What were the effects of the Depression on the American people?


... the most serious economic depression the world had ever seen...

Ben Walsh, GCSE Modern World History (2004)

commenting on the different theories about why the USA fell into depression.


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To study this properly, you will need to find out the usual information about the terrible effects of the Depression.


However, you may be interested in some evidence that suggest that the disaster was not as bad as it is often painted.









Overview from History Learning site  

Dummies: A good page of interesting ideas from the book History for Dummies

A photo essay - excellent pictures     



America in the 1930s



Effects: includes effects on other countries



Schoolhistory spidergrams on:

The govt and the Depression

Effects of the Depression



Overview of the 1920s and 1930s

Simple account

Good study including Hoover's response



- Giles Hill on the Great Depression



The Great Depression - overview

Stories from the Depression - excellent    


1The Depression was terrible

These are the 'facts' of the Depression as you will see them presented in most textbooks.

(Some Farmers Were Handling Hardship Very Badly)

1.  Statistics:

●   In 1931, 238 people were admitted to hospital suffering from starvation.  

●   International trade slumped from $10bn in 1929 to only $3 bn in 1932.

●   5000 banks went bankrupt 1929-1932, including the Bank of America.

●   In 1932 a quarter of a million Americans had their homes repossessed, and a fifth of all farmers lost their farms.

●   In 1932, 20,000 companies went out of business.

●   By 1933:

- Industrial production had fallen by 40%

- Prices had fallen 50%

- Wages had fallen by 60%

- Share prices had fallen by 80%

- 5000 more banks went bankrupt.

- 25% of Americans were unemployed.

2.  Farmers:

●   The depression was particularly fierce in agriculture, and things were made worse by the ‘dust bowl’ caused by over-farming.  

●   Many farmers could not afford their mortgage repayments and many ‘Okies’ (from Oklahoma) and ‘Arkies’ (from Arkansas) had to abandon their farms and go fruit-picking in California (the famous novel The Grapes of Wrath is about this).

3.  Welfare and Despair:

●   America and no Welfare State.   Many unemployed Americans were reduced to picking over rubbish dumps or begging (cf the song ‘Buddy, can you spare a dime’).  

●   SOME towns set up soup kitchens and groups like the Salvation Army (and even Al Capone) organised charity hand-outs – hence the term ‘on the breadline’.  

●   In the land of opportunity this was seen as a terrible failure, and 23,000 people committed suicide in 1932 alone.

4.  Hobos and Hoovervilles:

●   Homeless people went to live in shanty towns called ‘Hoovervilles’ (as an insult to President Hoover).   ‘Hobos’ travelled round looking for jobs, usually riding illegally on freight trucks.

5.  Hatred of Hoover:

●   The government did not know how to stop the Depression, and Hoover believed in ‘rugged individualism’, and stuck to the idea that it was not the government’s job to interfere with business.

●   In 1930 the Smoot-Hawley Act raised tariffs, in 1931 the Fed raised interest rates, and in 1932 the government raised taxes - all three simply made the Depression much worse.

●   Most Americans came to blame the President for the Depression.   Shanty towns were called ‘Hoovervilles’, but there was also ‘Hoover leather’ (cardboard soles for shoes) and ‘Hoover blankets’ (newspapers).   ‘In Hoover we trusted, but now we are busted’.

6.  Violence:

●   There were many protest marches and riots.   When banks tried to re-possess some farms, local farmer banded together and drove them off with pitch-forks.  

7.  Bonus Army:

●   In 1932, 20,000 unemployed ex-soldiers set up a Hooverville in Washington to ask for their war pension (‘bonus’) to be paid early; Hoover set the army on them, who drive them away with guns and tear-gas.











































Source A

Last summer, in the hot weather, when the smell was sickening and the flies were thick, there were 100 people a day coming to the dumps.   A widow, who used to do housework and laundry, but now had no work at all, fed herself and her 14-year-old son on garbage.   before she picked up the meat she would always take off her glasses so that she couldn't see the maggots.

New Republic magazine (1933)












Source B

There is not an unemployed man in the country that hasn't contributed to the wealth of every millionaire in America.   The working classes didn't bring this on, it was the big boys...

We've got more wheat, more food, more cotton, more money in the banks, more everything in the world than any other nation that ever lived ever had, yet we are starving to death.   We are the first nation in the history of the world to go to the poorhouse in an automobile.

Will Rodgers (1931)


2.  Or was it?


1.  Hoover did not do nothing:

●   In 1930 he cut taxes and the Committee for Unemployment Relief was formed.

●   In 1931 he gave $4000 million  to state governments to set up schemes to provide work (e.g. the Hoover Dam).   The Davis-Bacon Act encouraged firms to maintain high wages by requiring "prevailing" (union) wages to be paid on federal construction contracts.

●   In 1932 he passed the Emergency Relief Act ($300 million to provide unemployment pay) and the Reconstruction Act (which set up the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to provide $1500 million of loans to help businessmen).   The Norris-La Guardia Act protected trade unions and the Glass-Steagall Act helped banks by making it easier for them to borrow from the federal reserve.

●   All this is usually either not mentioned at all, or dismissed as ‘too little, too late’.   In fact, it was exactly what the ‘New Deal’ was later to copy.

2.  Not all industries or places suffered:

●   The Depression was worst in farming, and in the old industries (80% of steel workers were unemployed in Toledo.   'New' industries (such as films, electronics and airplanes) continued to expand and pay high wages.

●   Many people who managed to keep their jobs were BETTER off, because prices were much lower.  

●   Certain areas of the economy thrived.   The Empire State Building was finished in 1931, and the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge was started in 1932