The Great Depression: Fear Took Hold as an Economy Came Apart
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THE MAKING OF A NATION – a program in Special English by the Voice of America.
The stock market crash of 1929 marked the beginning of the worst economic crisis in American history. Millions of people lost their jobs. Thousands lost their homes. During the next several years, a large part of the richest nation on earth learned what it meant to be poor.
Hard times found their way into every area, group, and job. Workers struggled as factories closed. Farmers, hit with falling prices and natural disasters, were forced to give up their farms. Businessmen lost their stores and sometimes their homes. It was a severe economic crisis -- a depression.
Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck, one of America's greatest writers, described the depression this way: "It was a terrible, troubled time. I can't think of any ten years in history when so much happened in so many directions. Violent change took place. Our country was shaped, our lives changed, our government rebuilt." Said John Steinbeck: "When the stock market fell, the factories, mines, and steelworks closed. And then no one could buy anything. Not even food."
An unemployed auto worker in the manufacturing city of Detroit described the situation this way:
"Before daylight, we were on the way to the Chevrolet factory to look for work. The police were already there, waving us away from the office. They were saying, 'Nothing doing! No jobs! No jobs!' So now we were walking slowly through the falling snow to the employment office for the Dodge auto company. A big, well-fed man in a heavy overcoat stood at the door. 'No! No!' he said. There was no work."
One Texas farmer lost his farm and moved his family to California to look for work. "We can't send the children to school," he said, "because they have no clothes."
The economic crisis began with the stock market crash in October, 1929. For the first year, the economy fell very slowly. But it dropped sharply in 1931 and 1932. And by the end of 1932, the economy collapsed almost completely.
The gross national product is the total of all goods and services produced. During the three years following the stock market crash, the American gross national product dropped by almost half. The wealth of the average American dropped to a level lower than it had been twenty-five years earlier.
All the gains of the 1920s were washed away.
Unemployment rose sharply. The number of workers looking for a job jumped from three percent to more than twenty-five percent in just four years. One of every three or four workers was looking for a job in 1932.
Those employment numbers did not include farmers. The men and women who grew the nation's food suffered terribly during the Great Depression.
This was especially true in the southwestern states of Oklahoma and Texas. Farmers there were losing money because of falling prices for their crops. Then natural disaster struck. Year after year, little or no rain fell. The ground dried up. And then the wind blew away the earth in huge clouds of dust.
"All that dust made some of the farmers leave," one Oklahoma farmer remembered later. "But my family stayed. We fought to live. Despite all the dust and the wind, we were planting seeds. But we got no crops. We had five crop failures in five years."
Falling production. Rising unemployment. Men begging in the streets. But there was more to the Great Depression. At that time, the federal government did not guarantee the money that people put in banks. When people could not repay loans, banks began to close.
In 1929, six hundred fifty-nine banks with total holdings of two hundred million dollars went out of business. The next year, two times that number failed. And the year after that, almost twice that number of banks went out of business. Millions of persons lost all their savings. They had no money left.
The depression caused serious public health problems. Hospitals across the country were filled with sick people whose main illness was a lack of food. The health department in New York City found that one of every five of the city's children did not get enough food. Ninety-nine percent of the children attending a school in a coal-mining area reportedly were underweight. In some places, people died of hunger.
The quality of housing also fell. Families were forced to crowd into small houses or apartments to share costs. Many people had no homes at all. They slept on public streets, buses, or trains. One official in Chicago reported in 1931 that several hundred women without homes were sleeping in city parks. In a number of cities, people without homes built their houses from whatever materials they could find. They used empty boxes or pieces of metal to build shelters in open areas.
People called these areas of little temporary houses "Hoovervilles." They blamed President Hoover for their situation. So, too, did the men forced to sleep in public parks at night. They covered themselves with pieces of paper. And they called the paper "Hoover blankets." People without money in their pants called their empty pockets "Hoover flags."
People blamed President Hoover because they thought he was not doing enough to help them. Hoover did take several actions to try to improve the economy. But he resisted proposals for the federal government to provide aid in a major way. And he refused to let the government spend more money than it earned.
Hoover told the nation: "Economic depression cannot be cured by legislative action or executive decision."
Many conservative Americans agreed with him. But not the millions of Americans who were hungry and tired of looking for a job. They accused Hoover of not caring about the common citizen. One congressman from Alabama said: "In the White House, we have a man more interested in the money of the rich than in the stomachs of the poor."
On and on the Great Depression continued. Of course, some Americans were lucky. They kept their jobs. And they had enough money to enjoy the lower prices of most goods. Many people shared their earnings with friends in need.
"We joined our money when we had some," remembered John Steinbeck. "It seems strange to say that we rarely had a job," Steinbeck wrote years later. "There just weren't any jobs. But we didn't have to steal much. Farmers and fruit growers in the nearby countryside could not sell their crops. They gave us all the food and fruit we could carry home.
Other Americans reacted to the crisis by leading protests against the economic policies of the Hoover administration. In 1932, a large group of former soldiers gathered in Washington to demand help. More than eight-thousand of them built the nation's largest Hooverville near the White House. Federal troops finally removed them by force and burned their little shelters.
Next week, we will look at how the Great Depression of the 1930s affected other countries.
You have been listening to THE MAKING OF A NATION -- a program in Special English by the Voice of America. Your narrators have been Harry Monroe and Warren Scheer. Our program was written by David Jarmul. The Voice of America invites you to listen again next week to THE MAKING OF A NATION.