During the economic boom in the 1920's the American Government did not feel it needed a national system to deal with the small percentage of people who were unemployed. Also, there was a suspicion that if you gave people too much help you might encourage them to be lazy.
The rapid increase in unemployment in the early 1930's resulted in a great deal of hardship. Relief was available but people were encouraged to use all their resources before applying for help. People usually found going on relief an humiliating experience and were inclined to use it as a last resort. The queues formed every day where free soup and bread were given out. Even unscrupulous men like Al Capone were moved by the plight of the unemployed and provided free food for people in need.
Often unable to pay their rent, the unemployed were evicted from their homes. Temporary homes, made of whatever materials were available, began to spring up in most of America's main cities. Others decided to take to the road in the hope that they would find work in some neighbouring state.
(My father) said: "If you think it's been rough for us, I want you to see people that really had it rough." This was in Oklahoma City, and he took us to one of the Hoovervilles, and that was the most incredible thing. Here were people living in old, rusted-out car bodies. I mean that was their home. There were people living in shacks made of orange crates. One family with a whole lot of kids were living in a piano box. This wasn't just a little section, this was maybe ton-miles wide and ten-miles long. People living in whatever they could junk together.
I finally went on relief. It's an experience I don't want anybody to go through. ... The interview was utterly ridiculous and mortifying. In the middle of mine, a more dramatic guy than I dived from the second floor stairway, head first, to demonstrate he was gonna get relief even if he had to go to the hospital to do it.... There were questions like: Who are your friends? ... Why should anybody give you money? Why should anybody give you a place to sleep? ... I did get certified some time later. I think they paid $9 a month. I came away feeling I didn't have any business living anymore.
I'll never forget one of the first families I visited. The father was a railroad man who had lost his job. I was told by my supervisor that I really had to see the poverty. If the family needed clothing, I was to investigate how much clothing they had at hand. So I looked into this man's closet - he was a tall, grey-haired man, though not terribly old. He let me look in the closet -he was so insulted. He said, "Why are you doing this?" I remember his feeling of humiliation ... this terrible humiliation. He said, "I really haven't anything to hide, but if you really must look into it . . .". I could see he was very proud. He was so deeply humiliated. And I was, too.
A man had to be on the road. Had to leave his wife, had to leave his mother, leave his family just to try to get money to live on. But ... my dear mother, tryin' to send her money, worryin' how she's starvin. The shame I was feeling. I walked out because I didn't have a job. I said, "I'm going out in the world and get me a job". And God help me, I couldn't get anything. I wouldn't let them see me dirty and ragged and I hadn't shaved. I wouldn't send 'em no picture.
I'd write: "Dear Mother, I'm doin' wonderful and wish you're all fine". That was in Los Angeles and I was sleeping under some steps and there was some paper over me. This is the slum part, Negroes lived down there. And my ma, she'd say, "Oh, my son is in Los Angeles, he's doin' pretty fair".
These beautiful yachts that cost a half million dollars were sitting around with barnacles on them. These are the people who had jumped out of windows. Who's gonna buy a yacht? A man came up to me and said, "Hey, any of these yachts for sale?" I said, "Are you kiddin'? They're all for sale." This guy was a bootlegger. So I sold half-million dollar yachts to bootleggers. For five or ten thousand dollars. And took my six per cent commission on them. Beautiful.
Questions for Students
Question 1: Show how far sources 4 and 6 are in agreement in the attitudes they express on the subject of relief.
Question 2: What does source 8 tell us about the effect that the depression had on family life in America?
Question 3: Explain the propaganda value of sources 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9.
Question 4: Which extract in this unit suggests that some people did well out of the depression? Explain your answer.
Question 5: Sources 2, 4, 6, 8 and 12 are all taken from interviews that took place in the 1960's. What considerations should a historian bear in mind in making use of such evidence?
A commentary on these questions can be found here.