Beyond Mutual Aid: Toward the Poor Organizing the Poor

In the early months of the Great Depression, Herbert Hoover was fond of saying that “prosperity is just around the corner.” At the same time, millions were losing their jobs, facing utility shut offs and evictions, moving into tent encampments and shantytowns, and standing in bread lines that stretched for hours. In 1929 there was no public social safety net or welfare programs, not even as we know them in their fractured form today. Instead, the state’s response was to attend to Wall Street and direct the poor and newly-dispossessed toward a patchwork and intolerant system of private relief agencies and religious aid organizations. Denying the government had any larger responsibility for its people, Hoover would later explain that “the basis of successful relief in national distress is to mobilize…agencies of relief help in the community. This has been the American way.”

Abandoned and left to fend for themselves from the scraps of a system of charity, many among the ranks of the poor took survival into their own hands. They marched in unprecedented numbers against hunger and unemployment, led daring wildcat strikes and other militant actions from industrial plants in the Midwest to tenant farms in the Delta, and created mass organizations like the Unemployed Councils, formed through the Communist Party. These multi-racial Councils developed in cities across the country around relief for unemployed workers, preventing or reversing thousands of evictions and gas and electricity shutoffs, among other activities. They worked locally to address their immediate, overflowing needs, but in the early years of the Great Depression they also became a political home for tens of thousands of poor people: central to the Councils’ vision was political education, leadership development, and larger forms of collective agitation and struggle.

Unemployed Councils
Unemployed Councils protest during the Great Depression.

Just a few years later, the Social Security Act and other major government programs were created. This history is often told crediting Franklin D. Roosevelt and a handful of supposedly transcendent politicians, but it was the collective efforts of masses of people that forced the government into action. Roosevelt himself did not have dreams of fundamental change for the poor and, by the end of the 1930s, the New Deal became a constrained political project that saved American capitalism from itself. The significant public concessions that it did make were instead the result of poor people taking action together.

The New Deal became a constrained political project that saved American capitalism from itself. The significant public concessions that it did make were instead the result of poor people taking action together.


Today, we confront another economic collapse amid a vicious pandemic. In the last six weeks, we’ve witnessed the accelerated redistribution of wealth from the poor to the most rich. The government has funneled trillions of dollars into Wall Street, while the recent stimulus packages still don’t provide tens of millions of people with paid sick leave, sustained financial support, healthcare and housing protections, and more. These millions are now lining up behind the 140 million who were already poor or one emergency away from poverty.

This multitude must protect themselves and their communities in the shadow of a government that has abandoned them in ways that strikingly echo the Hoover administration. Within this context, many have turned to the idea of mutual aid. Community groups and ad-hoc neighborhood associations are springing up to coordinate the sharing of food and supplies; nonprofits are funneling their shrinking budgets toward direct service projects; online organizations are offering virtual trainings; even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has shared a “how-to” guide on the subject.

The lengths to which people are laboring to take care of one another during this crisis is inspiring and necessary. All across the country, we are seeing the truth: that poor and dispossessed people, as well as all those now awakened to a new kind of precarity, will not wait to be saved, but will, as always, take lifesaving action born out of necessity. As long as this crisis rages, there will be people who do the necessary work of triage, of meeting immediate needs in the present, and this work is critical. But in the face of a brutal and increasingly volatile system, mutual aid as it is generally being conceived may be a bandaid, rather than a strategy to win what every person needs in order to live.

[Read more from Kairos Center]