American History and Poverty: Fighting The Great Depression
The Great Depression, Socioeconomic & Psychological: 1929 -'41
The life of a transient worker, whether man, woman, or child in the 1930s, was the most difficult existence for the lowest caste of American society.
Transient workers of the period included former professionals from all industry sectors and people of all races displaced by the economic downturn. The caste included white-collar and blue-collar workers, farmers, and the wives and childrenof men that died or were long-gone on the road of transient work. They walked across the nation, looking for a livelihood, without the benefit of electricity, running water, clean clothing, adequate food, heathcare, shelter, or safety. They were scorned, kicked, belittled, starved to death, ridden out of town on a rail, shot, arrested falsely, lynched and hated by everyone around them in some places.
After the Stock Market Crash of 1929, this caste of lost souls existed until the Industrial Sector of World War II stimulated the economy from 1941 forward. Newsman Tom Brokaw authored. The Greatest Generation, an effective reference full of personal testimony from individuals that lived through the Great Depression and World War II. Errol Lincoln Uys wrote Riding the Rails to illustrate the plight of younger teenagers living on freight trains for years during the Great Depression, working where they could. The youngest workers to ride the rails or walk the roads in the 1930s were probably 13 or 14 years old; in 2010 they would be over 90. If you have the chance, speak to some about the Great Depression and hear their stories.
We are not so far from all this in 2010 - a teen girl featured in news stories a few years ago lived on the NYC Subway after her parents died when she was 13. No one knew she needed help until she showed up for a college interview in slightly wrinkled clothing. Questions were asked and she received a scholarship.
By 1932, 12,000,000 were out of work in the US and about 25% of all families had no income.
Hundreds of thousands of people were evicted from apartments and houses in large cities and elewhere in many states. Farmers lost land, crops, equipment, and homes, especially in the Dust Bowl of the early 1930s. Racial differences existed:
- African-American male Unemployment was 66% during this time;
- Women as a whole often could not maintain employment, because women were laid off first, with the thought that men would support them. It didn't happen.
Ohio suffered worse than many other states. In 1932, Ohio's Unemployment was 37+%. Many city dwellers went to the few Poor Houses or moved to rural areas to grow their own food. Some ended up wandering from farm to farm, becoming migrant workers. Families split up and worked on different farms, reminiscent of the Antebellum South.
By 1933, over 40% of factory and 67% of construction workers were out of work, Cleveland and Toledo being hardest hit. Columbus, Ohio had only one Poorhouse, located on Grandview Avenue. It was a place that a limited number of people could go and raise food in the large garden and help around the house and grounds for a temporary livelihood. It was not enough. Not until the mid-1930s did labor camps that paid wages as well as to furnish meals and shelter become widespread in Ohio.
I have heard some say that the Great Depression created rugged individuals that accepted responsibility to make something of themselves despite circumstances. Inreality, obstacles and inhumane circumstances are two different genres of hardship. The Depression, in fact, caused mental disorders such as depression, physical illness, crime, intolerance, humiliation, and death. These affected transient workers as a group and the families that some left behind. These factors scourged segments of future generations to the end of the century as well, as a result of some survivors' maladaptive behaviors and skewed worldviews inflicted upon next generations.
Pundits today point out that the younger adults surviving the Recession of 2008 - 2009 will be permanently affected by the experience and will likely be spending less, economizing, putting off having children, and making similar choices for the rest of their lives. They would seem to be destined for constricted lives.
Other States Hard Hit
- A Photo Essay on the Great Depression in California
The story in dramatic pictures. Hundreds of migrant workers headed West to California.
- American Memory from the Library of Congress - Home Page
Life in the Camps - Dust Bowl Worker Caps in Texas and Oklahoma. Photographic collections. Many transients traveled back and forth along Route 66 to California.
Library of Congress/public domain video: California: 1935 - 1945
Before the Dust Bowl (early 1930s) brought attention to migratory workers in the South and their economic and social problems in America, about 2,000,000 homeless, unemployed Americans wandered coast to coast in search of work. This number increased significantly over the decade. These folks were considered low-class in every way when, in fact, many were from the formerly wealthy Northeast USA, and not the poorer sections of the South described succinctly in novels such as the classic Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.
Other people assumed that these Unemployed were robbers, tramps, or poor migratory laborers. They were not, by and large. They were educated men and women, sometimes traveling with their children - once middle-class families that had lost their homes. They were treated poorly overall, finding it even more difficult to find work, because they were homeless and mistaken for bums and thieves. They were run off, sometimes shot, sometimes dying of disease, starvation, and the cold (an analogy might be a decade of constant Hurricane Katrinas and Ikes).
To the next camp...
The Hard Knock Life
Photos coming out of Canada during the Great Depression show some of the most profound effects of the economic downturn on men in North America.
When "welfare": was not available, men could live and work in work camps, set up to minimally house men to work at improving the infrastructure of Canada and USA. However, the men were not paid - at least not in British Columbia and other parts of Canada, perhaps not in America either.
Transient workers in labor camps in the early 1930s often received simple meals and shelter in return for hard physical work. When work ran out, they hopped a freight train in dangerous accommodations and traveled to the next work project site.
Teenagers Living on Freight Trains
Labor Camps Album
- Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) Collection
274 images documenting the Federal Emergency Relief Administration program in King County, Washington, 1933-35. This was one of the first relief operations organized under Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.
The Greatest Generation and The Great Depression
Federal Transient Program
The Federal Transient Program operated from 1933 - 1935, targeting the interstate transient worker phenomenon during these years of the Great Depression.
The Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) was enacted in May, 1933 to:
- Provide adequate relief measures;
- Provide work for employable people on the Relief
- Diversify Relief programs.
One major problem, however, is that people in general disliked the wandering Unemployed so much, that few US States applied for FERA fund to help them early one. This, more wandering and antagonism occurred. White-collar workers wandered, blue-collar workers had been wandering, teachers were out of work - it was monstrous.
Preapration for WWII
Toward the middle 1930s forward to 1941, the WPA, or Works Progress Administration workers' camps achieved greater success than FERA, as did the CCC, or Civilian Conservation Corps. Additional training programs for the Unemployed were instituted for former white-collar and industrial workers that to skills that carried into WWII efforts. Even "pink collar" training was provided in the form of typing and related classes for men and wiomen. Training and the war helped to spur economic recovery.
This is a kind of theme song sung in the Shafter Farm Security Administration (FSA) government labor camp in 1940-41. The CIO, Congress of Industrial Workers, was a labor union organized in 1935 to target the plight of the transient worker. Two of the verses are below and the entire song can be found at Library of Congress - Voices of the Dust Bowl.
I'd Rather Not Be on Relief
We go around all dressed in rags
While the rest of the world goes neat,
And we have to be satisfied
With half enough to eat.
We have to live in lean-tos,
Or else we live in a tent,
For when we buy our bread and beans
There's nothing left for rent
From the east and west and north and south
Like a swarm of bees we come;
The migratory workers
Are worse off than a bum.
We go to Mr. Farmer
And ask him what he'll pay;
He says, "You gypsy workers
Can live on a buck a day."
"Still Crazy After All These Years"
Two types of behavior have been highlighted as stemming from the effects of the Depression. One is hoarding behavior and the other is unkindly called a “welfare mentality” of accessing helping systems. A portion of the general public call the former "crazy" and the latter "dishonest" and “lazy.” Both labels are unfair to the transient workers attempting to stay alive in the 1930s.
Some transients started out with cars and lost them to breakdown along the way, while others began and ended on foot. Their journey was downhill in a number of aspects.
Many transients worked from farm to farm, seasonally, but American farms could not help everyone that needed work. Post Traumatic Stress was likely reinforced by daily trauma. Malnutrition was a certainty, and then people lost teeth and hair and broke bones. The lack of basic needs and increase in other stressors probably resulted in impaired concentration, confusion, memory problems, inability to make decisions, sleep impairment, loss of balance, shaking and trembling, irritability, and other neurological symptoms. Conflict was certain to erupt in fights from time to time along the roads and in tent camps.
Depression especially affects the homeless and certainly, some transients became affected by psychosis, as do some of our homeless persons today. Some committed suicide. Some contracted polio or tuberculosis, typhoid fever, dysentery, rheumatic fever, and a range of other diseases. Some were robbed for a few possessions, some killed, some raped, some beaten to death or lynched.Some finally died in work-related accidents when they did find jobs, because of the nature of the work or because they were continually exhausted.
Depression Era Resources: Books and Film
The Homeless Transient
Joan M. Crouse, author: The Homeless Transient in the Great Depression: New York State, 1929 - 1941. New Albany, State University Press of New York; 1986.
In the film Kit Kitterage, a good example of Depression life is illustrated, with a positive spin that I hope occurred from time to time. Kit (actress Abigail Breslin) is only 10 in Cincinnati when her father loses his car dealership in the Depression and leaves to join transients looking for work. Kit and her mom sell garden vegetables, eggs, and such, take in boarders, and help people in nearby hobo camps Dad eventually returns and life resumes with the family members appreciating one another more. In the film, both a family whose father hit the road for transient work, and some thieves that became boarders at the family home were creative. Like the rest of America, some people made flour sack dresses and took in boarders, and some people robbed others during the Depression. Some were reduced to seeking handouts and standing in long bread and soup lines.
Men particularly often spent months or years on the road, working where they could until the work ran out. Eventually, some made it back, while others died. Even children went door to door looking for chores to do that could earn them a meal. Unfortunately, I see this occur today as well -- In my own county for instance, the number of children that receive public assistance or who are eligible but not collecting is pushing 40% in 2010.
The film Seabiscuit with Tobey Maguire and Jeff Bridges features another example of transient workers. The encouraging aspect is that the Maguire character, a former transient, and the horse won the Santa Anita Handicap in 1940 after both had recovered from serious leg injuries. Often a horse was shot when it injured a leg, but owners and trainers took a chance on both jockey and horse and won not only money, but also lasting friendships.
The Maguire character, Canadian jockey Red Pollard, had been a transient worker stranded in 1936 Detroit. He eventually earned a job working with Seabiscuit. Film scenes reveal transient workers as they trudge down roads and across dusty farmlands on foot, staying overnight in tent cities or sleeping on the ground, and walking through torrents of rain and mud in search of work. Carrying their possessions with them, they sold them off piecemeal or left by the side of the road what they could no longer carry.
Highlights of Transient Life
Transient workers might walk for days at a time without eating, carrying everything they owned with them. Some rode inside or on top of freight train cars. Some formed or joined hobo camps. They all had difficulty finding food, drinking water, a place to bathe, a chance to care for their clothing, healthcare, and a place to sleep. Sometimes they slept in a tent city or found a work camp that had room for them.
They might find occasional short-term work, and few might gain a career as did jockey Red Pollard. Too often, they were treated as varmints to eliminate and unjustly tagged "dirty, dishonest, and lazy." Training programs that finally became effective at the middle of the Great Depression, forward, provided many of the survivors with necessities and skills for future work.
Selected Time Line for Transient Workers
- January: US Fed says 4 - 5 million Americans unemployed.
- March 31: Davis-Bacon Act - prevailing wages (union scale) are to be paid on Federal construction contracts form this date forward.
- June: Revenue Act of 1932 - largest peacetime tax increase in US history
- July 21st, Emergency Relief and Construction Act
- Norris-La Guardia Act - protected labor unions from anti-trust suits, private damage suits, and court injunctions
- May 12: Agricultural Adjustment Act passed - USA pays farmers not to grow crops.
- May 12: Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA)
- May: Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)
- June 6: National Cooperative Employment Service Act
- June 16: National Industrial Recovery Act
- November 8: Civil Works Administration (CWA ) created by the President
- February: Civil Works Emergency Relief Act
- August 13: Li'l Abner comic strip begun by cartoonist Al Capp - satirizes the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, and America
- Federal Surplus Relief Corporation
- ApriL: Works Progress Administration (WPA)
- July: National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act)
- August: Social Security Act
- May: US Economy enters a second depression.
- July: Farm Security Agency (FSA) set up labor camps for migrant farm workers, provided medical care, and helped with job placement.
- June 25: Fair Labor Standards Act - national minimum wage law
- Supreme Court decides NLRB v. Mackay Radio & Telegraph - companies may hire permanent replacements for striking workers in an economic strike.
- The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck was released
- September 16: Selective Training and Service Act (the draft) - men between 21 and 35 years of age must register for military training
- December 7, 1941: Japanese attack Pearl Harbor.
- December 8, 1941, USA declares war on Japan and economic recovery begins.
Additional Views and Information
- US History: The Great Depression
Much occurred in US History to cause and proliferate the Great Depression. We know that at least 4,000,000 people were left to wander the country, still looking for work in 1939, 10 years after the beginning in 1929...
- WGBH American Experience - Surviving the Dust Bowl
In 1931 the rains stopped and the "black blizzards" began. Powerful dust storms carrying millions of tons of stinging, blinding black dirt swept across the Southern Plains--the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, western Kansas, and the eastern portion