped on a movement already well started. There seem? to be a great difference of opinion among social workers as to the effect of the war on social problems. Miss Addams's opinion has already been quoted. On the other hand, however, we have the opinion of another Chicagoan, who speaks out of a long experience, and a profound sympathy with every forward social movement. Dr. Graham Taylor declares as a result of his personal observations:
So far as my personal observation has gone, there has been no substantial falling off of interest in American constructive programs, and in many directions there has been an increased effort to offset any possible slackening of interest. The obvious reply to Miss Addams's lament (and we all deeply sympathize with the feeling which gives rise to it) is that the very greatness of the European cataclysm will emphasize the need for even greater social and civic effort. In the words of a Milwaukee student of the problem:
The significance of the present situation is that social and civic workers have redoubled their efforts, in the face of the natural depression incident to the war, and have shown no slightest evidence of intention to abandon any advantage secured, or position occupied. In addition they are looking further ahead than usual. There is an increasing conviction that social and civic problems of great magnitude will follow in the footsteps of the war. The commissioner general of immigration holds the opinion that the natural thing to expect after peace is declared again is a quickened flow of immigrants to the United States. If the war is serious and causes general business depression in the countries which it affects, increased numbers of the working classes will have to seek opportunities in this country.
The normal flow of immigrants to this country, according to The Survey, has been about 90,000 a month. Those who have already planned to come, but have been held back by the war, the commissioner general expects to sail as soon as they can get accommodations after peace is declared. Moreover, many of the foreign men who may leave this country to take part in the war, if they can obtain passage, he expects to return later to resume their work here. Adding together those whose trips have been postponed, those who have left the United States temporarily, and the normal yearly number would send immigration records up to a new high mark. This is but one of many situations our cities will have to face—for all our civic and social difficulties find their greatest manifestation in the cities; and the students and workers foreseeing this are preparing for it.
One effect of the war will be to compel Americans more largely than heretofore to solve their own problems. We have so freely availed ourselves of European experience that we have in some directions lost our initiative. European precedent has been dominating. Now we are thrown back on our own resources, and this in the long run will be a great gain, for we can not hope invariably to solve American problems solely by European methods. In fact, progress has sometimes been held back because of our underlying antipathy to the foreign label. We have studied other situations sufficiently long and carefully, to know the best they have to offer in the way of suggestion. Now we shall have an opportunity of showing what we can do when compelled to depend upon our own resources.
To sum up: The European war seems to have had far less influence upon our municipal life than was at first anticipated. It has not diverted, except temporarily, public interest in local affairs. Although the war has occupied an undue amount of space in the newspapers and magazines, this lack of perspective on their part does not seem to have affected that of their readers. The finances of our cities have been strengthened and accelerated. There has been no slackening or diversion of interest or effort on the part of social and civic workers. On the contrary, they have manifested a determination and persistence of the greatest significance and there has been a throwing back on our own resources that will develop a self-reliance and an American policy of social welfare and municipal administration that will constitute a worthy contribution to the advance of mankind.