What The Great Depression Felt Like, And Other Things

Stories from the 1930’s along with the devastating numbers.  Devastating unemployment, wandering job seekers, breadliners and newly-minted shackdwellers.  How bad was it?  Did FDR’s steps do anything?  How does it compare to modern recessions – three in thirty years and the verge of a fourth?

I did this cast in 2008. I wrote it in a park as the nation’s economy seemed too be crumbling around me, using history to understand more as was and is my mission.  Added in the factioids and some stories from people who experienced The Depression later [with help from some letters to the editor written by Depression-era readers and Studs Terkel’s great work].  Partially I wanted to calm myself down about an impending crisis.  How bad could it get.  What if it was a Depression?  What does that mean?

And I think this episode, even though it is from  that time, holds up well.

Among the many points made in this podcast:

  • It’s not clear why the Depression happened, though there are hotly debated theories.  From the money supply, gluts in Europe, to overspending, too much speculation to boom-bust cycles; we go through many of them on the program.
  • FDR’s Presidential timing could not have been better.  Comes in right as the Depression had already had 2 years, thus blamed on Hoover.  And takes office in the middle of a secondary bank crisis which is solveable, giving him a quick win that would influence his term.
  • Congress passed legislation so quickly in the first days that not only did they not read it, it wouldn’t have been possible for most members to do so, as not enough copies were printed.
  • FDRs brief “Roosevelt Recession” in 1938 was a bad time for him but provides interpretive  clues related to the Great Depression and the New Deal’s role in helping or not helping the economic situation.  Since FDR [along with a nervous Treasury Secretary Morgenthau and others] decided to put the breaks on spending, and a recession resulted it likely says the spending was needed for any economic increase in such a dire time, or at least FDR’s cut was too much for that time.
  • Comparisons to today fall flat.  2008 was bad, but even it didn’t reach the scale of The Depression.  That’s not to say many weren’t hurt, but we would have 10 millions of people roaming the suburbs looking for work.  We certainly have seen job losses comparable due to coronavirus, 36 million claims, though it’s not clear if such a trend would continue even all year and few predict it to last several years, as unemployment did during the depression.
  • People lived in shacks, and even in caves in Depression-era New York City.  The caves had previously been inhabited by Manhattan’s original Indians and were a tourist attraction.  But they worked for shelter purposes.
  • People adjusted to life during the times, coming up with ways to live.  Clothes were re-used, patched, sewn.  A man whose family was rich was lucky to have two nice suits after his family lost everything.  He would wear those suits all through the Depression.  Another told how losing a shoe was a family tragedy, and socks were hard to come by.   One business grew and actually triumphed during the time.  And some people reported that it was a good time for family bonding despite the hardship.
  • It was good to grow apples, most of the time.  But not to sell them.