The 1930s in the United States began with an historic low: more than 15 million Americans—fully one-quarter of all wage-earning workers—were unemployed. President Herbert Hoover did not do much to alleviate the crisis: Patience and self-reliance, he argued, were all Americans needed to get them through this “passing incident in our national lives.” But in 1932, Americans elected a new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who pledged to use the power of the federal government to make Americans’ lives better. Over the next nine years, Roosevelt’s New Deal created a new role for government in American life. Though the New Deal alone did not end the Depression, it did provide an unprecedented safety net to millions of suffering Americans.
The Great Depression
The disaster had been brewing for years, though different historians and economists offer different explanations for the crisis: Some blame the increasingly uneven distribution of wealth and purchasing power in the 1920s, while others blame the decade’s agricultural slump or the international instability caused by World War I.
In any case, the nation was woefully unprepared for the crash. For the most part, banks were unregulated and uninsured. The government offered no insurance or compensation for the unemployed, so when people stopped earning, they stopped spending. The consumer economy ground to a halt, and an ordinary recession became the Great Depression, the defining event of the 1930s.
The 1930s saw natural disasters as well as manmade ones: For most of the decade, people in the Plains states suffered through the worst drought in American history, as well as hundreds of severe dust storms, or "black blizzards," that carried away the soil and made it all but impossible to plant crops.
By 1940, 2.5 million people had abandoned their farms in this Dust Bowl and headed west to California. The crisis gave the decade an unfortunate nickname: the “Dirty Thirties.”
Other natural disasters struck more quickly: The 1935 Labor Day Hurricane hit the Florida Keys as the most violent hurricane to ever make landfall in the Atlantic basin. The New England Hurricane of 1938, also a Category 5 storm, caused property losses roughly equal to $5 billion in today’s money.
President Herbert Hoover was slow to respond to these events. Though he believed that the “crazy and dangerous” behavior of Wall Street speculators had contributed in a significant way to the crisis, he also believed that solving such problems was not really the federal government’s job.
As a result, most of the solutions he suggested were voluntary: He asked state governments to undertake public-works projects; he asked big companies to keep workers’ pay steady and he asked labor unions to stop demanding raises. The shantytowns that were popping up as more and more people lost their homes were nicknamed “Hoovervilles” as an insult to the president’s hands-off policies.
The crisis worsened, and life for the average American during the Great Depression was challenging. Between 1930 and 1933, more than 9,000 banks closed in the U.S., taking with them more than $2.5 billion in deposits. Meanwhile, unemployed people did whatever they could, like standing in charity breadlines and selling apples on street corners, to feed their families.
Roosevelt’s New Deal
By 1932, many Americans were fed up with Hoover and what his political opponent Franklin D. Roosevelt called his “hear nothing, see nothing, do nothing government. The New York governor and Democratic presidential challenger, Roosevelt promised a change: “I pledge myself,” he said, “to a New Deal for the American people.”
This New Deal would use the power of the federal government to try and stop the economy’s downward spiral. Roosevelt won the 1932 presidential election handily.
The new president acted swiftly during his first hundred days in office to “wage a war against the emergency” just as though “we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” First, he shored up the nation’s banks.
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Then he began to propose more comprehensive reforms. By June, Roosevelt and Congress had passed 15 major laws—including the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Glass-Steagall Act, the Home Owners’ Loan Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority Act and the National Industrial Recovery Act—that fundamentally reshaped many aspects of the American economy.
Additionally, the Civilian Conservation Corps gave millions of young men employment on environmental and public works projects. These decisive actions also did much to restore Americans’ confidence that, as Roosevelt had declared in his inaugural address, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
American Culture During the 1930s
During the Depression, most people did not have much money to spare. However, by 1938 about 80 percent of American households had radios—and listening to the radio was free.
The most popular broadcasts were those that distracted listeners from their everyday struggles: comedy programs like “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” soap operas and sporting events. Swing music encouraged people to cast aside their troubles and dance.
Jazz Age bandleaders like Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie and Duke Ellington drew crowds of people to Art Deco ballrooms and dance halls around the country. And when Prohibition ended in 1933—freeing up legal sales of liquor—cocktail lounges and barrooms were happy to quench the national thirst for alcohol.
Even though money was tight, people kept going to see Hollywood movies—now being made in color. Musicals, screwball comedies and hard-boiled gangster pictures from the Golden Age of Hollywood—films like “The Wizard of Oz,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Casablanca,” “King Kong,” “Gone With the Wind” and the animated “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” from Walt Disney—offered audiences an escape from some of the grim realities of life in the 1930s.
The Second New Deal
President Roosevelt’s early efforts had begun to restore Americans’ confidence, but they had not ended the Depression. In the spring of 1935, he launched a second, more aggressive set of federal programs, sometimes called the Second New Deal.
The Works Progress Administration provided jobs for unemployed people and built new public works like bridges, post offices, schools, highways and parks. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, also known as the Wagner Act, gave workers the right to form unions and bargain collectively for higher wages and fairer treatment.
The Social Security Act of 1935 guaranteed pensions to some older Americans, set up a system of unemployment insurance and stipulated that the federal government would help care for dependent children and the disabled.
Roosevelt’s Second Term
In 1936, while campaigning for a second term, President Roosevelt told a roaring crowd at Madison Square Garden that “The forces of ‘organized money’ are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”
He went on: “I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match, [and] I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces have met their master.”
Roosevelt won the 1936 election by a landslide. Still, the Depression dragged on. Workers grew more militant: In December 1936, for example, the United Auto Workers started a sit-down strike at a GM plant in Flint, Michigan that lasted for 44 days and spread to some 150,000 autoworkers in 35 cities.
By 1937, to the dismay of most corporate leaders, some 8 million workers had joined unions and were loudly demanding their rights.
The Depression Ends
By the end of the 1930s, the New Deal had come to an end. Growing Congressional opposition made it difficult for President Roosevelt to introduce new programs. At the same time, as the threat of war in Europe loomed on the horizon—Adolf Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany in 1933, and invaded Poland in 1939—the president turned his attention away from domestic politics.
Timeline: 1930s. Securities and Exchange Commission Historical Society.
Breaking News of the 1930s. PBS: American Experience.
List of 1930's Major News Events in History. The People History.