The Great Depression (1929-1939) was a severe economic crisis in the United States that caused millions of families to be without work, food, and shelter. Following years of overproduction, decline in national trade, irresponsibility in banking institutions, and the Stock Market Crash of 1929, the unemployment rate skyrocketed and thousands of banks began to fail. Although textbooks fervently discuss the depression’s wrath on banks, employment, and programs introduced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to aid helpless families, children are often eliminated from the discussion. How were children in the United States affected during the Great Depression?
Figure 1 is an iconic photograph taken by Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression. The image became known as, “Migrant Mother,” and represented the hardships families experienced during the 1930s. In this photograph a mother sits in a tent surrounded by three of her seven children.
“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.”2
This statement by Lange verifies that the woman in the picture is the mother of the children surrounding her. The family is dressed in tattered clothing, their hair is dirty, and their bodies are frail from hunger. The children’s faces are turned away seemingly out of shame and unhappiness. The mother’s expression is one of contemplation and defeat as she worries how to feed her hungry children. At the onset of the Great Depression, 250,000 American children became homeless and 20% were malnourished and without decent clothing.3 The suicide rate hit an all-time high because parents could not help their own children, leaving many adolescents orphaned. Although this picture is archetypal because of the mother figure, the children represented are what make this photograph so emotional and poignant.
Following the election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, relief became a possibility for countless Americans. New Deal programs focused on aid to those in need during the Great Depression gave a sense of hope that was not evident before. People began to see the Roosevelts as a savior and many letters were written to them asking for help, especially Mrs. Roosevelt.
Well I don't suppose you know who I am. But I'm a 16 year old mother¬less girl that has to work hard for all she gets. I have a brother & a sister & daddy We are working at day labor for a living and don't get much of that to do. In the winter I could piece quilts if I had any scraps. We are trying to keep off the relief this winter so we are keeping every penny we can to buy groceries this winter, Whether we have sufficient clothes or not. We haven't even enough furniture. We haven't any bedsteads, a stove, or cabinet. some of our Neighbors are letting us use their stove, cabinet, & one bedstead. I thought you might have some old clothes, coats, and shoes. or any kind of clothing you could send to us. I have read so much about your kindness I know if you have any you will send them. I would send some money for postage but haven't any. Address to your loving friend Miss D. H.4
This letter was addressed to Eleanor Roosevelt in September of 1934 from a 16 year-old girl in Texas. This young girl already has to work to make enough money to survive. She also details the necessities, such as suitable clothing, that her family must go without. Too desperate to feel shame in begging, this very brave adolescent asks for old clothing to keep her family warm during the upcoming winter. It is evident that the girl, although only 16, felt very responsible for the welfare of her family. However, even children younger than 16 felt responsibility for their family.
My dear Lady,
I am a little girl 9 years of age, I have a mother, and father, and two smaller sisters.
About four months now, my father opened a small grocery store . . . It isn't easy for him to pay all of his bills, because his money is very little. Nobody seems to help us. And sometimes my mother cryes because maybe we'll loose the store. I'm always sorry because I'm still young and I can't help much. I was thinking of You, because I always see You in the paper with a smile in Your face. And I know that You have a kind heart. I thought if I wrote to You, maybe You would help us, with a little money and then with Your help I can help my father.5 This little girl also begs for help from Eleanor Roosevelt and even capitalizes the word, ‘You,’ as if she is God-like. Both girls state that they have seen positive images and reports of Mrs. Roosevelt’s kindness in the newspaper and feel confident that she will respond. It is also clear that neither child is in school, and instead helps the family earn money. Children were not attending school for multiple reasons. First, providing for their family was much more important at the time and 3 million children left school to help their families survive. In addition, thousands of U.S. school closings occurred because they simply didn’t have the funds to operate.6
These puzzles pieces from the past make it very clear that the Great Depression directly impacted the lives of children in the United States. We often think about the horrors of being without a job, but the impact on children is easily forgotten. If parents were poor and hungry, their children were as well. Children had to leave school to help provide for their family, and in many cases seek help from others for their parents and siblings. This devastating time pushed children to leave their innocence behind, mature very quickly, and learn how harsh the world can be at a very young age.
1 Fig. 1. Dorothea Lange, Destitute pea pickers in California; a 32 year old mother of seven children. 1936. Photograph. The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. From: http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/list/128_migm.html (accessed September 30, 2013).
2 Dorothea Lange, "The Assignment I'll Never Forget: Migrant Mother," Popular Photography, 1960.
3 New Deal Network, "How the Depression Affected Children." Accessed September 29, 2013. http://newdeal.feri.org/eleanor/er2a.htm.
4 D.H. to Eleanor Roosevelt, September 6, 1934, in Digital History Explorations: Children and the Great Depression, http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/learning_history/children_depression/help_president.cfm.
5 M.K. to Eleanor Roosevelt, April 27, 1938, in Digital History Explorations: Children and the Great Depression, http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/learning_history/children_depression/9yearold.cfm.
6 New Deal Network, "How the Depression Affected Children." Accessed September 29, 2013. http://newdeal.feri.org/eleanor/er2a.htm.