Life During the Great Depression

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Life during the Great Depression – The Voices of Children
For most, it is difficult to imagine life during the Great Depression. While the Depression began at the end of the 1920s, the entire nation suffered most dramatically during the period 1929–1933. To obtain an eyewitness account of this era, we must listen to “the voices” -- the voices of those courageous children -- now in their 80’s and 90’s. This is their life during the Great Depression.

My father, Bill, recalls being startled by loud cheering in the school nearby. It was the end of World War I and he was 3 years old. As a typical teenage boy, Bill focused on food and cars. “Street cars and Model T Fords appeared in the late 1920s. A lot of foods were becoming packaged and chicken houses were disappearing from backyards. Food was still very cheap. A loaf of bread cost 10¢. Then came the steamer and high-powered luxury cars (Pikes Peak Motor with high-gear capacity).” Dad’s family was middle class, but the Depression affected everyone. “Food and jobs were hard to get and many people stood in lines for government hand-outs. A lot of people lived on powdered milk, dried beans, and potatoes.” In Chicago, a crowd of men fought over a barrel of garbage -- food scraps for their families.

Life during the Great Depression – The Heart of the Matter
Most characteristic of life during the Great Depression was the widening gap between the “haves” and “have-nots.” Unemployment rose from a shocking 5 million in 1930 to an almost unbelievable 13 million by the end of 1932. It would be rural America that would suffer the greatest. Unemployed fathers saw children hired for sub-standard wages. In 1930, 2.25 million boys and girls ages 10–18 worked in factories, canneries, mines, and on farms. Children left school to support their families.

The harsh reality of life during the Great Depression is vividly recalled by Travis (12 yrs) who found his father behind their Massachusetts house, crying and heartbroken. “My dad was the strongest man I knew, but the Depression brought him to his knees.” While starving children in the Appalachians chewed on their hands, nearly drawing blood, nursery school children in Philadelphia played an “eviction game.” Toy furniture would be piled up in one corner of the room, then picked up and moved to another corner. “We ain’t got no money for rent, so we move. Then we get the sheriff on us, so we move again.”

Some middle-class families managed to hold onto their homes by taking in boarders, bartering, and stretching every available dollar. Robert recalls their Illinois home without ice (for ice boxes) or milk delivery, discontinued city water (only well water), and a disconnected gas range. Shacks and shanties, Hoovervilles, provided shelter for destitute families. Alice (10 yrs) lived far from the tarpaper huts. “Grandma and Grandpa would squeeze all of us kids in a car and drive us down to a Hooverville by the river. It made our hearts ache to see how bad off other kids were. Even if we only got sweets or fruit once a month, it made us think how lucky we were.”

Life during the Great Depression – Lessons Learned
First-hand recollections of life during the Great Depression must not be disregarded. Those “children’s” voices now plead with us to recognize the symptoms of an economic CRASH and to react in time.

  • Credit mentality instead of paying cash. “Don’t spend money you don’t already have in your pocket.”
  • Rich grew richer at the expense of others. “Don’t pay someone else to provide something that you can learn to do or to make yourself.”
  • Abandonment of traditional values and frugality. “Never buy anything you can use – only what you can’t live without.”
  • Self-Indulgence and self-gratification by immediate acquisition of possessions. “Don’t buy anything until you have twice the purchase amount.”
  • High Expectations by gambling in the stock market. “It’s doesn’t matter how much money you can make, but how much money you can save!”
“Then he [Jesus] said to them, ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions’” (Luke 12:15).

The people of the depression gained a new outlook on life and many survivors still hold those same virtues today. They deny the self indulgence and immediate gratification that come from material things. Instead they focus on relationship -- with their family, with others, and most importantly, with God.

They realize that good can come from bad and meaning can come from tragedy. If you would like to help children during depressed economic times throughout the world, we highly recommend our friends at Compassion International.

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