Read CHAPTER VIII - THE HOME-STAYING NON-SUPPORTER of Broken Homes A Study of Family Desertion and its Social Treatment, free online book, by Joanna C. Colcord, on

Many of the case workers consulted in gathering material for this book urged that a discussion of the treatment of the non-supporter who had not deserted be included in its pages. In so far as non-support is a pre-desertion symptom and the non-supporter a potential deserter, much that has been said applies also to him. But are the two groups co-terminous, or do they only partially overlap?

The law makes little difference in its treatment of the two, the fact of failure to support being the chief ground of its interest. Indeed, in Massachusetts, the law under which deserters are extradited for abandonment is habitually spoken of as the “non-support law.”

No study of which the results are available has been made to learn what difference, if any, exists between the non-supporter who leaves home and the one who does not. Miss Breed, in making the point that the true analogy of the deserted family is with the non-supported family and not with the widow and her children, says: “The deserting husband is at home the non-supporting husband."

A case reader of experience writes: “When I look back over the many records I have read and studied, it seems to me that it is very difficult to draw a line between desertion and non-support cases, either in the kind of problem they present, or in the treatment of them. Do we know enough about non-supporters who later become deserters; and isn’t it possible that every non-support case, certainly every beginning non-support case, is a potential desertion case?”

There is no doubt that the two groups grade imperceptibly into each other; but of the twenty or more case workers who were consulted in the preparation of this material, nearly all felt that the out-and-out deserter, if he can be got hold of, is more promising material to work with than the man who sits about the home and lets others maintain it. They all recognize a common middle ground where the two groups merge into each other; but they see decided differences in the two “wings” so to speak, outside of this common ground.

Seen through their eyes, the non-supporter has less courage, initiative and aggressiveness than the deserter. “He is less deliberately cruel for at least he ‘sticks around.’” He has not the roving disposition, but is apt to be intemperate and industrially inefficient as compared with the deserter. Often the married vagabond, as he has been called, is a “home-loving man who simply shirks responsibility and dislikes effort.” He may “sometimes feel parental responsibility even though he does not support,” and he is likely to have less physical and mental stamina than the deserter. That phrase in which the psychiatrists take refuge, “constitutional inferiority,” is more likely to describe the stay-at-home than the wanderer. However, one social worker (non-medical) says “a mental twist more often enters into the problem of the deserter than into that of the non-supporter, from my experience.”

The head of a large probation department writes: “Many of the deserters with whom we have dealt were non-supporters before coming to our attention. Among the men convicted of abandonment, however, is a group which is above the average in intelligence skilled workers or men in professional occupations.”

If this concurrence of observation is sound the reason for the social worker’s preference for the deserter as material with which to work is not far to seek. With the deserter as described, the problem is chiefly to alter his point of view; with the non-supporter it is, in addition, to stiffen his will and to increase his capacity a far more complicated task.

“The deserter is likely to have less justification than the non-supporter,” says an observer of long experience. Studies which have been made of the relative capacity of the wives of deserters and of non-supporters seem to agree that the latter have the weaker characters and are less competent and successful workers. A comment made upon one such study points out the impossibility of sound conclusions, if both chronic and incipient cases are included in the two groups. The progressive demoralization in the family of the “intermittent husband” makes such a study of little value unless this distinction is taken into account.

The influence of ill-kept homes in the manufacture of non-supporting husbands has been widely recognized.

A drunkard’s daughter, who had never known a decent home, married a young man who soon began to drink too. Luckily, the young couple were brought in touch with a volunteer visitor who, on finding that the wife possessed only two kitchen utensils, a teakettle and a “frypan,” and actually did not know the names of any others, undertook to give her lessons in home management. She proved teachable, and her husband stopped drinking and braced up. Some years later the visitor was able to report a well established home, although the family refused to move out of the poor neighborhood in which they lived because the husband had been elected councilman for that district.

If the inefficient wife contributes her share to this form of family breakdown so also does the overefficient one. Many a non-supporter got his first impulse in that direction when his wife became a wage-earner in some domestic crisis. “There’s only one rule for women who want to have decent homes for their children and themselves,” advised a wise neighbor. “If your husband comes home crying, and says he can’t find any work, sit down on the other side of the fire and cry until he does."

One case worker comments on the relation that often exists between an inefficient husband and an unusually competent wife, made up of a motherly toleration on her side and a tacit acceptance on his that he is not expected to be the provider. “Sort of a landlady’s husband” was the apt description of one such man, the speaker having in mind the “silent partner” who does odd jobs around his wife’s furnished-room house. The lovable old rascal portrayed by Frank Bacon in his play “Lightnin’” is typical of this kind of husband.

There is no ground for outside interference in such an arrangement as long as both are satisfied and the family as a unit is self-supporting. It is often a serious problem to the case worker, however, to know how to treat such a family if the breadwinner-wife becomes incapacitated. Such was the case when Mrs. Laflin fell ill with tuberculosis. Her relatives described her husband as “that little nonentity of a man.” He had no bad habits and was pathetically eager to work, but though only a little over fifty he was prematurely aged and incapable. The solution had finally to be institutional care for the entire family, Mrs. Laflin in a hospital for incurables, Mr. Laflin in a home for the aged, and their two young daughters, through the interest of a former employer, in a good convent school. “Uncomplicated” non-support, as in the case of Mr. Laflin, is, however, rare in the experience of the social worker.

Out of a group of 51 non-supporters selected at random from the records of the Buffalo Charity Organization Society in 1917, 46 showed some serious moral fault other than non-support. Alcoholism is probably the commonest of these complications; and, as has been pointed out in the previous chapter, is probably a primary cause as well. It will be a matter of great interest to social workers whether the “non-support rate” is reduced after July 1, 1919. Grounds for hope that it may be are found in the fact that some remarkable results have been obtained by moving alcoholic non-supporters and their families from “wet” into “dry” territory.

Another vice that has a direct relation to non-support (much more direct than to desertion) is gambling. The gambler carries no signs of his vice upon his person as does the inebriate, and it is therefore hard to detect. It undoubtedly does not appear in social case records as frequently as it should. Case workers should have it in mind as a possible explanation, whenever there is a marked discrepancy between what a non-supporter earns and what he contributes to the home.

With the non-supporters rather than with the deserters should be put the group of men whose wives tire of supporting them and either put them out or leave them. These men are often not only morally, but mentally and physically, so handicapped that there is nothing to be gained by constantly pursuing and arresting them, although some wives extract the sweets of revenge from doing just this. Few courts of domestic relations are without some wives as regular patrons who pursue their husbands not for gain but for sport. For the most part, however, the wives of such men are philosophical. “I only wash for meself now,” said one of them.

These men, and the unreclaimed deserters, doubtless make up a large part of the floating population of homeless men in our large cities. How large a part it is impossible to say, for they are likely to give assumed names and deny the possession of families. Mrs. Solenberger has noted, however, that if they are asked, not “Are you married?” but a less direct question such as “Where is your wife now?” a story of unfortunate married life will often be elicited. Until we have some better method of inter-city registration of homeless men, many of these who otherwise might be identified and in suitable cases brought back, will continue to slip through our fingers.

With non-support in an incipient stage, it is sometimes possible to deal so suddenly and effectively that the man is shocked into a better realization of his responsibilities.

A young Irish rigger, with a capable wife and two pretty babies, lost his job after a quarrel with his boss rigger. He was a genial, popular chap, always “the life of the party” in his circle; and his companions encouraged him to feel that he was a much injured man. They also helped him to fill his enforced leisure with too much beer. When the family received a dispossess notice the wife’s patience was at an end, and acting on the advice of a society engaged in family case work, she put the furniture in storage and went to a shelter where she could leave her children in the daytime, while she was at work, and have them with her at night. The man was told to shift for himself until he could get together sufficient money to re-establish the home. The arrangement continued for nearly two months, during which the man lived in lodging houses, had an attack of stomach trouble, and was altogether thoroughly miserable. Every night he waited for a word with his wife on a corner that she had to pass in coming from work. Finally, when it seemed to the social worker and to the wife that his lesson had gone far enough, the home was re-established, with only a small amount of help from the society. During the five years since that time, no recurrence of the trouble has come to the attention of the agency interested.

This experiment was realized to be a ticklish one, as a man less sincerely attached to his home might have been turned into a vagabond by such treatment.

In general, it may be said that, as there is less to work on constructively with the non-supporter, court action has more often to be invoked. If the non-supporter is a “chronic,” his path must not be allowed to be too easy. “Sometimes you just have to keep pestering him” was the way one social worker put it. A Red Cross Home Service worker successfully shocked one elderly non-supporter into going to work, as described in one of the Red Cross publications:

“Well, Mr. Gage,” I said, “I see you’re not working yet.”

“No, Mrs. Cox, the coal company promised to send for me.”

“Well,” I said, “I think you’ve been pretty fair with that company.
You’ve waited on it for three months now. If I had the offer of
another job I’d feel perfectly free to take it, if I were you.”

“Yes,” he said, “I think I should.”

“All right, I have a job for you,” said I. “My husband wants a man
now at his garage, to clean automobiles. The hours are from 6 p.m.
to 6 a.m., and you’ll earn $15 a week.”

His paper fell from his hands to the floor; his jaw dropped, and he
just looked at me. Then he tried to crawl out of it and began to
make excuses.

“I haven’t time to argue with you, Mr. Gage,” I said. “I’ll keep the
job open till seven o’clock tonight and you can let me know then
whether you’ll take it or not.”

At seven he came to say he’d take the job.

If in desertion cases the interest centers very vividly about the absent man, in non-support cases the reverse is likely to be true, because he is often not very interesting per se, and because, moreover, he is always on the spot and does not have to be searched for. Familiarity certainly breeds contempt for the non-supporter. Consequently the social worker may easily fall into the danger of disregarding the human factors he presents, and either treating the family as if he did not exist or expending no further effort on him than to see that he “puts in” six months of every year in jail if possible (since the law usually secures to him the privilege of loafing the other six). It is not safe, however, to regard even the most leisurely of non-supporters as beyond the possibility of awakening. One district secretary who had thus given a man up had the experience of seeing him transformed into a steady worker after a few months of intensive effort by a first-year student in a school of social science, whose only equipment for the job was personality and enthusiasm. So remarkable are some of the reclamations that have been brought about with seemingly hopeless non-supporters that all possible measures should be tried before giving one of them up.

His Scotch ancestry, a good wife, luck, and a friend with insight and skill, pulled Aleck Gray out of that bottomless pit, the gutter. Aleck had been a bookkeeper; but he didn’t get on well with his employers, lost his job, got to drinking, and went so far downhill that his wife had to take their two children and go home to her people several hundred miles away. Aleck finally drifted into a bureau for homeless men, where the agent became interested in him and worked with him for six months, getting him job after job, which he always lost through drink or temper. He seemed incapable of taking directions or working with other people. In all that time the agent felt that he was getting no nearer the root of Aleck’s trouble, though he came back after each dismissal and doggedly took whatever was offered. Finally, the agent’s patience wore thin, and when Aleck had been more than usually dour and aggravating it went entirely to pieces. Aleck listened to his outburst apparently unmoved; then said, “Very well, if you want to know what would make me stop drinking, I’ll tell you. If I could see any ray of hope that I was on the way to getting my home and family back, I’d stop and stop quick.” On the agent’s desk there happened to be a letter from a friend who wanted a tenant farmer. He thrust it into Aleck’s hand saying, “There’s your chance if you mean what you say.” The man’s reply was to ask when he could get a train. At the end of several weeks Aleck wrote that he had not drunk a drop and was making good, which was enthusiastically confirmed by his employer. He begged the agent to intercede with his wife, and a letter went to her which brought the telegraphic reply, “Starting tomorrow.”

How they got through the first winter the agent never knew exactly. But they pulled through and the next year was easy, as country-born Aleck’s skill came back. Six years later, during which time the agent heard from them once or twice a year, Aleck was still keeping straight, the children were doing well in school, and the family, prosperous and happy, had bought a farm of their own in another state.