Large-Scale State

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Living during the Great Depression

    1. Unemployment

As businesses found it difficult to sell their goods, unemployment followed. There were no national records until the mid 1930s but official Government sources suggest that unemployment rose from 3.2% of the labour forces in 1929 – 1,200,000 people to 25.2% by 1933 which equals 12,830,000 people. The Labour Research Association claimed the real figure was nearer 17 million people.
In heavily industrialised cities the Depression was ‘so awesome as to become in the end meaningless’. Blue collar and/or non-white workers felt it hardest of all. By 1932, there were 660,000 out of work in Chicago; 1 million in New York City, 50% in Cleveland and 80% of the population of Toledo was unemployed. In the 3 years after the crash, 100,000 people lost their jobs on average every week.
All parts of the country and all occupations were affected but some to a lesser extent than others.

  • Government employees were less likely to lose their jobs than those in the private sector

  • Unemployment in the south was not as bad as in the industrial north

  • Large manufacturing businesses tried to keep on as many experienced workers as possible. They reduced the numbers of hours and days that men worked and their wage rates so they could keep more on the payroll. One subway worker in New York saw his wages fall from over $2,000 in 1930 to under $1,200 in 1932.

People generally blamed themselves for their troubles. For this reason alone, the psychological effects of mass unemployment were devastating. There are many cases of people pretending to still be in work, to go out early each morning with a briefcase and packed lunch to keep up appearances. Men who lost their jobs often felt that their status within their families and communities had diminished.

The unemployment rate amongst women tended to be lower but women were routinely paid less than men for doing the same work. When fathers lost their jobs, wives and daughters within families had no option but to take any job to prevent hunger. Women in menial jobs were likely to be laid off before men, domestic service suffered because families could no longer afford to keep people on. Discrimination against working women rose. They were viewed as taking jobs away from unemployed men.
In 1929, poor relief was provided largely by local Government and private charities. Only 8 states had any form of unemployment compensation. Charity payments were pitifully small – often as little as $2 to $3 a week for a family. In Chicago, local relief organisations gave the most desperate only $2.40 a week for an adult and $1.50 for a child. A dozen eggs cost 28c, a loaf of bread 26c, and a pound of bacon 22c. Payments were almost non-existent in the south. Even after unemployment became widespread, many relief agencies treated the poor as if their plight was their own fault. Before receiving aid, relief applicants were often required to submit to humiliating interviews. In many places relief was in the form of food orders to purchase groceries. These were deeply resented by people. Frequently little or no money was provided to help with rent, clothing or medical care.

    1. The life of the poor

Thousands of working class families have been thrown out of their homes because they can no longer pay the rent. In the streets of every large city workers are dropping, dying and dead from starvation and exposure. Every newspaper reports suicides of these workers, driven to desperation by unemployment and starvation.
Source: Part of the evidence given to a committee of Congress in 1931 by William Foster, leader of the American Communist Party

Those without work therefore faced great hardship. Those lucky enough to keep their jobs suffered crippling wage cuts. Because they had no money to buy goods, they could not help the economy to revive.

Most workers were completely dependent upon their wages. The strain on family life was intense. Almost everyone felt insecure. The employed feared unemployment, those without work worried about what would become of them. If people could not keep up their mortgage payments or find the money for the rent, they lost their homes. Many women found it hard to keep on going with their husbands moping around at home.
People went hungry in one of the richest food producing countries in the world. Farm prices were so low that food could not be profitably harvested. In Montana wheat was left to rot in the fields. Meat prices were not sufficient to warrant transporting animals to market. In Oregon sheep were slaughtered and left to buzzards. But in cities breadlines formed everywhere. The poor scavenged for food in dustbins. In Chicago, women scoured rubbish tips for anything edible. Soup kitchens were opened to feed the starving. Even Al Capone, the notorious Chicago gangster opened one for the needy of Chicago. In remote areas the problem of feeding the family was just as great, but there were no soup kitchens. A survey found that half of all school children were insufficiently fed. With inadequate diets came disease. Incidents of dysentery, TB and typhoid increased.

So many resorted to selling bruised apples that had fallen from trees on street corners that the Bureau of Census classified apple sellers as employed. Hoover explained this by stating, “Many persons left their jobs for the more profitable one of selling apples.” However, such men were living on their wits and were dependent on soup kitchens, after having to sell their family homes and possessions or leave their rented accommodation and concentrate on finding food to eat. In Philadelphia one official reported that hundreds of families were ‘reduced for actual subsistence to something of the status of a stray cat prowling for food’.

Source: From the American Earthquake, A Documentary of the 20s and 30s by Edmund Wilson (1958)
Another widow, who used to do housework and laundry but who was finally left without any work, 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 would not be able to see the maggots; but it sometimes made the boy sick to look at this offal and smell it he could not bring himself to eat.

Many unemployed people became ‘hoboes’ – homeless wanderers seeking any kind of work. By 1932 it was estimated that there were 1 to 2 million desperate unemployed people taking to wandering around the country, hitching rides or hopping onto freight trains or living in shanty towns on the outskirts of towns and cities. Hoboes were given a hard time. Southern Pacific Railroad said it threw 683,000 hoboes off their trains. The state of California posted guards to turn hoboes away from its borders. In Atlanta, Georgia, hoboes were forced to work in chain gangs.

The drowning man in the river answered the man on the bridge:

‘I don’t want to die, I’ll lose my job in the moulding room of the Malleable Iron and Castings Works.

And the living man on the bridge hotfooted to the moulding room foreman of the Malleable Iron and Castings Works and got a short answer:

‘You’re ten minutes late. The man who pushed that fellow off the bridge is already on the job.’

From section 37 of ‘The People, Yes’ published by the poet Carl Sandburg in 1936
uicide rates soared from 14 per 10,000 in 1929 to 17.4 in 1932. Apparently, so many people jumped off the Hanrattan Bridge in Memphis that the local press carried a list of clergymen prepared to counsel would-be suicides – until one of the clergymen threw himself off the bridge.
With no hope of employment, young people postponed marriage, or if they did marry did not have children. The number of marriages fell from 1.23 million in 1929 to 982,000 in 1932. There was a fall in the birth rate also.
The Bonus Army

In 1932, 20,000 unemployed men who had served in the armed services in the First World War converged on Washington to demand assistance. For over a month many of them camped on the centre of the city not far from the White House. Some of the unemployed hoped to meet the President, but instead as tensions rose a policeman shot two men dead. Fearful of further trouble, Hoover ordered 700 soldiers to clear the unarmed ex-servicemen out and destroy their camp. Millions of Americans were shocked by the violence that was used, and particularly the death of an 11-week-old boy fatally injured by tear gas.

She walked into the local store, asked for a 24-pound sack of flour, gave it to her little boy to take it outside, then filled a sack of sugar and said to the store-keeper, ‘Well, I’ll see you in ninety days. I have to feed some children. I’ll pay you, don’t worry’. And when he objected, she pulled out her pistol (which, as a midwife travelling alone through the hills, she had a permit to carry) and said ‘Martin, if you try to take this grub away from me, God knows that if they electrocute me for it tomorrow, I’ll shoot you six times a minute’.
Source: From A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn (1980)

    1. The middle class

Although middle income Americans were in a better financial position, they were often less prepared psychologically for the Depression. Many felt deep shame about even modest economic setbacks. They stopped going to churches and clubs, shunned their former friends, and turned down social invitations. They were less likely to live surrounded by extended families to which they could turn for emotional and material support. Even when their immediate financial support was not dire, many felt that their world was falling apart.
Even the very wealthy suffered:

  • Jewellers Marcus and Company cut the price of emerald rings from $50,000 to $37,500

  • Pullman reduced rates on upper berths by 20% on their luxury railroad cars

  • New York Yankee star Babe Ruth had to accept a salary cut

  • Managers of the Empire State Building ended the pretext that all offices were rented by stopping lifts running from the 47th to 67th floors.

    1. Ethnic minorities

Contraction of the economy led to a rise in racial and ethnic discrimination. Some employers and white workers insisted that white citizens be given preference in employment.

      • On Californian fruit farms it became standard practice to employ white people before Mexicans who traditionally undertook the work

      • Chinese immigrants in New York found problems in their main line of work – laundry

      • Blacks suffered increased violent attacks. They were laid off before whites. In April 1930 the number of blacks out of work was 4 to 6 times higher than the number of whites. Black workers tended to be concentrated in occupations that were affected by the economic downturn: unskilled manufacturing, construction, mining, lumber and domestic labour. Black rural workers found their migratory path to employment in northern cities was now generally closed. The wage cuts during the Depression drove many Black families to the brink of starvation.

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