The Great Depression
The Great Depression, the period between the stock market crash of October 1929 and the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, was the worst economic crisis in American history. During that time, millions of Americans lost their jobs and sank into poverty. By 1932, the United States was solidly in the midst of the Great Depression, Industrial output fell to about half that of 1929, resulting in massive layoffs. About 12-15 million Americans were unemployed at the peak of the crisis. Wages had fallen by almost one third. More than 5,000 banks closed their doors.
Urban Living Conditions
The depression hit many cities very hard. City governments, religious groups, and charitable organizations tried to provide direct relief to the needy, and neighbors relied on each other for help. Men and women waited in breadlines for bowls of soup and pieces of bread. Hunger was so widespread that one out of every five children in New York City suffered from malnutrition. Homelessness was also a serious problem in the cities. Some people lived in shantytowns, which were collections of makeshift shelters built out of packing boxes, scrap lumber, and other pieces of junk. They used newspapers as blankets.
Popular Culture in the 1930s
Despite the hard times, Americans still sought entertainment. Many people played at home, listened to the radio, and attended movies. Radio shows that featured heroes who triumphed over evil, and gangster films, zany comedies, musicals, and cartoons all allowed people to forget their troubles, if only briefly. New forms of popular literature also arose during the decade, such as comic books featuring superheroes. Popular books of the period also offered a chance to escape. Many Americans managed to hold onto their automobiles, and millions of Americans took to the road for vacations.
The New Deal
In the presidential elections of 1932, voters overwhelming supported Democratic candidate Franklin Roosevelt. He received 23 million popular votes in comparison to incumbent Herbert Hoover’s 16 million popular votes. The Democrats also won decisive victories in both houses of Congress. Roosevelt was thus poised to initiate his New Deal program, which involved a series of relief and recovery measures aimed at helping the American people and stimulating the economy.
Roosevelt’s administration increased confidence in the banking system, provided direct relief for the poor and hungry and employed jobless men and women, among other significant actions. The New Deal attempted to correct those inequalities that had such adverse affects on minorities. For instance, the Public Works Administration instituted the first nondiscrimination and quota clauses for hiring. Thus, Roosevelt became very popular with minority and African-American voters, who felt that at last someone in government cared about their special needs.
African Americans and the Depression
African Americans faced especially difficult times as economic troubles added to the problems they already experienced with racial discrimination. African-American workers were often the first to be laid off. In northern cities, as much as 25 to 40 percent of African Americans were out of work by 1933, and in southern cities, unemployment rates rose as high as 75 percent. When African Americans were employed through federal job programs, many received lower wages than did their white counterparts. African Americans also were excluded from certain New Deal programs. Only one in four African Americans received any public aid during the Depression. If they did, they often received significantly lower payments than white families did. Because of a lack of political organization and strength, African Americans had little means to influence and improve this state of public affairs. Throughout the depression, the majority of African Americans remained poor and uneducated.
Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 14, Kay Boyle – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.