LIFE IN THE GREAT DEPRESSION
The Great Depression was a significant event in world history and was of particular importance to American history. It was a worldwide economic recession that occurred primarily during the 1930s. A recession is a term that refers to a general economic downturn resulting in high levels of unemployment and a loss in consumer spending. As a result, during the Great Depression, working-class people struggled to find work while businesses struggled to survive with an overall reduction in the sales of goods and services. Historians have identified several different causes of the events of the Great Depression, including: the stock market crash of 1929, the purchasing of stocks on margin, the wide income gap between the wealthy and the poor, the loss of consumer spending, the failure of banks to deal with the crisis, protectionism and the weather conditions of the American Midwest.
In general, most historians identify the stock market crash in October of 1929 as the start of the Great Depression in the United States. The crash saw the market lose over one third of its total value and led to several other major economic issues that furthered the recession, including: loss of consumer spending, increase in overall unemployment, and bank runs and closures. These conditions caused companies, banks and governments at the time to struggle. In an attempt to cover their own losses, companies cut their costs by laying off (or cutting the working hours) of many working-class people. As well, with the closures of many banks, people lost their savings and were left with no way to get loans or credit. As such, unemployment levels in the Great Depression sky-rocketed to as high as 25% in the United States (and higher in some other countries).
Due to this high level of unemployment, life for many people in the Great Depression was difficult. In particular, poverty among the working-class was widespread during the Great Depression and it impacted their lives in several ways including: housing, travel, and quality of life.
For example, the lack of income meant that people could not afford basic housing. Many people had their homes or farms foreclosed on by the banks. This means that because the people could not make payments the bank forced them out of their property. As such, the Great Depression caused many people to search for other ways of life and led to high levels of homelessness. For instance, a common feature of the Great Depression in the United States was the establishment of shantytowns or ‘Hoovervilles’. These shantytowns were often built on the edges of major cities, and were named after United States President Herbert Hoover. He was the President during the start and early years of the Great Depression in the United States and was blamed for many of the hardships by the working-class people. At the height of the Great Depression, there were thousands of Hoovervilles across the United States and hundreds of thousands of people made their homes in these shantytowns. As stated above, Hoovervilles were often built next to large cities, since they offered a close location to potential sources of work and soup kitchens. Because the people living in the Hoovervilles were so poor, they were forced to construct their homes in the shantytowns out of whatever materials they would easily find, including: scrap wood from old crates and other sources, cardboard, scraps of sheet metal, and any other materials they could get their hands on. As such, the homes in the shanty towns were horribly cold in the winter. Generally, each home had a small stove for heat and cooking. However, the shanty towns lacked basic modern conveniences, such as: running water, waste removal, central heating/cooling and clean living quarters. This meant that working-class families lived in cramped, cold and dirty conditions, which made everyday life difficult. As well, the poor conditions caused many people to migrate across the United States in search of work and better conditions elsewhere. However, the entire country was struggling with the recession and working-class people often struggled to find better conditions. As a result, there were also migrants camps positioned across the country at different points along main highway routes and near towns. Most of the people in these shanty towns or migrant camps relied on charity from church and government organizations. Hoovervilles existed until the end of the Great Depression when increased employment and government programs ended their necessity.
As stated above, migration was a central component of life for many struggling working-class people in the United States during the Great Depression. This was likely best seen in the events of the Dust Bowl from the American Midwest. The Dust Bowl is the term used to refer to the drought conditions that occurred across North America during the 1930s and the time period of the Great Depression. Also referred to as the Dirty Thirties, the Dust Bowl affected over 100,000,000 acres of agricultural land across Canada and the United States. In the United States, it was generally centered on farms in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. This region of the United States was a historically dry area and received a relatively low amount of rain per year. As well, the area had a thin layer of top soil that had traditionally only supported dry grasses. As such, it was not ideal for extensive farming which was one of the causes for the devastation of many farms at the time. For example, farming practices used at the time that led to the ‘over-farming’ of the region included: deep plowing and mechanization. When strong winds hit the region, it quite literally caused entire fields to be swept away across the country. The dust was lifted high into the air and caused a blackening of the sky, and many people referred to them as ‘black blizzards’. Throughout the 1930s, many wind storms destroyed the farms on the plains of Canada and the United States, and were so powerful that dust affected major cities, such as: Chicago and New York. Because of the Dust Bowl, many families were forced from their farms. Farmers had already been struggling due to small family farms being bought out and replaced by larger ones which relied more on mechanization. As such, when the drought hit the area many were unable to pay their debts and forced off of the land by the banks. In total, the Dust Bowl left over half a million Americans homeless and caused a migration of over three million people out the American Midwest. Famously, many of them relocated to the west coast in hopes of finding employment in other agricultural work, but were often met with the harsh unemployment caused by the Great Depression, which was devastating all parts of the country at that time. Entire families loaded all of their belongings onto their vehicles as they made the arduous journey out of the drought-stricken area. The Dust Bowl migration remains the largest migration in United States history, which occurred over a relatively short period of time.
Another example of migration in the Great Depression was the movement of mostly homeless young men who travelled across the United States and Canada in search of work. They made these journeys on trains. However, since they were unemployed and homeless, the men did not have the money to afford a ticket and instead boarded trains (freight and passenger) illegally by riding in freight cars or on the top of freight cars. This practice was referred to as ‘riding the rails’ and while present before the onset of the Great Depression, it became much more common during the height of the recession. Some estimates put the total number of migrants who rode the rails at over two million. The men travelled along busy rail lines in search of work and better conditions in other parts of the country. The issue became so large that the rail companies employed workers to find and remove the unwanted riders. As well, the young men often found that conditions were no better in other parts of the country and their journey often did not result in a better life for themselves.
The poverty among the working-class also impacted their day-to-day quality of life. Quality of life is defined as a measurement of happiness based upon aspects such as a person’s health, comfort and standard of living. The poverty experienced by the working-class people in the Great Depression meant that they lacked access to basic healthcare and education, and had a low standard of living. As stated above, a common feature of the Great Depression in the United States was the establishment of shantytowns or ‘Hoovervilles’. They were named after United States President Herbert Hoover. He was the President during the start and early years of the Great Depression in the United States and was blamed for many of the hardships by the working-class people. At the height of the Great Depression, there were thousands of Hoovervilles across the United States and hundreds of thousands of people made their homes in these shantytowns. In fact, the name ‘Hooverville’ was created by members of the Democratic Party who were critical of Hoover’s handling of the economic downturn. They also created other terms, which highlight the poor quality of life experienced by working-class people of the time. For example, the terms ‘Hoover Flags’ was in reference to outturned pants pockets, which represented the person lacking money. Also, a ‘Hoover Blanket’ was in reference to newspapers; since the poor used any materials they could find to stay warm in the shantytowns. Finally, a ‘Hoover Wagon’, was an automobile that attached to a horse. This was sometimes done if the owner could not afford to repair the vehicle. All of these examples, highlight the poor quality of life facing the working-class people of the United States at the time of the Great Depression.