Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2021/Fall/Section010/Della Benfield

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Della Benfield[edit | edit source]

Overview[edit | edit source]

Della Benfield was interviewed for the Federals Writer’s Project by Ethel Deal in June of 1939.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Personal Life[edit | edit source]

Della Benfield was a Caucasian woman from Statesville, North Carolina. Benfield was the mother of two children and was married for 16 years before separating from her husband. She was often employed on a temporary basis, if at all, and utilized the federal relief system to support herself and her family. Benfield received minimal education, citing a total of 12 moths throughout her 52 years of life.  She lived in abject poverty her entire life and considered herself to be the main caregiver of her children. While she did not belong to any church, she often discusses the value of faith and family within the context of religion. Benfield credits much of her wellbeing to different social programs and the goodwill of Baptist organizations.

Family Life[edit | edit source]

Della Benfield was one of three children raised in Statesville, North Carolina. Her father passed away, so she worked alongside her mother and siblings on farms to sustain her family. She married at age 12 to a man named Tom Laney who worked in agriculture. They had two children, a boy and a girl, 13 years apart. After 16 years of marriage, Tom abandoned the family and moved to a nearby town – leaving Benfield to raise both children. After a year, her eldest son moved to be with his father. Benfield spent much of her time pursuing healthcare for her daughter, Nazabeth, who was unable to walk due to a birth defect. Her son later marries and has children of his own but continues to pay Benfield’s rent of $1. Although she is unable to hold down a job for more than a few months at a time, Benfield remains committed to sending Nazabeth to school.

Social Context[edit | edit source]

The Great Depression[edit | edit source]

The stock market crash of 1929 marked the beginning of the worst economic condition that the country has seen. In the years following the crash, steep increases in unemployment and welfare need arose (Abelson 2003). By 1933, over 15 million Americans were unemployed. Of the vulnerable population were those that relied on the need for temporary agricultural jobs. Rural areas around the country saw some of the greatest and most tragic impacts of the time (Abelson 2003). In rural and urban areas, the greatest breakdown of families occurred leaving more than 2 million Americans divorced by the end of the era (Celeski 2021). The federal government reacted by implementing The New Deal and other social programs to help Americans reconstruct the economic fabric that once existed. Because of this, trust in the government grew a steady degree and the dynamic between Americans and  federal/state level officials changed. Dialogue between citizens and politicians regarding the functions and benefits of government expanded during this crisis. Reforms in the 1930s, 40s and 50s helped structure the modern economic framework that America still depends on today. Overall, the great depression was disastrous due to its length and severity, but simultaneously was responsible for some of the greatest economic innovation and reconstruction in American history (Celeski 2021).

Impact on Women[edit | edit source]

Women were the only population of Americans that actually saw an  increase in employment rates during the depression(Abelson 2003). From 1930 to 1940, the percent of employed women in urban areas rose 24 percent (Rotondi 2019). In rural areas however, the opportunity for jobs that remained relevant and economical was small. Therefore, this subset of women were not beneficiaries of this uptick (Kawena 2021). There already existed gender discrimination within the American economy, but this influx of women into the workforce exacerbated the issue (Rotondi 2019). Over 25% of the federal wage codes set lower wages for women, the consequences of these polices would last for the next few decades (Kawena 2021). Additionally, the decline in marriage rates encouraged more women to join the workforce. Therefore, jobs accessible to women were quickly filled – especially in rural areas. Overall, the great depression marked a time of emergence for women in terms of their presence in American economic life, but also birthed the beginning of inequitable social structures that America would buy into for years to come(Abelson 2003).

Relief Programs[edit | edit source]

Roosevelts New Deal offered immediate help to the population of Americans that suffered the most from the depression (Civics renewal Network 2020). Its goal was to subsidize living and spending costs so that unemployed and disadvantaged Americans could reintegrate into the workforce without the looming fear of debt and poverty (Civics Renewal Network 2020). The New Deal created a range of federal programs that in conjunction focused on: relief, recovery, and reform. “relief”, in the context of Roosevelts New Deal, fundamentally altered the relationship between the government and its citizens (Rotondi 2019). Many individuals, the majority of which lived in rural areas, took advantage of the benefits afforded to them through relief (Ladd-Taylor 1995). They could buy necessities such as food and clothing for a slightly lesser cost. The overwhelming majority of individuals that opted into such programs were women. This pattern continues today in modern versions of governmental relief such as food stamps, welfare, and Medicaid (Ladd-Taylor 1995).

Education in the South[edit | edit source]

Public Education remains one of the most complex social, political, and economic issues in American life. In the early 1900s, every aspect of education in the south was deficient. Illiteracy in the south among adults ranged from 30 to 45 percent of the population. At the start of the century until the 1940s, there was no legitimate federal regulation of education (Encyclopedia 2020). County Superintendents habitually were unqualified and there existed no legal qualification for teachers or any educational positions alike. It is estimated that rural schoolhouses in the south were valued at less than 100 dollars. Students lacked proper teaching, resources, and opportunity (Encyclopedia 2020). Often, schoolhouses in the south did not have electricity, indoor plumbing, or books.  There were no compulsory education laws meaning that it was not legally required that children complete or attend school. This governmental deficiency was often abused in the south where children were needed on the farms. A great deal of regional inequality, regarding education, was a product of post-reconstruction legislatures from the late 1800s (Ladd-Taylor 1995). The tax systems benefitted regions of the country that had more homogenous tax brackets and allowed public education decision to be made at an exclusively state level.

Healthcare in the South: 1900-1940[edit | edit source]

While technological developments and higher standards of living decreased the mortality rates across America, these developments were slow to reach rural areas (Ladd-Taylor 1995). The early to mid 1900s marked a period of major transition of middle- and upper-class Americans to privatized healthcare (Celeski 2021). This shift resulted temporarily in less funding for public healthcare programs. Before the stock market crash, it was difficult for rural Americans to access to quality healthcare(Elaine 2003). The nationwide depression naturally exacerbated the previously existing issue. The federal government focused on immediate issues of poverty and economic recovery, and it was not until later in the depression that focus was relocated to healthcare (Clayton 1979). The combination of mass poverty, lack of educated medical professionals and federal funding for healthcare created a dangerous and often deadly situation in the rural south (Clayton 1979).

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

Abelson, Elaine S. 2003. “‘Women Who Have No Men to Work for Them’: Gender and Homelessness in the Great Depression, 1930-1934.” Feminist Studies 29, no. 1 : 105–27. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3178478.

Civics Renewal Network, 2020. "BRIA 14 3 a How Welfare Began in the United States." 2020. Constitutional Rights Foundation.  https://www.crf-usa.org/bill-of-rights-in-action/bria-14-3-a-how-welfare-began-in-the-united-states.html.

Cecelski, David. 2021. "Hard Times: Voices from the Great Depression on NC Coast: Coastal Review." Coastal Review Online. (July 27, 2021).https://coastalreview.org/2021/07/hard-times-voices-from-the-great-depression-on-nc-coast/.

Rotondi, Jessica Pearce. 2019. "Underpaid, But Employed: How the Great Depression Affected Working Women." History.com. March 11, 2019. https://www.history.com/news/working-women-great-depression.

Pukui, Mary Kawena. 2021. "The Great Depression." Women & the American Story. https://wams.nyhistory.org/confidence-and-crises/great-depression/.

[[File:Image of a Relief Office.jpg|thumb|[[File:Woman on Relief With Child.jpg|thumb|Woman with a child in North Carolina

A woman working in a cotton field. Statesville, NC.

Woman on federal relief with a child in South Carolina]]|223x223px]]

Ladd-Taylor, Molly. 1995. "Mother-work." https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=GOSCYPmRVhsC&oi=fnd&pg=IA1&dq=welfare 1930&ots=xPsHPiI6Hz&sig=l1s3z4EScKpU2AUvxRtCH-slliw#v=onepage&q=welfare 1930&f=false.

Brown, Clayton. 1979. “Health of Farm Children in the South 1900-1950 - Jstor Home.” https://www.jstor.org/stable/3742868

Encyclopedia. 2020. " The 1910s Education: Overview" https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/culture-magazines/1910s-education-overview

Deal, Ethel, 1939. “Deal Ethel Interview” file:///Users/mariondewey/Downloads/Folder_356_Deal_Ethel_interviewer_Untitled.pdf