Blog: 'Brother, can you spare a dime?'

Blogger David Grand shares recollections of the Great Depression and lessons learned.

That was the Depression-era anthem for the times. Written in 1932, that song still resonates loud and clear today, especially among those who find themselves, due to no fault of their own, in a daily struggle for mere survival.

And hard as it may be for the approximate 15 million Americans who are unemployed today (not including those working part-time jobs, or who’ve given up looking for jobs), or for the 46.2 million currently living below the official poverty line of $22,314 for a family of four, to imagine that there were even worst times in our nation’s history.

For as bad as things are today, what with a total of one million home foreclosures since 2008 and 45 million receiving food stamps as of June this year, that’s sure better than how it was in the 1930s, what with having to stand in long lines to get a stale crust of bread and watery soup. And with the homeless living  in shantytowns (called ”Hoovervilles”), in caves, cardboard boxes and even in sewer pipes.

Herewith, are some of those firsthand accounts I’ve read about, coupled with what I’ve gleaned from the Digital History website.

  • Unemployment. Jumped from less than 3 million in 1929 to 4 million in 1930, to 8 million in 1931, to 13 million in 1932, and to  a quarter or 35 percent of the non-farming workforce in 1933.
  • Incomes. By 1933 the average family income had tumbled 40 percent from $2,300 in 1929 to just $1,500.  In that same year, a quarter of the nation’s families did not have a single employed wage earner. Three-quarters of all workers were on part-time schedules, averaging just 60 percent of the normal work week. And penniless men and women (including those who’d held professional positions) were selling apples on street corners for 10 cents.
  • Population shifts saw gray battalions of Arkies and Oakies fleeing the ”Dust Bowl,” packed in Model A Fords heading for California only to find their having gone from one hell hole to another. And with millions of job seekers taking to the rails, with the Southern Pacific Railroad boasting as to how they’d thrown 683,000 hoboes off its trains in 1931 alone.
  • Diets. To say that many subsisted on less than a Spartan diet would be an understatement. Breakfast usually consisted of fried potatoes. And unlike many families in more urban settings, those living on farms survived on what the land could produce, on the hogs they butchered and on the animals they hunted; such as, groundhogs, muskrats, squirrels, rabbits, possums, skunks and raccoons.
  • Urban dwellers, on the other hand, had far less meat to eat. And having the cheapest meat, a chicken on Sundays, and on no other days, was a sheer delight. The rest of the time, they ate cornbread, soups, beans or whatever else they could make with the sack of flour they received from the Red Cross that had to last two weeks. (A soup, aptly called Depression soup, consisted of a half cup of ketchup and a half cup of boiling water.) Yummy for the tummy!
  • And the hungriest of the hungry were reduced to catching rats to put in the pot, to eating Dandelions, roots and weeds, to scrounging for food in garbage cans, and going from door to door looking for handouts, and making a chalk mark on those doors where they were given something edible to alert others where they should come to.
  • Personal hardships. Examples of which were: to save money, families neglected medical and dental care…on wash days, one would have to stay home for the two days it took to turn the wheel on the washing machine…rates of desertion soaring with 1.5 million married women living apart from their husbands by 1940…large numbers of men lost self-respect and became self-destructive, while others turned to alcohol and were abusive to their families. 
  • No one ate at restaurants, for a steak dinner for one person could cost three bucks…only a few people went to the movies, for a ticket cost 15 cents, and that would buy a quart of milk and a loaf of bread…many families were evicted from their homes for nonpayment of rent, who could be seen huddled around bonfires in the winter to stay warm…and college graduates in 1929 could be waiting for ten years to land a job.

And children living at home felt the brunt of it, what with more than 200,000 vagrant children wandering the country as a result of the break-up of their families…often walking to school in light clothing and in shoes with cardboard soles when snow was still on the ground, or walking barefoot in warmer months…and having a lard sandwich with sugar sprinkled on it for lunch.

But despite the hardships the Great Depression inflicted, it drew many families closer together. And as one observer noted, “Many a family has lost their home and automobile and found its soul.”

And the obvious lesson value for us today, is that we would do well to emulate the perseverance and will to survive they demonstrated so admirably, no mater how dire the economic circumstances we currently find ourselves in may be.

Quote of the week: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself-nameless,  unreasoning. unjustified terror, which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”  President Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address on March 4, 1933.

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withavengeance December 03, 2011 at 02:25 PM
Both of my parents were children of the Depression. My mom ended up getting scurvy due to the lack of fruits and vegetables and the like. Right before everything crashed, my grandmother had put up a lot of jams and jellies. That's what the family subsisted on...jelly bread...for a long time to come. Both of my parents had terrible teeth, due to both diet and lack of dental care. I could write more because I paid attention to all of their Depression-era stories. This is one story that I remember best. In today's economic climate, folks are once again learning how to economize and that's a good thing. However, the economy is definitely not as bad as during the Depression. But it's pretty bad.
John Culleton December 03, 2011 at 05:25 PM
I have been reading about the life philosophy of the Quakers, the Mennonites and the Amish as I index a book that contains this information. It seems that to live simply and plainly is a complex matter. But a central theme is the recognition of interdependence. Acceptance of this interdependence of members of the community on each other is perhaps the first step to wisdom. It is not us and them. It is us together. We must give and also not be too proud to receive. Plain living is not hair shirt asceticism. But it is the opposite of consumerism. It is a matter of owning things without things owning us. Unfortunately our economy is based on consumerism. But perhaps as we learn to separate "got to have" from "nice to have" we will do better as families and ultimately as a nation. John Culleton
Kevin Earl Dayhoff December 04, 2011 at 08:24 AM
Compelling sociological and historical insights into the Great Depression by David Grand. Thanks. Kevin Dayhoff


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