Human Meaning of the Depression Children Turn to the President Government Responds to the Young Teacher Resources eXplorations Menu

The economic collapse of the 1930s was staggering in its dimensions.

Unemployment jumped from less than 3 million in 1929 to 4 million in 1930, 8 million in 1931, and 12 1/2 million in 1932. In that year, a quarter of the nation's families did not have a single employed wage earner.

Even those fortunate enough to have jobs suffered drastic pay cuts and reductions in hours. Only one company in ten failed to cut pay, and in 1932, three-quarters of all workers were on part-time schedules, averaging just 60 percent of the normal work week.

The economic collapse was terrifying in its scope and impact. By 1933 average family income had tumbled 40 percent, from $2,300 in 1929 to just $1,500 four years later.

In the Pennsylvania coal fields, three or four families crowded together in one-room shacks and lived on wild weeds. In Arkansas, families were found inhabiting caves. In Oakland, California, whole families lived in sewer pipes.

Vagrancy shot up as many families were evicted from their homes for nonpayment of rent. The Southern Pacific Railroad boasted that it threw 683,000 vagrants off its trains in 1931. Free public flophouses and missions in Los Angeles provided beds for 200,000 of the uprooted.

To save money, families neglected medical and dental care. Many families sought to cope by planting gardens, canning food, buying used bread, and using cardboard and cotton for shoe soles. Despite a steep decline in food prices, many families did without milk or meat. In New York City, milk consumption declined a million gallons a day.

President Herbert Hoover declared, "Nobody is actually starving. The hoboes are better fed than they have ever been." But in New York City in 1931, there were 20 known cases of starvation; in 1934, there were 110 deaths caused by hunger. There were so many accounts of people starving in New York that the West African nation of Cameroon sent $3.77 in relief.

The Depression had a powerful impact on family life. It forced couples to delay marriage and drove the birthrate below the replacement level for the first time in American history. The divorce rate fell, for the simple reason that many couples could not afford to maintain separate households or pay legal fees. But rates of desertion soared. By 1940, 1.5 million married women were living apart from their husbands. More than 200,000 vagrant children wandered the country as a result of the breakup of their families.


Essential Questions:

  • What was it like to grow up during the Great Depression of the 1930s?
  • How did the Depression alter family roles?
  • Did Depression hardship strengthen or weaken family bonds?
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