Learning About The Great Depression

"In other periods of depression, it has always been possible to see some things which were solid and upon which you could base hope, but as I look about, I now see nothing to give ground to hope-nothing of man." -- Former President Calvin Coolidge, January 1, 1933.

The Great Depression began in 1929, under the presidency of Herbert Hoover. It started with a dramatic and scary event: The Stock Market Crash of October, 1929. Millions of Wall Street investors lost fortunes in a single day! Even so, in the beginning, Hoover and others believed the Depression would be short. Market downturns, even sudden ones, had happened before. The years between 1929 and 1933 proved the experts wrong: The Great Depression was not just an American problem, but existed worldwide. It was the deepest and longest economic downturn in the western world, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Western Europe.

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." -- President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, March 4, 1933.

There were many problems caused by the Great Depression, but one of the most severe was the lack of employment opportunities. By 1933, about 15 million Americans were unemployed. Half of the banks in the United States had closed down, buckling under the pressure caused when Americans withdrew their life savings. Inflation was rampant, causing the price of food and other basic necessities to rise. At the same time, agricultural areas suffered from crop failures.

President Roosevelt sought to stop the destructive trends caused by fear, "declaring war" on the Depression with policies called "The New Deal." Some of these policies created large projects to give more people steady employment. Pessimism was rampant and some states were in political turmoil. Unless the federal government could do something to help inspire more confidence in the people, there was no telling how long the crisis would last or how bad it would get.

"True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made." -- President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, January 11, 1944.

In 1933, the "New Deal" brought the Civilian Conservation Corps into being. This government program allowed men aged 18-23 to get jobs in "public works," such as building roads and bridges, planting trees, and creating public parks. By the time the program ended in 1942, it had grown to include men aged 17-28. The jobs were steady, but offered low pay and little opportunity for training. Without a lasting solution, money for luxuries would remain low and people would not make big purchases such as homes and cars that could improve the economy.

"No one can possibly have lived through the Great Depression without being scarred by it. No amount of experience since the Depression can convince someone who has lived through it that the world is safe economically." -- Author Isaac Asimov, quoted in I. Asimov, A Memoir, 2009.

During the Depression, countless American women whose traditional roles had kept them out of the workforce sought work. In fact, it was not unusual for every member of the family to seek out something, anything, they could do -- from the very young to the elderly. Many women did not have advanced educations at the time, and there were few paths to vocational training. As the Depression Era gave way to the conflict of World War II, however, women mobilized into the workforce in bigger numbers and took on more work responsibilities. This challenging and frightening time sparked the beginning of long-term changes in the work world.

"We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future." -- President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, September 20, 1940.

The Great Depression began to lift in the late 1930s. By 1939, it was over. The huge decline in America's industrial output had been reversed by an even greater challenge: World War II. The same Americans who had just struggled to keep themselves and their children fed and clothed now faced a war in which millions of American men would fight overseas while women and youths used their new skills to contribute outside the home like never before.

As the war ended in 1945, peace brought with it a generation of Americans who had a wider variety of skills in technical disciplines, the sciences, "real world" problem-solving and survival skills than ever. The post-war period saw major growth in the number of universities and technical colleges in the United States. Education and innovation became more important values, both among the public and in the business world. In many ways, today's emphasis on constant professional growth was forged by the lessons learned in the Depression.