The Grapes of Wrath: Okies, Sharecroppers & Migrant Workers

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will examine the roles of sharecropper, migrant worker, and 'Okie' that the Joad family plays in John Steinbeck's ''The Grapes of Wrath'' as they struggle to survive during the Great Depression.

The Joads

What are some different roles you have played in your life? In John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family has no choice but to explore their options as the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression force them to sell their land.

They begin their journey as sharecroppers, but after being driven off their land, they become migrant workers. When they arrive in California, they are called 'Okies' by the native California workers. Let's examine the roles of sharecropper, migrant worker, and 'Okie' from this novel.


At the beginning of the novel, the Joad family are sharecroppers on the land they used to own in Oklahoma. Sharecroppers are people who work the land for the owner in exchange for a share of the crops.

During the Dust Bowl, the Joads were forced to sell their land. For a time, the owner allowed them to continue to live there. However, the bank wanted more. The sharecroppers asked, ''What do you want us to do? We can't take less share of the crop--we're half-starved now. The kids are hungry all the time. We got no clothes, torn an' ragged.''

When the owners realized that they could replace the sharecroppers with a tractor, the Joads were kicked off the farm.

Migrant Workers

After losing their land, the Joads became migrant workers like many other families in the same situation. Migrant workers are seasonal workers that travel where the work is. As sharecroppers, they had close ties to other tenants on the farm, but things are different as migrant workers.

The narrator explains, ''The families, which had been units of which the boundaries were a house at night, a farm by day, changed their boundaries. In the long hot light, they were silent in the cars moving slowly westward; but at night they integrated with any group they found.'


When the Joads arrive in California, things aren't what they had hoped they would be. In order to drive down the cost of labor, California farm owners heavily advertised the need for workers. The Joads soon discover that native Californians who wanted the jobs were not happy to see them.

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