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The Human Meaning of the Great Depression

The Great Depression left an indelible mark on the lives of the young. It inflicted a heavy psychological toll that would persist through the remainder of these children’s lives. It would influence their attitudes toward the family and especially their attitude toward economic security.

Economic hardship and loss visited all sections of the country. One-third of the Harvard class of 1911 confessed that they were hard up, on relief, or dependent on relatives. Doctors and lawyers saw their incomes fall 40 percent. But no groups suffered more from the depression than African Americans and Mexican Americans. A year after the stock market crash, 70 percent of Charleston's black population was unemployed and 75 percent of Memphis's. In Macon County, Alabama, home of Booker T. Washington's famous Tuskegee Institute, most black families lived in homes without wooden floors or windows or sewage disposal and subsisted on salt pork, hominy grits, corn bread, and molasses. Income averaged less than a dollar a day.

Conditions were also distressed in the North. In Chicago, 70 percent of all black families earned less than a $1,000 a year, far below the poverty line. In Chicago and other large northern cities, most African Americans lived in "kitchenettes." Six-room apartments, previously rented for $50 a month, were divided into six kitchenettes renting for $32 dollars a month, assuring landlords of a windfall of an extra $142 a month. Buildings that previously held 60 families now contained 300.

The depression hit Mexican American families especially hard. Mexican Americans faced serious opposition from organized labor, which resented competition from Mexican workers as unemployment rose. Bowing to union pressure, federal, state and local authorities "repatriated" more than 400,000 people of Mexican descent to prevent them from applying for relief. Since this group included many United States citizens, the deportations constituted a gross violation of civil liberties.

The economic crisis of the 1930s overwhelmed private charities and local governments. In south Texas, the Salvation Army provided a penny per person each day. In Philadelphia, private and public charities distributed $1 million a month in poor relief. But this provided families with only $1.50 a week for groceries. In 1932, total public and private relief expenditures amounted to $317 million--$26 for each of the nation's 12 1/2 million jobless.

  • Children’s writer Beverly Cleary recalls her experiences during the Great Depression. Her father lost his job in 1930.
  • Arvel Pearson of Spadra, Arkansas was among 200,000 young people who “rode the rails” in the early years of the Great Depression. He was fifteen in 1930 when he began to ride freight trains.
  • The number of young people riding the rails provoked fears about a crisis among adults. A federal inspector comments on youthful transients, ca. 1935
  • Playwright Arthur Miller describes how he spent his teenage years in Brooklyn.
  • Historian Henry F. May describes his teenage years in Berkley, California.
  • Journalist Hugh Sidey grew up in a the small rural town of Greenfield, Iowa.
  • Writer Robert J. Hastings grew up in Marion, Illinois.
  • A 13-year-old boy describes the impact of the Depression on his childhood.
  • Writer Louis Adamic describes two hungry children who came by his door in 1932.
  • A. Winnifred Golley, R.N., superintendent of the Central Michigan Children's Clinic describes a young patient. Even at the end of the 1930s, substantial number of children suffered from malnutrition and hunger.
  • Humorist Russell Baker recalls his depression childhood in Belleville, New Jersey.
  • In 1934, the U.S. Children’s Bureau reported on the impact of the Depression on the nation’s, including a family in Atlanta.
  • The Civil Rights leader Malcolm X was nine years old in 1934.
  • John Steinbeck wrote about families in the dust bowl. Across the Great Plains, nature seemed to have conspired against farmers, as top soil literally blew away during the early years of the Depression. Many families from the Dust Bowl ultimately found new homes in California’s agricultural fields.
  • Anna, like many children, had to leave school early to help support their families. Many others remained in school longer than in the past because of their inability to find a job.
  • The Depression drastically altered the experience and expectations of many young people like Dorothy.
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