America During the Great Depression: The Dust Bowl, Unemployment & Cultural Issues

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  • 0:07 Plummeting Economy
  • 1:05 Unemployment
  • 3:54 Labor Upheaval
  • 4:53 Cultural Issues
  • 6:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The Great Depression was a period of economic hardship for a majority of Americans. Learn about the devastating conditions created by the Depression and the American response to the tragedy.

A Plummeting Economy

When the Great Depression, the nation's worst economic downturn, began in October 1929, very few Americans understood the precarious nature of the situation. Between 1929 and 1932, the United States economy contracted severely. Production was cut in half and investments fell by $15 billion. By 1933, roughly half of the financial institutions in the United States were closed. Additionally, unemployment reached an unprecedented 25%, which translated to an estimated 13-15 million unemployed Americans.

Yet, for all of the suffering, there seemed to be a general calm among Americans. Historian David Kennedy suggested that Americans believed that they were the root cause of the Great Depression simply because they did not work hard enough or that they did not invest properly. But that was not the case. The onset of the Great Depression was beyond the control of most Americans. Unfortunately, they were left to suffer through the economic hardships created by the devastating period.


The unemployment caused by the Great Depression was unprecedented to most working Americans. There had always been the opportunity to work for some type of wage or allotment. Yet, the number of unemployed skyrocketed from 3 million in 1930 to roughly 13-15 million by 1933. You must remember the unemployment compensation that we have today was unheard of during the Depression years. While President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, the legislative program aimed at ending the Great Depression, offered some unemployment benefits, most Americans were left to struggle to survive.

Many of the jobless resorted to desperate business practices. Within the larger cities, men would generally wait in lines for hours at job sites hoping to be chosen to earn a single day's wage to help support their families. Other family members attempted to sell household items and various fruits, such as apples, on street corners to compensate for the lack of income. Unfortunately, most unemployed Americans were unable to find a sustainable income during the Depression.

Many had their utilities canceled and, even worse, were evicted from their apartments and homes. Families were forced to wait in bread and soup lines for a token meal. Many even turned to leaders of organized crime for sustenance. Food riots occurred throughout the nation, which witnessed families breaking into grocery stores and stealing any food that was available. Owners began securing their food markets to the level of the banks!

Meanwhile, 'Hoovervilles' sprung up throughout the urban areas. These were makeshift cardboard and scrap metal homes that families were forced to inhabit due to foreclosure and eviction. The name was derived from the general contempt of President Herbert Hoover and his failure to end the suffering.

The American experience in the rural setting may have been worse than those living in the major United States cities. Farmers in the Midwest and central United States generally suffered for a number of reasons. Hoover's protective tariffs curbed farm production and lessened the profitability of selling farmed goods overseas. Farmers also faced an overabundance of production due to the creation of the tractor. Most of their products wasted away because consumer spending was drastically reduced with the onset of the Depression.

To make matters worse, overproduction of the land in the region, coupled with a massive drought, led to an ecological disaster for farmers. This disaster was known as the 'Dust Bowl,' which witnessed massive clouds of dust and debris travel for miles and buried homes, equipment and livestock. The dust even traveled as far as Boston and New York City!

Many farmers eventually packed all their belongings into wagons and traveled across the nation toward the Pacific coast in the hope of finding new opportunities. Unfortunately, the employment prospects in states such as California were as bleak as they were in the central U.S. and Midwest. In fact, many Americans in the Pacific coastal regions faced severe unemployment. They resided in unsanitary labor camps where they typically slept on the ground and had little in the way of personal belongings. Celebrated writer John Steinbeck referred to these individuals as 'Harvest Gypsies.'

Labor Upheaval

The nation witnessed a number of labor upheavals as a result of economic conditions created by the Great Depression. In 1932, unemployed laborers from the Ford Motor Company launched a massive protest at the Ford plant in Dearborn, Michigan. The event turned violent as Ford unleashed a number of its guards, coupled with the Dearborn police, onto the disgruntled laborers. In 1934, Minneapolis Teamsters clashed with police over union-related issues.

In 1937, a labor strike broke out at the General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan over wages and unfair labor practices. Similar to the Ford incident, police and strikebreakers were called on to remove the striking workers. The strike eventually turned violent, causing a number of injuries. In the same year, the Memorial Day Massacre occurred in Chicago, Illinois. Laborers were striking against Republic Steel when police were called in to quell the incident. Unfortunately, the police fired onto the crowd after the striking masses defied an order to cease. Close to a dozen deaths were reported as a result of the violence.

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