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America’s Great Depression took place between 1929 and 1939 and was part of a worldwide economic recession in which the world experienced a reduction in business activity, and subsequent skyrocketing rates of unemployment. Notable about the event is that, it was not the result of some uncontrollable natural disaster but rather a result of misguided economic policies, whose authors only intended good but instead reaped disaster. During the depression, the population experienced intense pain and extensive misery and the event has been blamed for leading to calamities such as World War II and the rising to power of Adolf Hitler (Hall & Ferguson 2).
According to economists, a stiff monetary policy initiated by the Federal Reserve at the beginning of 1928 led to the initial recession in United States of America. Stock prices were taking an upward trend and Federal Reserve officials intervened with a string of actions designed at tightening credit conditions for member banks (Hall & Ferguson 64). In October 929, the very foundations of a presumably vibrant American society were vigorously shaken when the once strong stock market came crashing down and for nearly 10 years, the once booming industrial expansion that followed the Civil War almost came to a standstill (Jillson 406).
During the 1920s, American farmers had incurred heavy debts through farm mechanization and expanded production, resulting in mountainous surpluses that could not be marketed. As business got lower, marketing of livestock and farm produce got more difficult. A government intervention to buy surpluses from the farmers did not achieve positive results and many land owners lost their properties to unpaid debts. When the depression came, farmers were worst hit and the rural population slowly started dwindling as people moved to the cities in search of a better life. Suffering had changed people’s attitude towards work and they could now do whatever kind of work that would bring daily bread (Kennedy 17, 85).
Over a decade, Americans experienced an era of joblessness that was so harsh that, for some time, the population was exposed to abject poverty; the worst being the immigrants, blacks and Mexican-Americans. By the beginning of 1932, close to 20 per cent of the American labor force had lost their jobs, a situation that got worse in large cities like Detroit and Chicago where joblessness had hit the 50 per cent mark (Kennedy 85-8, 164). Most of the major industries like General Motors were forced to lay off roughly half of their labor force, while those lucky to remain had to be content with shorter working hours and smaller paychecks. America was for the first time experiencing unemployment of such high magnitude (Kennedy 166).
While farm produce rotted in the rural farms, the population in such big cities as New York, Seattle, Chicago and others scavenged for food in garbage cans (Kennedy 165). America’s outlook to life changed as more Americans had to rely on the detested relief food and used clothing. Millions of Americans fell victim to malnutrition and to the common American, such kind of life was degrading. Charities and government institutions could no longer cope with the responsibility of providing relief to the needy. Even the banks that served the immigrants were the first to close down within the first rounds of panic (Kennedy 86-88). As a result of the untold suffering, some immigrants started losing hope in this presumed land of plenty and chose to return to their countries of origin. America was slowly losing its citizens and losing precious labor force as well (Kennedy 164).
Due to un-employment, Americans lost their homes to failed mortgages while others were kicked out of apartments for default of rent, resulting in the creation of shanty settlements especially in the major towns. Families broke as unproductive fathers lost respect as family heads due to joblessness and left home. Children also left to ease the suffering in the homes while women, who previously stayed at home entered the labor force, and took up the role of breadwinners (Kennedy 164-166).
Declining economic outputs resulting from the depression led to a public outcry for help that necessitated government intervention in what has popularly been referred to as the New Deal. Under this New Deal, the government initiated a variety of intervention programs, making the government an important participant in the nation’s economy. The New Deal has also been attributed to creation of more socialism and free enterprise while putting a check to capitalism. The Federal government got more involved in such areas as social security, welfare, electricity generation and securities regulation among others. This government was now growing bigger in size (Hall & Ferguson 3). There was also a change in the dominant political party as most Americans lost confidence in the government and Republicans lost to the Democrats. New laws came into being that increased the power of government and a welfare state came into being with the creation of welfare associations and unions to look into the unemployment issue. Such associations as Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Public Works Administration (PWA) were formed during this time (Jillson 327, 382).
The depression in America cannot pass off as just another crisis but rather as an episode that served to reveal the extensive structural inequities that existed within the American Society. Most Americans were now more aware that any economic policy was subject to failure and realized the need for government intervention in the management of the economy (Kennedy 168).
Hall, Thomas E, and Ferguson J. David. The Great Depression: An International Disaster of Perverse Economic Policies. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1998.
Jillson, Cal. American Government: Political Change and Institutional Development. London: Routledge, 2007.
Kennedy, David M. Freedom from Fear. The American People in Depression and War 1929 – 1945. New York: Oxford University Press US, 2001.