A Swank Life

By Larry Teren


“Relief recipients were warned yesterday that they must get rid of television sets, telephones, and other ‘luxury’ items in their homes or face being dropped from relief rolls.” So began the newspaper article on September 25, 1962.

At that time, Harold Swank was the executive secretary of the Public Aid commission. He ordered his staff to begin canvassing their clients for failure to comply. He also told them to warn the Public Aid beneficiaries that if they did not sell all such items within the month, the relief checks would stop.

An exception was made for telephones if needed for health reasons or to help get a job. “Luxury” items would be allowed to be kept if purchased before the person went on relief or were received as gifts.  But, the aid recipient must be able to prove this.

Another policy statement directed by Mr. Swank at that time warned those on the public dole that children out of wedlock would not be tolerated, even resulting in forced removal of children from the home.

Mr. Swank was a tough cookie who interpreted and possibly amended the law to suit his own personal bias. As director of Public Aid, he was a party to several lawsuits alleging unfair practice. For example,

in 1971 his agency was sued in class action for not giving the same benefits to children between the ages of 18 to 20 still living at home and going to school as those younger. The Supreme Court of the US upheld his office’s interpretation of Illinois statutes and did not find it unconstitutional.

In 1964, his office was chastised by the US Department of Agriculture for lax security of a warehouse containing commodities given by the Feds to the State of Illinois to pass along to welfare recipients. Over $3500 in goods were stolen and Mr. Swank was sent a bill to pony up for the loss. When Mr. Swank balked, he was told “too bad” as his own staff admitted they did not do a good job in protecting against thievery. However, he was promised that the Department of Agriculture would “hold on” to the check for thirty days to give him a chance to prove that security was more than adequate.

A follow-up correspondence in January 1965 mentioned that although Swank indicated that there were three burglary alarms on doors in the warehouse and that an intruder had once been caught, this was not sufficient proof that the pilfering of commodity cards was properly protected. Further inspection proved that the warehouse doors could be opened as wide as 18 inches before the alarm would trigger. Therefore, the Department of Agriculture was instructed to deposit the check received from the State of Illinois. It also intimated that Swank’s own employees were embezzling the stock and that his staff looked the other way.

In 1965, Harold Swank testified before a US Senate subcommittee that the federal government must take the lead in providing birth control services for the poor. “Unwanted children bring higher welfare costs and contribute to family breakdowns.” He also said that although the Feds should start the ball rolling that there will come a time when the Federal Government would pass it along to the State level to administer.

On August 5, 1965, Harold denied a request by a lady for public aid telling her that if her estranged husband was not giving her the court-ordered $35 a week that she should seek legal action against him. It was not the obligation of his office to cover for husbands who did not pay their obligations. He also told her that as she was 42, she was young enough to go out and get a job to help take care of herself and her two children. In fact, he pointed out to her that she was just as legally obligated to support her children as well as her estranged husband.

In 1968, Mr. Swanks office demanded that a mother of nine children on welfare use a $1500 settlement given to her twelve year old daughter due to injuries sustained to her eye. The Department of Public Aid wanted to reduce the family’s monthly allotment by a pro-rated amount that could be withdrawn from the daughter’s savings account.

The daughter’s lawyer argued that the money should not be touched and be saved as future tuition for the girl to go to college. The State then filed suit in court arguing that the girl was not college material.

Earlier, in 1968, his office was sued – again in class action- because it only provided a $90 a month shelter allowance. The person suing felt that it was discriminatory because some people obviously needed a larger residence when they had a bigger family.

Can you imagine a person like Mr. Swank running a relief agency today?

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