Effects of the Great Depression on American Lives and Dreams

Effects of the Great Depression: How did the Great Depression affect the lives and dreams of those that lived through it?

The Great Depression, spanning from 1929 to the late 1930s, stands as one of the most profound economic downturns in modern history. Its far-reaching impact wasn’t merely confined to numbers, stock prices, or GDP statistics. Instead, its true severity can be best understood when we delve deep into the lives it touched, the dreams it shattered, and the resilient spirit it tested. Millions in the United States, and indeed around the world, found themselves grappling not just with financial destitution, but with a profound existential crisis that challenged the very foundations of the ‘American Dream’.

Often, historical analysis prioritizes data, policy changes, and broad economic patterns. While these are undeniably crucial for a comprehensive understanding, the human aspect – the individual stories of despair, hope, adaptability, and perseverance – provides a more visceral, intimate glimpse into the era. The Depression was not just a phase of economic downturn; it was a period that redefined family dynamics, artistic expressions, political allegiances, and individual aspirations. As we embark on this exploration, we will travel beyond the economic charts, delving into the very heart of American society during its most challenging times, to uncover how the Great Depression truly affected the lives and dreams of those that lived through it.

Economic Impact

The economic ramifications of the Great Depression were sweeping and severe, casting a dark shadow across the entire nation. With industries collapsing and banks failing at an unprecedented rate, the backbone of American capitalism seemed to crumble within a short span.

Unemployment Rates and Statistics

The most telling economic statistic of the era was, without a doubt, the soaring unemployment rate. By 1933, nearly 25% of the American workforce was unemployed, translating to roughly 15 million people without a job. The gravity of these numbers becomes palpable when considering personal stories of job loss. Engineers, bankers, laborers, and teachers alike found themselves in breadlines, the great equalizer of the times. Such widespread unemployment not only deprived families of income but also instilled a sense of hopelessness and erosion of self-worth among the populace.

Collapse of Businesses and Banks

Businesses, both small and large, weren’t spared from the economic devastation. Thousands of companies declared bankruptcy, unable to sustain operations amidst plummeting demand and tight credit conditions. The banking sector, which had thrived in the Roaring Twenties, met its nemesis during the Depression. Over 9,000 banks had failed by the mid-1930s, leading to a staggering loss of savings for countless Americans. This collapse wasn’t merely about financial institutions going under; it marked a loss of faith in the very structure of American financial systems.

Loss of Personal Savings and its Emotional Toll

The bank failures had a domino effect, causing many to lose their life savings overnight. With no federal insurance to protect deposits, the common citizen was left vulnerable. Imagining the devastation of losing one’s life savings brings to light the emotional and psychological toll of the Depression. Many families, who had prudently saved for years, found themselves starting from scratch, their dreams of a comfortable future obliterated. Such a loss brought not only financial strain but also intense feelings of betrayal, despair, and disillusionment with the American economic promise.

In summary, the economic effects of the Great Depression were not just a matter of declining numbers on paper. They represented shattered dreams, compromised futures, and a profound reevaluation of what economic security meant in the United States. The very fabric of the American ethos – hard work, ambition, and the pursuit of prosperity – was tested, redefined, and, in many ways, transformed during these tumultuous years.

Societal Changes

The Great Depression, while primarily an economic calamity, spurred a myriad of societal changes that reshaped the American social fabric. From the dynamics within families to broader community interactions, the profound influence of the Depression was felt at every societal level.

The Changing Dynamics of the Family Unit

One of the most poignant shifts occurred within the American family. The traditional roles and structures underwent significant transformations. Men, often the primary breadwinners, faced the brunt of job losses. This not only jeopardized their financial positions but also challenged their roles and sense of self-worth within the family. As the economic pressures mounted, women increasingly entered the workforce, seeking employment in sectors previously deemed unsuitable for them. This shift wasn’t just economic but also emblematic of the changing gender dynamics and evolving perceptions of women’s roles in society.

Children of the Depression era, too, bore witness to these hardships. Their childhoods, marked by economic deprivation, molded their aspirations and worldviews. Many had to forego education to support their families, while others internalized the struggles, becoming frugal and risk-averse in their later lives.

The Mass Migrations and the Dust Bowl

Environmental disasters compounded the economic hardships. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s, caused by a combination of drought and poor farming practices, turned the fertile lands of the American Midwest into barren wastelands. This ecological catastrophe led to mass migrations, most notably to California, as families sought better opportunities and escape from the ‘black blizzards’. These migrations were more than mere relocations; they signified the displacement of entire communities, the loss of homes, and the quest for survival in unfamiliar territories.

Growth in Shantytowns and Homelessness

As the Depression deepened, the landscapes of American cities began to change. Shantytowns, often referred to as “Hoovervilles” in a grim nod to President Herbert Hoover, sprouted on the outskirts of cities. Comprised of makeshift huts and tents, these settlements became symbolic of the widespread homelessness and despair. Their existence not only highlighted the economic disparity but also showcased the resilience and camaraderie of the American people, as communities within these settlements often shared resources and looked out for one another.

In conclusion, the societal repercussions of the Great Depression were multifaceted and profound. They redefined familial roles, forced mass migrations, and altered the very landscapes of cities. But more than anything, they underlined the adaptability and resilience of the American society, even in the face of overwhelming adversities.

Psychological and Emotional Impact

The Great Depression was not just a period of economic downturn; it represented a collective trauma that left an indelible mark on the nation’s psyche. The relentless weight of financial hardships, coupled with societal shifts, exerted immense psychological and emotional strains on individuals and communities alike.

The Loss of the ‘American Dream’

Central to the American ethos is the belief in the ‘American Dream’ – the idea that through hard work, ambition, and resilience, anyone can achieve prosperity and success. The Depression, however, shattered this dream for many. Homes were lost, savings wiped out, and stable futures became uncertain. The idea that one could elevate themselves through sheer will and determination seemed distant, if not impossible. This loss of a foundational belief led to a profound sense of disillusionment, questioning the very tenets upon which the American narrative was built.

Emergence of a Generation with Risk-Averse Behaviors

The traumas of the Depression, experienced during formative years by many, led to the emergence of a generation characterized by caution and prudence. Financial security became the paramount concern, overshadowing ambitions or entrepreneurial risks. Investments, whether in the form of buying homes or stocks, were approached with skepticism. This collective apprehension wasn’t merely a transient response but rather a long-lasting behavioral change that influenced financial and life decisions for decades to come.

The Role of Media and Art in Capturing the Despair

Media, literature, and art of the time played a crucial role in documenting and reflecting the emotional state of the nation. Writers, photographers, and musicians channeled the collective despair, hopelessness, and, at times, resilience, offering both a mirror and a catharsis. Literary works portrayed the struggles of ordinary citizens, while photographers, like Dorothea Lange, captured the raw, unfiltered realities of life during the Depression. Songs and radio dramas resonated with tales of hardships, providing solace in the shared experience and validating the emotions of the masses.

In essence, the psychological and emotional scars of the Great Depression were deep and enduring. While economic recovery was eventually achieved, the mental toll, the altered behaviors, and the transformed beliefs persisted, shaping the American psyche for generations to come.

Political and Institutional Changes

The Great Depression, beyond its immediate economic and societal effects, also catalyzed significant political and institutional transformations. The crisis exposed the vulnerabilities of the existing systems and necessitated swift and comprehensive governmental interventions. These changes not only reshaped the political landscape of the time but also left lasting legacies on American governance and institutions.

Rise of the New Deal and its Implications

Arguably, the most profound political response to the Depression was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Implemented in the 1930s, this series of programs, public work projects, financial reforms, and regulations aimed to provide relief to the unemployed, revive the economy, and reform the financial system to prevent a similar disaster. The New Deal wasn’t merely a set of policies; it signified a shift in the role of the federal government. From being a passive observer, the government transformed into an active participant in the economy, willing to intervene for the greater public good. This expansion of federal power, while celebrated by many as necessary and proactive, also drew criticism from those wary of governmental overreach.

Shift in the Public’s Trust in the Banking System and Government

The widespread bank failures of the early 1930s eroded public trust in the banking system. In response, the government instituted several reforms, most notably the Banking Act of 1933, often referred to as the Glass-Steagall Act. This legislation aimed to restore faith by imposing regulations and creating the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to insure bank deposits. On a broader scale, the public’s trust in institutions oscillated. While many lauded the government’s proactive measures, others, scarred by the initial inadequacies, viewed institutions with perennial skepticism.

Changes in Labor Rights and Organization

The struggles of the Depression catalyzed a renewed emphasis on workers’ rights. Labor unions gained traction, and there was a growing demand for better working conditions, fair wages, and the right to organize. The Wagner Act of 1935, or the National Labor Relations Act, was instrumental in this regard, guaranteeing basic rights of private sector employees to organize into trade unions. Such political backing ushered in a golden age for American labor, setting the stage for decades of worker advocacy and reforms.

In conclusion, the political and institutional changes spurred by the Great Depression were monumental. They reflected a nation in flux, grappling with unprecedented challenges and reshaping itself in the process. The Depression-era reforms, debates, and shifts laid the groundwork for modern American governance, institutional frameworks, and the evolving relationship between the state and its citizens.

Cultural and Artistic Expressions

Art and culture have always been barometers of a society’s emotional and ideological landscape. The Great Depression, with its sweeping societal changes and profound emotional impacts, inevitably left its mark on the cultural and artistic expressions of the era. These forms of expression not only documented the experiences but also offered solace, critique, and introspection.

Literature: Reflecting the Struggles and Hopes

Literature of the Depression era became a powerful medium to narrate the stories of despair, resilience, and the human spirit. John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” stands as a quintessential example, chronicling the journey of the Joad family as they migrate westward from the Dust Bowl. Such novels didn’t just offer tales of hardship but also commented on societal injustices, the flaws of capitalism, and the strength of communal ties. They provided readers an opportunity to find solace in shared experiences and draw strength from tales of endurance.

Photography: Capturing the Raw Realities

Photography emerged as a poignant medium to document the stark realities of the Depression. Photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, often employed by government agencies, captured images that became emblematic of the era. Lange’s “Migrant Mother” is perhaps one of the most iconic images, encapsulating the weariness, despair, yet enduring resilience of the times. These photographs, devoid of embellishments, served as powerful testimonials to the struggles faced by everyday Americans.

Music: Echoing the Sentiments of a Generation

Music, as always, mirrored the pulse of the nation. The blues, folk, and country genres resonated with tales of economic hardships, lost opportunities, and the wistful longing for better days. Artists like Woody Guthrie sang ballads that spoke of the Dust Bowl, migrations, and the challenges faced by the working class. On the other end of the spectrum, swing and jazz offered an escape, a chance to momentarily forget the worries and lose oneself in the rhythm and melodies. These genres, in their own ways, became the soundtrack of the Depression era, providing both catharsis and hope.

In summation, the cultural and artistic outputs during the Great Depression were not mere forms of entertainment. They were critical outlets for expression, reflection, and resilience. Through literature, photography, and music, the essence of the era was captured, immortalizing the struggles and hopes of a generation.

Resilience and Recovery

The Great Depression was undeniably one of the most challenging periods in American history. Yet, interwoven with the narratives of despair and hardship, are stories of resilience, innovation, and recovery. The nation’s response to the Depression reveals not just its vulnerabilities, but its enduring spirit and ability to adapt and emerge stronger.

Community and Collaboration

As individual families grappled with the economic downturn, communities often banded together in support. Neighborhoods set up soup kitchens, bartering systems emerged as a means of trade, and communal gardens were cultivated to combat food scarcity. These grassroots efforts underscored the significance of community and collective action in times of crisis.

Innovation Amidst Adversity

While the Depression stifled many industries, it also became a breeding ground for innovation. Companies that adapted to the changing consumer needs or diversified their offerings often managed to not just survive but thrive. Moreover, the constraints of the era led to innovative solutions and frugality, which became ingrained in business and societal practices.

New Policy Frameworks and Long-Term Benefits

The political and institutional changes introduced in response to the Depression, notably the New Deal, had long-reaching implications. Infrastructure projects, like the building of dams and roads, provided immediate employment and also facilitated long-term economic growth. Similarly, regulations introduced for the banking and financial sectors ensured that such a crisis could be mitigated, if not entirely avoided, in the future. The reforms, though born out of immediate necessity, had a vision for the future, ensuring that the nation would be better equipped for subsequent challenges.

In essence, the journey of resilience and recovery during the Great Depression underscores the adaptability and tenacity of the American spirit. While the scars of the era ran deep, they were accompanied by lessons, innovations, and reforms that shaped the nation’s trajectory for decades to come. The Depression, in all its darkness, also illuminated the paths towards community, innovation, and a brighter future.


The Great Depression, a monumental period in American history, was not just a fleeting economic downturn; it was a seismic event that reshaped the nation in myriad ways. From the tangible economic impacts to the deep psychological scars, the Depression touched every facet of American life. It challenged the core beliefs of the American Dream, spurred significant political and institutional changes, and deeply influenced the cultural and artistic expressions of the era.

However, amidst the tales of hardship and despair, the resilience and adaptability of the American spirit shone through. Communities banded together, innovations emerged from constraints, and sweeping reforms were implemented to ensure a brighter, more stable future. These collective responses to the challenges of the Depression underscore the nation’s ability to evolve, adapt, and emerge stronger from adversity.

Reflecting on the effects of the Great Depression is not merely an academic exercise but a poignant reminder of the cyclical nature of economies, the vulnerabilities of societies, and the enduring spirit of communities. It serves as a testament to the fact that even in the darkest of times, with unity, adaptability, and foresight, recovery and renewal are attainable.

Class Notes and Outline: How did the Great Depression affect the lives and dreams of those that lived through it?

As we have just discussed the causes of the great depression we must assess the human costs of the depression and the impact it had on many Americans.

I. The Great Depression

A. What made life so hard during the Great Depression?

1. Unemployment

2. Homelessness

3. Poverty

4. Destruction of families

5. Farm losses

B. What was President Herbert Hoover’s economic policy during the

1. Refused to use the Fed to increase money supply.

2. Followed Laissez Faire philosophy – left the economy alone: “the ship would right itself.”

3. Believed in “Rugged Individualism” people should “pick themselves up by the boot straps…”

4. Passage of Smoot-Hawley Tariff (40% Protective Tariff)

5. Eventually created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) to loan money to business but this was too little too late.

C. What was the reaction to Hoover’s policies?

1. He was basically hated.

2. Homeless set up “Hoovervilles” – tent cities.

D. How did this effect people’s perception of government?

1. The felt for the first time that government was not their to protect them.

2. People’s ideals began to shift away from the conservative laissez faire ideology.

3. Those that lived through the depression are very frugal and careful with their money. They also tend to distrust banks.


I. Mary Owlsey Recalls Life in Oklahoma City:

“There was thousands of people our of work in Oklahoma City. They set up a soup line, and the food was clean and it was delicious. Many, many people, colored and white, I didn’t see any difference, ’cause there was just as many white people out of work than were colored. Lost everything they had accumulated from their young days. And these are facts. I remember several
families had to leave in covered wagons. To California, I guess……

I knew one family there in Oklahoma City, a man and woman and seven children lived in a hole in the ground. You’d be surprised how nice it was, how nice they kept it. They had chairs and tables and beds back in that hole. And they had the dirt all braced upon there, just like a cave……

A lot of times one family would have some food, They would divide. And everyone would share. Even the people that were quite well to do, they was ashamed. ‘Cause they was eating’, and other people wasn’t.

My husband was very bitter, That’s just puttin’ it mild. He was an intelligent man. He couldn’t see why as wealthy a country as this is, that there was any sense in so many people starving to death, when some much of it, wheat and everything else, was being poured into the ocean.

II. Pauline Kael a well-known film critic, was a college student at the University of California at Berkeley during the Depression.

“When I attended Berkeley in 1936, so many of the kids had actually lost their fathers. They had wandered off in disgrace because they couldn’t support their families. Other fathers had killed themselves so the family could have the insurance. Families had totally broken down. Each father took it as his personal failure. These middle class men apparently had no social sense of
what was going on, so they killed themselves.

It was still the Depression. There were kids who didn’t have a place to sleep, huddling under bridges on the campus, I had a scholarship, but there were times when I didn’t have food….

III. Ben Isaacs was a salesman in Chicago during the Depression:

“We tried to struggle along living day by day. Then I couldn’t pay the rent. I had a little car, but I couldn’t pay no license for it. I left it parked against the court. I sold it for fifteen dollars in order to buy some food for the family. I had three little children……

Wherever I went to get a job, I couldn’t get no job. I went around selling razor blades and shoelaces. There was a day I would go over all the streets and come home with fifty cents, making a sale.

Finally, people started to talk me into going into the relief… I didn’t want to go on relief. Believe me, when I was forced to go to the office of the relief, the tears were running out of my eyes. I couldn’t bear myself to take money
from anybody for nothing. If it wasn’t for those kids–I tell you the truth–many a time it came to my mind to go commit suicide than go ask for relief. But somebody (had) to take care of those kids…

Letters to
Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady, was known for her kindness and generosity. Her are a few of the letters she received.

Dear Mrs. Roosevelt:
I am a boy of eleven. And have to walk five miles to school.
Will you please send me, a bicycle as all the boys around me have bicycles. And there are seven children in the family and dad is unable to buy me one.
With many thanks.
Your friend,
Charles Edmondson
I am writing to you for some of your old spoiled dress if you have any. I am a poor girl who has to stay out of school on account of dresses, and slips, and a coat. I am in the seventh grade in school but I have to stay out of school because I have no books or clothes ware. I am in need of dresses and slips and a coat very bad.
Pineville N.V.
April 20, 1935
Mrs. Roosevelt.
Dear Madam,
I understand that you help the needy. I would appreciate it very much if you would give me a suit of clothes. I’ve been out of work a long time and I believe if I had a suit of clothes I would have a chance of getting a job.
My age is 45 years my height is 5ft 5in weight 145 lbs. If you won’t do this please don’t expose my name.
Yours Truly
R.P. Gordon
Pineville N.C.
I am ten years old. I had waited for Santa Claus to come but my mama said the chimney was blocked and he couldn’t come, so I had a poor Christmas. I was expecting Santa to bring me some things…I have read in the papers how good you are to the poor and thought maybe you could help me. I will appreciate it all my life. Today we have started school from our Christmas vacation and all the children talk about how many presents Santa had brought them and I felt so bad because I had nothing to say.

The following song was the most popular of the time and was emblematic of the attitude many had during the depression.


They used to tell me I was building a dream
And so I followed the mob.
When there was earth to plow or guns to bear
I was always there – right there on the job
They used to tell me I was building a dream
with peace and glory I had
Why should I be standing in line
Just waiting for bread.
Once I built a railroad – made it run
Made it race against time
Once I built a railroad – not wit’s done
Once I built a tower to the sun
Brick and rivet and wine
Once I built a tower – now it’s done
Once in khaki suits
Gee we looked swell – full of that Yankee Doodledy-Dum
Half a million boots, went slogging through hell
I was the kid with the drum.
Say don’t you remember, you called me Al
It was Al all the time.
Say don’t you remember, I’m your pal

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Some Interesting Statistics

National Income: 1929–$81 billion

1932–$41 billion

Business Failures: 1929-32–85,000

Banks: 1929-32 – 9,000 failures and 9,000,000 accounts wiped out

Per capita income: 1929 — $681

1932 — $495

Weekly income of a stenographer: 1929 — $45

1932 — $16