The Depths of the Great Depression

The Depths of the Great Depression

The Great Depression affected sixty million Americans. Some groups of the population were hit harder than the rest. In cities, factories shut down and the unemployed stood in breadlines to eat. Private charities offered some relief, but they couldn’t meet everyone’s needs. In rural areas, farmers suffered even more. Crop prices dropped and many farmers lost their farms because of debt to the banks. Across the Great Plains, the Dust Bowl made farmland unfit for any agriculture.

The country’s vulnerable populations, such as children, the elderly, and minorities, were the hardest hit.


By 1933, the federal government had not made serious efforts to help Americans in need. Religious organizations offered food and shelter. In larger cities, breadlines and soup lines were a common sight.

Many people had inadequate food. Families used any savings they had in order to buy food. Then they cashed out their insurance policies or borrowed money from family and friends. When they had no more cash, they stopped paying rent or mortgage payments. If a homeless family was lucky, they could move in with relatives, even if the relatives themselves were barely surviving. The middle class did not suffer from starvation, but they did experience hunger.

Children suffered greatly from the poverty. Many youngsters scavenged or begged for food, hoping to bring home some scraps.

A family with little food might stay in bed to save fuel and avoid burning calories. One girl told her teacher “I can’t [go home to get food]. It’s my sister’s turn to eat.”


Due to racial discrimination, African Americans suffered even more than poor white Americans. As agricultural prices dropped, farm owners cut salaries or lay off workers. Sharecroppers were evicted from the farms.

Urban African Americans also suffered. Unemployment skyrocketed as many Americans felt that available jobs belonged to whites first. In some Northern cities, African American workers were fired and their jobs given to white workers. Racial violence rose and lynching became more common across the South.


In the prosperous 1920s, American culture reflected the values of individualism, self-reliance, and material success through competition. The Great Depression brought a shift in values and cultural reflection. Movies offered Americans an escape from their problems, at least for a few hours. Many 1930s films reflected the sense of community and family values, as Americans struggled to maintain these values throughout the entire Depression.

One of the most famous novels from this period was John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which told the story of the Joad family’s migration from their Oklahoma farm to California in search of a better life. A theme of the novel was the strength of community in the face of individual adversity.

Source: The Depths of the Great Depression
P. Scott Corbett, Volker Janssen, John M. Lund, Todd Pfannestiel, Paul Vickery, and Sylvie Waskiewicz, CC BY 4.0

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