Experiences in Great Depression

What did it mean to be an American in the Depression era?


In the 1930s, America experienced an economic depression of gigantic proportions. Upon being elected, President Franklin Roosevelt introduced a series of reforms known as the New Deal to rectify the countries economic problems. But many groups and ethnicities tended to get a raw deal, due to social, governmental, and in one case, environmental problems. Ultimately, these formed the experiences of Americans in the era of the Great Depression and the New Deal.
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Unions and Strikes: The Context of Events

- National Industrial Recovery Act (1933) and Wagner Act (1935) legalized labor unions; 10 million belong to union by 1941

- Companies still refused to recognize unions, led to strikes

- Strikes like GM sit down strike of 1937 (pictured above) impeded productivity; local gov't refused to support GM in stopping strike

- Gov't later passes Fair Labor Standards Act (1938); calls for defined workweek, minimum wage, and significantly reduced child labor

- American Federation of Labor; largest union; only allowed white males with skilled work

- People within A.F. Of L. form Committee (later Congress) of Industrial Organizations for all workers of all trades due to discrimination; separates from A.F. Of L. in 1936 and becomes chief rival

While advancements were made in the rights of workers for better conditions, Not all groups were allowed to enjoy them. This is especially made true of the ethnicities and and workers mentioned below.


- Declining incomes spur women to seek work

- Accused of taking jobs from men; despite not seeking factory work

- Even with social progressives fighting (Eleanor Roosevelt), women still treated second class

- New Deal programs allotted lower pay for women

In a maintaining of the patriarchal ideology of the past, women were still left behind in the workforce, and were treated as though men were being usurped by them. A contrast between the traditional house making role of the woman, and the need for higher income and productivity has formed.

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Dust Bowl and Worker Exodus

- Drought in Great Plains region ruins all crops and soil; took form of dust cloud; hazardous air humans

- Partially caused by farmers' poor practices, wind carried topsoil, forming dust cloud

- Farmers (primarily from Oklahoma) migrate to California to seek farm work; little work was ever found

- Gov't creates Soil Conservation Service to educate on farming practices

- Region recovers due to Service; many choose not to risk coming back, environmental issues remain

An ecological disaster causes farmers to move out west, primarily to California to seek work, but they are unable to find any jobs out there. The farmers partially brought this upon themselves on account of poor farming practices, but ultimately, winds and weather did the farmers in, and another struggle for money and work is created because of this. Another group of need is created.

African Americans and Racial Discrimination

- Discrimination continued; lynchings continue in South

- Sharecroppers forced off land due to cutbacks in farm production

- Typically "last hired, first fired"

- National and state relief programs (New Deal) routinely ignored blacks in spite of extreme poverty

- Racial tensions increased due to poor living conditions

- Works Progress Administration and Conservation Corps provided segregated, low-pay jobs

- Over 100 blacks admitted into middle-level positions in gov't by President Roosevelt

- One federal worker, Mary Bethune, formed Federal Council of Negro Affairs to increase African American involvement in New Deal

- Fair Employment Practices Committee formed in 1941 on executive order; assisted minorities in gaining jobs for defense industries

African Americans continued to face racial discrimination, and were routinely rejected from the workforce, in spite of having as much economic need as other workers. Like the Dust Bowl farmers, the African Americans are left with no place to go. However, the government became more involved with "negro" affairs as time went on, up to the establishment of jobs for African Americans in the federal government. Of all the minorities, the African Americans were helped the most.

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Native Americans and Tribal Recognition

- John Collier, new commissioner of Bureau of Indian Affairs (1933)

- Conservation and CCC projects established on reservations for Indian benefit

- Indians became involved with WPA

- Lands restored to tribes with Indian Reorginization Act (1934); encouraged development of Native American culture

- Still withheld control from Indian peoples; accused of being paternalistic as before

Native Americans were touched upon again during the Depression, in order to restore relations, and improve their lands for the benefit of the government. They were allowed to work in the WPA, and projects worked for the benefit of the Natives. Lands were restored to the tribes, though the government continued not to recognize the tribes as sovereign people. Overall, the Natives received a rather positive treatment with regards to social issues, and seemed to work through the Depression with ease.

Mexicans and Forced Unemployment

- Mexican immigrants worked in farms for years

- Displaced on account of white migrants from Dust Bowl region and active discrimination in New Deal programs

- Many immigrants returned to Mexico

Mexicans received a raw deal during the Depression. Many of them, who were farming for years, especially in California, found themselves being displaced by white settlers who were looking for work after the Dust Bowl disaster. Due to the New Deal policies that actively favored white workers, Mexicans could not seek relief, and many went back to Mexico.


It can be said that Americans fought for better rights at work to maintain a stable household and life. But society still favored the white man above all else, forcing women and other minorities to live in poverty, without a chance to improve heir lives. Some groups, like African Americans, had it easier than others in terms of the betterment of heir lives. But the New Deal and workplace reforms still ostracized non-whites and prevented any opportunity to make lives better with the use of the reforms. To be an American in the Depression era meant either taking chances and fighting for rights and life, or, as was more often the case, accepting ones place and living in poverty and losing a good quality of life.