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Why “Great Depression” – Causes and Personal Recollections

Those of us long in tooth have difficulty understanding why folks these days worry so much about an economic recession. The Great Depression of 1930-34 that we lived through was a genuine wide-wasting foot-stomping calamity.

The historic designation of “great” – as in large — is totally inadequate. It was a defining event that totally rearranged our concepts of government, social responsibility and employer-employee relations.

United States population at that time was 123 million, a little less than half that of today. Fortune Magazine estimated that 34 million men, women and children (28 percent) were without any income what so ever. In the absence of unemployment compensation programs, the federal government had no way of determining actual figures.

Average weekly pay for those who had jobs was $16.21. Purchasing power of money was three times that of today, but pay was less than today’s government-mandated minimum wage.

Five thousand banks failed during the Great Depression. More than 237,000 families were evicted from their homes. Two million men were “bumming around” the country at any given time searching for work.

Many cities patrolled the roads to prevent transients from seeking work where long-term residents were jobless. Those that sneaked by were arrested -a practice that was ineffective because men broke windows or accosted strangers in order to get a meal and bed in jail.

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Every city had a “soup kitchen” where long lines of hungry people – mostly men – waited. Women with children went to the head of the lines.

Shantytowns of scrap lumber and tents — without water or sewers — sprang up in wasteland near cities. They were called Hooverville’s after President Herbert Hoover who took office in 1929 as the world economy collapsed.

Laid off workers formed labor unions to bargain “job security.” My first assignment as a high school newspaper reporter was to cover the bitter 1936 “sit-down strike” at General Motors factories in Flint, Michigan.

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