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THE SOCIAL IMPACT OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION

Many Americans felt a huge sense of uprootedness in the 1930s. By late 1932 virtually all sectors of American society were affected in some way by the Depression. Both professional men and common laborers lost their jobs. It was not uncommon during the Depression for two people to share a job, or for a man who had lost his job to continue to put his suit on every morning and pretend to go to work, somehow averting the shame he felt for being unemployed. Women and minorities were often the first to lose their jobs, although women in certain “female” occupations (such as domestic work) were almost never uprooted by men. “Respectable” white men were willing to take jobs that had been previously seen as fit only for minorities. Many behaviors of the 1920s, such as buying on credit, were forgotten practices by 1932.

Many private agencies established soup kitchens and emergency shelters in the early 1930s, but many more were needed. Many couples postponed marriage and having children. Those with nowhere in live in cities often ended up in Hoovervilles. which were settlements of shacks (made from scrap metal or lumber) usually located on the outskirts of cities. Many unemployed young people, both men and women, took to the road in the 1930s, often traveling in empty railroad cars.

The greatest human suffering of the Depression era might have existed in the Dust Bowl. For most of the decade, massive dust storms plagued the residents of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and Texas; farm production in this area fell drastically for much of the decade. A severe drought was the major cause of the dust storms, although poor farming practices (stripping the soil of any topsoil) also contributed to them. By decade’s end nearly 60 percent of all farms in the Dust Bowl were cither ruined or abandoned. Many Dust Bowlers traveled to California to get agricultural jobs there, and discovered that if an entire family picked grapes from sunup to sundown, it might barely scrape by. (John Steinbeck’s book The Grapes of Wrath, as well as the film version, are highly recommended for further study of Dust Bowlers and their move to California, as are the recordings of Woody Guthrie entitled “Dust Bowl Ballads” and the Depression-era photos taken by Dorothea Lange.)

The behavior and attitudes of many who lived through the Depression changed forever. Many would never in their lives buy anything on credit; there are countless stories of Depression-era families who insisted on paying for everything, including automobiles, with cash. Depression-era shortages led many in later life to be almost compulsive “savers” of everything and anything imaginable. Many who lived through the Depression and had children in the 1950s were determined to given their kids all that they had been deprived of in the 1930s.

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