In American history, the Great Depression ranks second as the longest and most severe crisis ever experienced only dislodged from the first position by the Civil War. The Great Depression marked a period of economic downturn that resulted in severe declines in output, acute deflation, financial insecurity and severe unemployment rates. This was a sharp contrast from the early 1920’s when the country was experiencing a period of tremendous economic growth and prosperity. The Great Depression was brought about by a number of factors that included the declining consumer demand, a natural slowdown in the cycle of business, misguided government policies, panics within the financial markets and environmental disasters among others. The effects of the Great Depression were felt on every part of the country, rural or urban, and also by everyone. From the rich to the poor, the young and the old, white Americans to African Americans, no one was spared from the devastating effects of the depression. The experiences of the millions of Americas suffering as a result of the Great Depression paint a clear picture on how severe the crisis was. Many Americans believed that it was the government’s role to alleviate them from the suffering and also offer relief aid to curb hunger and starvation. Letters sent to President Eleanor Roosevelt and other government officials together with photographs taken by photographers of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) show and tell the social experiences of many Americans during that period. In as much as the Great depression affected most sectors of the American Economy, human suffering in the form of lack of economic security, hunger, starvation and unemployment was the greatest economic effect of the Great Depression.
According to Schultz, the social experiences of the millions of Americans during the Great Depression tell all about the depression (390). The depression affected both the urban dwellers and those living in rural America. A majority of the people lost their jobs in nearly all sectors of the economy which resulted into a lack of economic security. Many people could not have a stable income or other resources necessary to support a standard of living. Cases of unemployment and job insecurity had risen to very high numbers. As a result, a majority of the people living in the cities could not be able to support their standard of living, which led to homelessness. Without the financial stability, most people could not afford to pay their rents. Cases of homelessness grew in high proportions in all the cities with people opting to build makeshift towns in abandoned lots and parks using cardboards and other materials available.
Food acquisition also became a major problem resulting in a hunger crisis. Even though the rural areas produced plenty of food, the lack of funds to support transportation prevented food from reaching the urban market places (Schultz, 391). With the hunger crisis, there came the problems of malnourishment, food riots and looting. Food riots and looting of shops had now spread to every major city. The neighborhoods inhabited mainly by African Americans suffered more than the whites due to the problem of racism that was rife during that period. The Black Americans had to rely self-help to survive during this period. The African Americans resorted to demonstrations and campaigns against the white merchants and vendors who charged more for the various consumer goods, and also the landlords that charged exorbitantly high rents. People in rural America suffered because of overproduction and the lowered revenues. With the extreme weather conditions, many crops failed thus intensifying rural poverty. Crop failures led to many of them plunge into large debts that they had acquired during the Industrial Revolution (Schultz, 391).
A number of letters sent to President Roosevelt’s administration by Americans indicated the suffering that they were in as a result of the depression. In letter 51, “We Will Have to Face the Winter Naked and Hungry” by Huntsville, addressed to Mr. Woodworth, it is evident that the author was complaining about the problem of financial security that was plaguing them. The author complains that they can barely support the standard of living. The author writes that the people of Huntsville would like to know why they are working and yet cannot get any “money or food” (McElvaine, 91). This goes on to show that the Great Depression was being felt everywhere, even among the employed. The author of the letter further rants that they are on a brink of starvation. The author writes that they have not been paid in a long time as they only received one check in three months. This goes on to show that the employers, during the Great Depression could not afford to pay workers their salaries or wages. The author further notes that they would have to face the looming winter with no clothes (naked), with no food (hungry) and with no fuel (McElvaine, 91). In addition, the author of the letter complains that they cannot access any loans or credit to buy food, and families can no longer provide for themselves. S/he ends the letter with “The kids are hungry” just to emphasize on how grave the situation had become. The letter is a cry for help from the government as the author writes “Is there any way on earth you can help us” (McElvaine, 91). From this letter, is evident that the devastating effects of depression were being felt by all Americans leading to their suffering.
A number of photographs taken by photographers working for Farm Security Administration (FSA) also indicated the social experiences of the people during the Great Depression. In the photograph Dorothy Lange, “The Migrant Worker” a mother is seen with her three children. The mother has her right hand in touching down the corner of her mouth, a posture likely to suggest that she is anxious. Her face also shows a frown and the wrinkles make her look older. Her face depicts misery, starvation and desperation. She also appears to be worried about something. The mother has also worn an untidy and sleeve-tattered dress which suggests poverty. Her image only evokes a viewer’s sympathy and compassion. Two of her children are resting their heads on their mother’s shoulders not facing the camera, a posture which probably suggests that they are seeking the comfort of their mother. The third child, being nursed by the mother, rests on her mother’s lap and arms. It can easily be concluded that the mother has done all she could be able to do to help her family and has nothing else to offer. She is probably suffering from desperation due to the lack of food and money. The mother and children represent the other pea pickers and many Americans demanding relief from the problem of starvation and unemployment.
Another photograph that shows the suffering of Americans during the Great Depression is by Walker Evans, “Bud Fields with his second wife Lily Roger Fields and their daughter, Hale County AL.” This photograph explicitly captures the miserable and exhausting conditions that many Americans were going through during the great depression. Bud Fields is seen frail-looking and bare-chested with a piece of cloth draped over his shoulders. Bud is wearing old pants, has no shoes and is sitting on a weak wooden chair. Bud’s second wife, on the other hand, is sitting on a simple bed with a white bed sheet holding their daughter. She also has no shoes. The old and worn out clothes probably suggest that poverty was rife. The walls of their humble abode are worn out and the door open revealing a peeping woman. The photograph is a clear embodiment of the plight of the millions of Americans suffering because of the devastating effects of the Great Depression.
It is a fact that the most obvious economic impact of the Great Depression in America was the human suffering. In a very short period of time the standards of living and economic outputs had dropped significantly. Unemployment rates and job insecurity soared to exceedingly higher levels ever experienced. With business slowing down, deflation rising and extreme weather events being experience, people faced the problem of economic and financial insecurity. Ultimately, the problems of homelessness due to unaffordability of their standards of living, poverty and hunger and hunger arose which meant suffering for many Americans. Americans had to change their lifestyles so as to adjust to the new way of living brought about by the Great Depression. In as much as the Great Depression period was a darker one for this nation, it brought about many changes in policies that affect us to date, and hence it was very important period of history for America.
McElvaine, Robert S. Down & Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the "forgotten Man". Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983. Print.
Schultz, Stanley. The Great Depression: A Primary Source History. Milwaukee: Gareth Stevens, 2006. Print.