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Great Depression Poverty

Herbert Hoover

Great Depression Poverty: Herbert Hoover was the 31st American President who served in office from March 4, 1929 to March 4, 1933. One of the important events during his presidency was the Great Depression and the poverty levels of American citizens. This article provides answers to the question "What is poverty?".

Definition and Summary of the Great Depression Poverty
Summary and definition:
During the Great Depression massive numbers of Americans lived in poverty. The people who lived in poverty had been denied an income sufficient to meet their basic needs.

During the Great Depression over 12 million Americans became unemployed and, at its peak, over 12,000 people were being made unemployed every single day. And there were few welfare or relief systems before 1935. People are defined as living in poverty when they are denied an income sufficient for their basic needs. 'Basic Needs' are defined as food, water, clothing and shelter. Mass unemployment, debt and homelessness all were featured in Great Depression Poverty. 

What was the cause of Great Depression Poverty? The cause of Great Depression Poverty included mass unemployment, high levels of debt, loss of savings as a result of the Wall Street Crash, bankruptcies and foreclosures and homelessness

What was the Great Depression Poverty Line? The definition of the Great Depression Poverty Line was when the level of deprivation became heavily out of line with what were considered the general living standards of Americans. A reasonable average weekly wage of $50 fell to $22.

What was the Great Depression Poverty Cycle? The Great Depression Poverty cycle was the apparently endless continuation of poverty triggered by a chain of events such as unemployment - homelessness - inadequate housing - hunger - family break-up - exclusion from from ordinary living patterns and activities - bad health and indications of a bleak future.

Facts about Great Depression Poverty
The following fact sheet contains interesting facts and information on Great Depression Poverty.

During the 1930s people fell into the Poverty trap. The Poverty Trap can be defined as a spiraling mechanism that forces people to remain poor and is so binding that poor people are prevented from taking an acceptable means of escape.

The Great Depression began with the 1929 Wall Street Crash. Between 3 to 4 million Middle Class Americans (about 10% of US households) had invested in the stock market taking out margin loans and using their life savings. Many other Americans had purchased expensive products, like automobiles, on easy credit terms. These factors had resulted in high levels of debt.

There was an uneven distribution of income  and lower class, poor Americans (about 60% of the population) had been suffering even before the Great Depression hit America.

When the Great Depression began in 1929, there were already nearly 18 million elderly and disabled people and single mothers with children who were already living at a basic subsistence level in America. Local state governments and charities provided basic assistance to people in need.

There were many small, unregulated banks in America in the 1920s who had also invested their depositors money in the stock market. When the crash came they were unable to respond to the withdrawal requests of their customers. There were runs on the banks. Over 3000 banks went bankrupt. The entire American banking system reached the brink of collapse. When a bank collapsed its customers lost all of their savings - and there was nothing they could do about it.

Over 20,000 companies went bankrupt and closed. Lack of orders from these businesses resulted in more closures and unemployment. Firms that were able to survive made drastic pay cuts to keep companies afloat.

Industrial production dropped by 45% between 1929 and 1932. There was a massive decline in American exports to Europe. Exports fell from $2,341 million in 1929 to $784 million in 1932.

People were laid off work and their were no opportunities for new employment. And there were few government welfare systems before 1935.

There was no government financed "safety net" of welfare or relief programs to keep Americans from falling into poverty. The levels of debt effected the ability of many Americans to survive the effects of the Great Depression. The number of suicides jumped to a startling rate of 18.9 per 100,000 in 1929, the year of the Wall Street crash.

African Americans were the first people to be laid off and they suffered an unemployment rate that was initially double that of white Americans. By 1932, the district of Harlem in New York had an unemployment rate of 50%.

On top of all of these terrible events a devastating drought hit the farmers in the prairies states of America and the soil turned to dust. Terrifying dust storms destroying 100 million acres of land in the 'Dust Bowl'. Three million impoverished farmers became unemployed and many families became homeless.

By 1932 a total of 12 million Americans, about 25% of the normal labor force, had become unemployed with over 12,000 additional people being laid off every single day.

State governments were unable to respond to the plight of desperate Americans and charities could no longer provide even minimum assistance for all those in need.

A vast number of Americans were caught in the poverty trap in the 1930s and began to experience the devastating chain of events referred to as the poverty cycle.

Unemployment triggered the poverty cycle. Men searched for jobs where they lived but there were none to be had. Proud men and their families had to join 'Bread Lines' or 'Soup Kitchens' to stave off hunger. They had no alternative but to leave their families in search of employment in different parts of the country.

Desperate, hungry and impoverished people had no option but to go to 'Soup Kitchens', established by charities where food, mostly soup and bread, was served to the hungry. Soup kitchens provided food as many as 3000 hungry people every day serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The Soup kitchens were set up in churches or any places suitable as service centers. In summer they were set up outdoors. The famous gangster Al Capone strengthened his image as a 'Modern day Robin Hood' by financing a Soup Kitchen. In 1932 President Hoover gave $4 million to the states to open soup kitchens.

The 'Bread Lines' were lines of people who were shamed into accepting free handouts of food, notably bread. (At the time a loaf of bread cost a nickel). Bread lines became a common sight in most cities during the 1930s. There were so many poverty stricken people that the Bread Lines sometimes stretched over several blocks.

The despair of the Breadlines was reflected in the lyrics of 1932 song by Bing Crosby "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?". The words convey memories of the achievements of a man who had worked all his life and wonders  "Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?".

Many unemployed men felt they were a burden on their families consuming the scant food rations that were available. Men and a large number young boys became hobos during the 1930s, searching for jobs anywhere in the country. The easiest way to travel across the country was by train and hobos would try to get a free ride on open boxcars or in freight trains to every new destination. Shantytowns, called 'Hobo Jungles' sprang up by most city railroad stations. Between 1 - 2 million people traveled the country desperately looking for work. Signs saying 'No Men Wanted' were displayed everywhere.

Another indicator of poverty was lack of education. The young boys who became hobos never attended school and did not learn to read and were therefore severely deprived of education. In many towns teachers were laid off work resulting in school closures or short school hours.

Many people could not afford to buy newspapers, and if they had no access to a radio, were considered to be severely deprived of information

Families broke up. The lack of secure full-time employment, the need to search across the country for jobs and the high levels of stress all contributed to family breakdowns and the resulting high levels of depression and despair all formed part of the poverty cycle.

People were evicted from their homes, separated from friends and neighbors and families were excluded from normal living patterns and activities. Others squeezed in the homes of relatives, living in hugely overcrowded conditions.

The effects of poverty in the 1930s led to feelings of shame, low self-esteem and despair. People were driven to take desperate measures and the crime rate in the Great Depression increased. People became wary of strangers and were less likely to offer help to strangers.

The condition of 'absolute poverty' has been described as "a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information".

The Bread Lines and Soup Kitchens illustrate the level of food deprivation. The lack of education and information has also been described but the greatest indicator of poverty is the living conditions thrusted upon people as a result of homelessness.

Homeless people were forced to live in Shanty towns, nicknamed Hoovervilles. Refer to Shantytowns and Hoovervilles. Shanty towns consisted of makeshift shacks or tents were set up on unused or public lands. These people were forced to live in absolute poverty.

  • Floors were often made of dirt or mud

  • Access to safe drinking water was limited and only available from rivers and ponds

  • There were no adequate sanitation facilities - latrines were dug in ditches

  • Tents and makeshift shacks provided inadequate shelter

Nearly 50% of children were deprived of adequate food, clothing, shelter, education or medical care.

Americans living in such primitive conditions were subject to many health problems. There was no easy access to health care. Inadequate sanitation, lack of clean drinking water, lack of food and poor nutrition lead to a variety of diseases and illnesses such as rickets, influenza, pneumonia, tuberculosis, diphtheria, skin diseases and diarrhea.

People without access to medical facilities were unable to easily fight off illness and disease. At least 33% of deaths were due to poverty-related causes.

Growing discontent resulted in violent riots and protests such as hunger marches in the 1930s. The 'Dearborn Hunger March', aka the Ford Hunger March, that started in Detroit and ended in Dearborn, Michigan in March 1932 led to deaths and injuries of unemployed, poverty-stricken protestors.

The Bonus Army was a demonstration and hunger march by WW1 military veterans who marched to Washington to lobby congress for early payment of veterans’ bonuses. The plea was denied. The Bonus Army were evicted from their camps by the heavy handed treatment of the US Army under Douglas MacArthur. Over 1000 people suffered from tear gas inhalation, there were over one hundred injuries and four people died. The camps were burned to the ground.

Great Depression Poverty was relieved to some extent by the welfare and relief programs established in President Roosevelt's New Deal. This most devastating period in American history was brought to and end by yet another disaster - World War Two. Refer to US Mobilization for WW2.

US American History
1929-1945: Depression & WW2

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