The Great Depression of the 1930’s was an era of hopelessness and fear for many. Coming soon after the prosperous Coolidge era, the Depression affected a nation of people who had based their self esteem around their ability to work and provide well for their families (Clements, page 67 – 69). Individuals and families had to contend not only with an existence that pushed people close to suicide and starvation, but a total loss of self worth and the haunting memories of the cars, radios and relatively luxurious lives they would have led five years previously.
As with many disasters, the effect on individuals was varied, although with unemployment at 28% (not including eleven million struggling farm workers (Clements, page 74)), it is doubtful that anyone totally escaped the effects of the Depression. Amongst the worst affected were men who became known as Hoboes- migrants who travelled the USA frantically searching for work. According to a testimony by Louis Banks (Cements, page 74), many men were so in need they regularly risked their lives hitching on trains to try and find employment- if they didn’t fall, there was always the chance of being shot by the train police. This sense of mortal desperation is apparent in much of the evidence- “A man over forty might as well go out and shoot himself” (McElvaine, page 172), “If no-one will help than (sic) I will take my life away (McElvaine, page 174).
Even those who retained their will to live found that life became a demoralising battle- “I just vegetated” is the description given by Ward James in the study by Studs Terkel (1978). Although some were resilient enough to retain enough self esteem to believe they deserved a future, as seen in the song, ‘Brother can you spare a dime?’ (4), others lost their sense of worth- “I’m just no good I guess” (McElvaine, page 173). As time passed and self care became more difficult, the sense of self importance would have diminished “We do not dare take even a little soap… when it will pay for an extra egg or a few more carrots for the children” (McElvaine, page 172).
When help was made available ‘on the Relief’, the fear of starvation diminished but the stigma of applying for help was severe and added to their misery. As Ward James (Terkel, 1978) said, “It come as close to crucifixion as…”.
By 1932 suicide rates had risen by 3.4%(Clements, page 72).
As individuals faltered, families struggled. New marriages fell from 1.23 million in 1929 to 982,000 in 1932, with a corresponding fall in the birth rate (Clements, page 72). Those who did reproduce were often criticized, but for some, the requirements of Catholic religion left no alternative; for the others, there was little money left to purchase contraceptives anyway (McElvaine, page 180).
Many families fell apart from the strain, others were necessarily separated in a bid for survival (Terkel, 1978). Families crowded into small homes in stressful circumstances were apt to become irritants to each other, and this could lead to family breakdown. An added stressor was the guilt felt by parents struggling to provide “What about the little children who’s (sic) parents can’t give the children the little things… who will get the blame… the father of course”. (McElvaine, 180).
In order to survive, many women returned to work- usually poorly paid jobs designated as “women’s work” which were less vulnerable to the economic situation. This affected the morale of the families and husbands. The stresses broke down the marriages which were vulnerable, although as McElvaine (page 181) pointed out, stronger relationships survived “We got enough at (sic) get along on and we got each other. That should be enough at make anybody happy.”
Children were also family members affected by the Depression. Children are always vulnerable to the strains within a family environment, and are very receptive to signs of problems. Additionally, on a more practical level, many children could not attend school- either because of a lack of basic equipment or the need for them to work- and many lost out on what we would call a childhood. In 1932, Santa Claus forgot a great number of households.
The effect of the depression on national morale was summative of the effect on the individuals and families. Those who did not lose work lived in fear of doing so (Terkel, 1978), and people deflected the threat from themselves by labelling the more unlucky as work shy and lazy. One of the major effects on national morale was to effect a desire for change, which came about with the Roosevelt administration in 1932. People believed that the Roosevelts heralded the arrival of a new more secure era for America.
Many people saw Roosevelt and the New Deal as a national Saviour- “I am enclosing a snap of the little girl who acclaimed our beloved President a Saint and rightly so”.(Letter to Roosevelt, 1934). Some writers suggest that another national change was that people became used to relying on the relief for assistance, and learned new ways of demanding their ‘rights’ within the system that, until recently, had been seen as soul destroying and immoral (McElvaine, 1979).
Gradually after 1933 America recovered, although there was a final recession in 1937 – 38. America’s salvation largely came from the second world war, and the consequent rise in contracts. However, those who were the victims of the depression still retained deep psychological scars. As Ward James (Terkel, 1978) explained “I feel anything can happen. There’s a little fear in me that it might happen again… lost time and lost faith”. Adults who had been forced to survive on the relief had suffered intensely in the depression, and such damage to self esteem inevitably causes long term damage.
Perhaps the longest term damage would have been effected on the children, many of whom had been denied a childhood of innocence and instead experienced a childhood of want, work and worry. Certainly, these children did not necessarily go on to lead a charmed life; many of this generation would have gone on to see the horrors of World War 2, and then sent children to Vietnam. This became a generation used to sacrificing all for their country, and the survival of that country. It is also the case that whilst the adults would have memories of much easier times to motivate them towards reclaiming their future , the children had no such solid reality to aim for- just a vague idea and hearsay that things could be better.
In conclusion, I would suggest that the psychological damage and adverse effect on the national morale was felt by all, simply because of the pervading sense of fear. In so called ‘natural disasters’ national morale tends to improve as people rally round, secure in the knowledge that they are unlikely to suffer the same fate. In the Depression things were very different; nobody knew who would be next to suffer.
The majority of those affected must have gone on to suffer effects such as a lack in long term confidence and some level of a mistrust in banks. However, for the worst affected, the most difficult effect on morale must have been the lifelong memory of seeing their children and family suffer, and having no power to change this. For the lack of power to change the future is the exact opposite of the ‘American Dream’.