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Measurements and Myths of the Great Depression
BEN WATTENBERG: We've become accustomed to the images of bread lines, the apple sellers on the corners. But pictures cannot begin to capture the depth of the crisis. For that, we need to look at the desperate numbers of devastation, and we will. But first, consider one story that has come to epitomize the Depression experience -- the tragic saga of the Dust Bowl migration to California.
Most everyone who thinks about American history thinks they know this one cold. It was first immortalized by the memorable photographs of Dorothea Lang and others. John Steinbeck's classic novel, "The Grapes of Wrath," and the movie that followed have been etched on American chords of memory.
Steinbeck's heroes, the beaten-down Joad family, became stand-ins for the 375,000 Okies and Arkies who headed west in the 1930s. Many of them came across the desert on Route 66 through these mountain passes, seeking the lush San Joaquin Valley. Who were they? What really happened to them? As Americans were told over and over again, these were uneducated, dirt-poor refugee farmers blown away by the Dust Bowl, pushed to California to work as peasant pea-pickers facing harsh white-on-white racism. Right? Well, to begin, take that matter of the Dust Bowl itself.
JAMES GREGORY (University of Washington): So much of what we think that migration was all about is wrong, starting with the name. The whole concept of a Dust Bowl migration is a wonderful misnomer. Most of the people had nothing to do with the Dust Bowl region. Most really weren't victims of the drought either. A lot of them weren't even farmers.
BEN WATTENBERG: There was indeed a Dust Bowl, but almost all of these migrants came from areas well to the east of it, mainly from parts of Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri and Arkansas. And most did not match the demographics of the Joad family of Steinbeck's novel. Less than half the migrants, just 43 percent, were farmers or farm laborers. Almost one in six was a professional, a proprietor or a white-collar employee. About two in five were blue-collar workers. Accordingly, their prospects differed from those of the Joads.
JAMES GREGORY: About a third went into the valleys of California that are associated with "The Grapes of Wrath," two-thirds into the cities, especially Los Angeles, where they found industrial jobs. And some of them were white-collar workers. So the imagery is misleading. It's much too negative. It creates an impression of great misery, when there was certainly difficulties and there were people who suffered tremendously, but the majority's story is much more positive.
BEN WATTENBERG: For most people, even the journey itself, the great westward exodus, was not the hard road described in Steinbeck's novel.
JAMES GREGORY: This wasn't covered wagons. This was two days with camping along the way or stopping at motels in Arizona, and for many people, not unpleasant days at all, any more than it is today. For those who ran out of money, of course, there could be difficulties. But for most people, it's just a drive.
BEN WATTENBERG: It's not that families like the Joads didn't exist. They did. And those were real people that Dorothea Lang captured on film. But artists and the media often shape their data, just like social scientists.
Some of the rural Okies and Arkies faced deep-seated discrimination and scorn when they arrived in California. But perhaps they had the last laugh. They brought their country culture with them, which has survived and flourished, in California, across America, and around the world. The Okies and Arkies were not the only people who picked up and moved, fleeing the hurricane of the depression.
DAVID KENNEDY: The 1930s is the only decade for which we have numbers from the 18th century forward when net migration to the United States was negative. People actually left the country.
BEN WATTENBERG: Several hundred thousand Mexicans and Mexican-Americans also left the United States. Some, unable to find jobs in Depression America or facing widespread discrimination, saw greater opportunity back in Mexico. Others were repatriated, often against their will.
ALAN BRINKLEY (Columbia University): The Great Depression was the worst economic crisis in American history by a very large margin. And it's almost impossible to convey the dimensions of such a terrible economic crisis.
BEN WATTENBERG: The best way is with data. They tell a story beyond anything we've experienced in recent times. Take unemployment. From 1950 to 2000, the annual unemployment rate never even hit double digits. And when it got close, it was only briefly. But from 1930 to 1940, for more than a decade, unemployment in America averaged 18 percent, and it never dropped below 14 percent. At its worst, in 1933, the unemployment rate was 25 percent.
DAVID KENNEDY: In that era, the typical household had only one wage earner in it. So when we talk about one in four people being unemployed, we're really talking about one in four households in the country with no visible means of support, no reliable income. Today the typical household has two wage earners. So even a 25 percent unemployment rate -- God forbid that we should ever see it today -- would not mean the same thing in human terms as it did in 1933.
BEN WATTENBERG: The Depression hit almost every sector of the economy. One-third of American farmers lost their land from 1929 to 1932. Housing starts plunged by almost 90 percent between 1929 and 1933, and they wouldn't rebound for almost 15 years. The Dow Jones Industrial Average also plunged by almost 90 percent. Total wages dropped 60 percent. As we now measure it, more than half of all Americans were living in poverty.
ALAN BRINKLEY: This was a desperate time for families, because unemployment was so massive and so long-term and because there was no effective source of relief for unemployed people during much of the 1930s.
BEN WATTENBERG: The most intimate areas of American life were affected. From 1929 to 1933, the marriage rate fell by 22 percent. Many young people could not afford to leave their parents and start their own households. At the same time, the divorce rate dropped by 25 percent. If you were already in a household, you couldn't afford to set up a second one. The birth rate declined by 15 percent. Another mouth to feed? Those numbers measure the hardship of the time, but they had a lasting impact. This crisis was so extreme that it brought forth powerful remedies.
PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: I pledge myself to a New Deal for the American people.
BEN WATTENBERG: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal introduced major federal programs for relief and recovery, many of which are still with us today: Social Security, unemployment insurance, aid to dependent children, the minimum wage, stock market regulation, federal deposit insurance for banks. The New Deal marked a radical change in the role of the federal government.
DAVID KENNEDY: Calvin Coolidge once said that if the federal government went out of business tomorrow, the average American wouldn't notice the fact for at least six months, which was a pretty true statement, actually, because in the 1920s and before, the federal government's role was essentially to deliver the mail and service the national debt, such as it was, and make a few payments to veterans, and that was about it.
MILTON FRIEDMAN (Hoover Institution): Prior to the Great Depression, the public at large generally accepted the view that government was a problem, not a solution. The Great Depression changed that, because it was so widely interpreted as reflecting a failure of the private enterprise system. And as a result, the attitude of the public toward government changed. It changed from believing it was a problem to believing that government was the solution to every problem.
The Great Depression. Courtesy of the National Archives.