The Depression transformed American life. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the road in search of work. Hungry men and women lined the streets of major cities. In Detroit, 4,000 children stood in bread lines each day seeking food. Thousands of families, evicted from their homes, moved into ramshackle shantytowns, dubbed Hoovervilles, that sprang up in parks and on abandoned land. Cities quickly spent the little money they had available for poor relief. In Chicago, where half the working population was unemployed at the beginning of 1932, Mayor Anton Cermak telephoned people individually, begging them to pay their taxes. “We saw want and despair walking the streets,” wrote a Chicago social worker, “and our friends, sensible, thrifty families, reduced to poverty.” When the Soviet Union advertised its need for skilled workers, it received more than100,000 applications from the United States.
The Depression actually reversed the long-standing movement of population from farms to cities. Many Americans left cities to try to grow food for their families. In 1935, 33 million people lived on farms—more than at any previous point in American history. But rural areas, already poor, saw families reduce the number of meals per day and children go barefoot.
A Hooverville—a shantytown created by homeless squatters—outside Seattle, Washington, in 1933.
The celebrated photographer Dorothea Lange took this photograph of an unemployed man on a San Francisco breadline in 1933.
With the future shrouded in uncertainty, the American suicide rate rose to the highest level in the nation’s history, and the birthrate fell to the lowest.
“The American way of life,” the confident slogan of the consumer culture, and common sayings like “safe as a bank” took on a hollow ring. The image of big business, carefully cultivated during the 1920s, collapsed as congressional investigations revealed massive irregularities committed by bankers and stockbrokers. Banks had knowingly sold worthless bonds. Prominent Wall Streeters had unloaded their own portfolios while advising small investors to maintain their holdings. Richard Whitney, the president of the New York Stock Exchange, was convicted of stealing funds from customers, including from a fund to aid widows and orphans. He ended up in jail.