My Mother grew up in the rugged bottom-land of North East Texas, the oldest of several children. She told tales of growing up dirt poor during the Great Depression and would teasingly say, “We were po, we didn’t have enough money to be poor.” She talked about getting clothes from The Relief and my Daddy working for the Conservation Corps.
She was just 5 years old when the Great Depression hit and the impact on her life was evident until her death a few years back. I would joke when seeing the half dozen butter tubs in the refrigerator with various left-overs and her dishwasher full of TV dinner trays and plasticware. She threw nothing away.
Residuals from a childhood of lack could be found throughout the house in a cigar box of broken gadgets or a metal coffee can stuffed with small pieces of yarn. Every bit and bobble was saved in case she “needed it later.” It was from her that I learned that a plastic milk jug, cut just right, made a slop bucket with a handle and an oatmeal box made the perfect doll cradle.
When I researched for my book, A Love to Call My Own, I had to research about the Great Depression to better understand the times.
The catalyst for The Great Depression was Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929 under President Hoover. After decades of prosperity, the United States was thrown into despair when the stock market plummeted. With no hope of recovery, panic ensued as everyone tried to sell their stock, but no one was buying. The pathway to wealth suddenly became the trail to bankruptcy.
Then the dominoes started to fall. Banks that had invested large portions of their clients' savings in the stock market were forced to close. As a few banks closed, people rushed to withdraw their money causing more banks to close. With banks closed, anyone who had not withdrawn their money became bankrupt.
Businesses that lost capital in either the Stock Market Crash or the bank closures, started cutting back on workers' hours or wages. In turn, consumers began to curb their spending and refrained from purchasing luxury goods.
This lack of consumer spending caused additional businesses to cut back wages or to lay off workers. Some businesses couldn't stay open even with these measures and soon closed their doors, leaving all their workers unemployed.
Unemployment grew incredibly high to 24.9%—meaning that one person out of four was out of work.
Farmers were usually safe from monetary fluctuations because they could feed themselves. Unfortunately, during the Great Depression, the Great Plains which for years had been over grazed, was hit hard by drought causing horrendous dust storms. This created what is now known as the Dust Bowl.
The dust storms destroyed everything in their paths including crops. Small farmers were hit especially hard. Many were already in debt, having borrowed money for seed which they would pay back when their crops came in. When the dust storms damaged the crops, they could no longer feed their family nor not pay back the debt. Banks foreclosed causing the farmer's family to be both homeless and unemployed.
In the 1932 election, President Roosevelt won by a landslide and began implementing economic recovery programs called the New Deal. One of those programs was the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
These work-relief programs employed more than 8.5 million people. For an average salary of $41.57 a month, These employees built bridges, roads, public buildings, public parks and airports, many of which are still in use today.
The work relief program was more expensive than direct relief payments, but worth the added cost, Harry Hopkins, an enthusiastic ex-social worker who had come from modest means, was over the program and believed. “Give a man a dole and you save his body and destroy his spirit. Give him a job and you save both body and spirit.”
Other jobs created and paid for through the WPA were sewing, bookbinding, caring for the elderly, school lunch programs, nursery school, and recreational work.
The WPA was not able to employ everyone leaving five million to seek assistance from state relief programs, which provided families with $10 per week.
The WPA spend more than $11 million in employment relief before it was canceled in 1943. In the end, it wasn't the New Deal programs that ended the Great Depression, but instead manufacturing required to support the efforts of WWII.
There are still measures that were put in place during the Great Depression to ensure history doesn’t totally repeat itself including various financial programs as well as soil conservation.