The Depression Breadline

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The Depression Breadline


By: James P. Blair

Date: May 3, 1997

Source: © James P. Blair/Corbis.

About the Photographer: James P. Blair was born in Philadelphia in 1931. He has worked for Time-Life and was a staff photographer forNational Geographicfrom 1962 to 1994. This photograph is part of the collection of the Corbis Corporation's worldwide archive of over seventy million images.


On October 29, 1929, after a month of dramatic decline, the United States stock exchange crashed. The market plummeted to nearly half of its earlier market value, shattering business confidence, stagnating U.S. investment abroad, halting the flow of trade, and plunging many nations into a global economic depression. In the United States, the era became known as the Great Depression, and the crisis affected almost every citizen's life.

During the next three years, stock prices in the United States continued to fall. By late 1932, they had dropped to a mere twenty percent of their 1929 pre-crash value. Apart from ruining hundreds of thousands of individual investors, the crash broke the backs of many financial institutions. By 1933, 11,000 of the United States' 25,000 banks had failed. Industry plummeted and unemployment rose dramatically. Unemployment rose to nearly fifteen million workers, a staggering twenty-five to thirty percent of the U.S. work force. Breadlines became a common sight in many cities. Hundreds of thousands roamed the country as migrant workers in search of food, work and shelter. The 1920s had been dubbed the "roaring"decade, but after the jazz age, came the era of the blues, best typified by the refrain of a popular Depression-era song, "Brother, can you spare a dime?"

Each economic depression that hit the United States from the early nineteenth century to the 1930s was worse than the one that preceded it. As America urbanized and industrialized, more of its population became susceptible to the ever-changing market economy. People became dependent on their factory jobs and their employers, rather than the land they had once tilled.

The 1893 panic had marked America's worst economic crisis of the nineteenth century. Between 1892 and 1894, real income dropped shaprly, but the financial crisis was relatively short lived. The Great Depression was more sustained. America was still feeling the Great Depression's effects at the decade's end.



See primary source image.


President Herbert Hoover was widely criticized for the Great Depression, largely because of his disastrous response to the crisis that enveloped America. The economic catastrophe was dubbed by some contemporaries as the Hoover Depression. His problem was that he was non-interventionist by conviction, even when the prevailing conditions demanded results without concern for method. Hoover was not opposed to helping Depression victims, but what he sought was a vast voluntary effort as opposed to a government-led relief program. He called for a vast charitable effort from those who still had money; a plea that met a substantial response. In 1932, private giving reached a record level.

However, this response was not enough to correct America's ills. Hoover was obdurately and ideologically opposed to federal intervention, believing unemployment benefit would "Lower wages toward the bare subsistence level and endow the slackers." He persistently rejected federal relief responses, even when poverty increased, believing that it would destroy people's self-reliance and "spiritual responses."

The breadlines and soup kitchens that have come to symbolize the Depression era, particularly the early and most desperate years, were largely funded by private individuals rather than government agencies. Hoover's initiatives, such as the President's Organization for Unemployment Relief (POUR), centered on advertisement campaigns to encourage private giving and create a sense of public optimism. His public outpourings betrayed a man who had not come to grips with the situation his country was facing. "What this country needs is a good big laugh," he said in early 1931. "There seems to be a condition of hysteria. If someone could get a good joke every ten days, I think our troubles would be over."

Hoover was defeated in the 1932 Presidential election by Franklin D Roosevelt, who promised a non-ideological and pragmatic approach to the problems facing America. This would manifest itself as a radical economic program to revitalize the American economy and pull its people out of the depression mire. This so-called 'New Deal'—which took on several guises—was around what he termed the "three r's": relief, recovery and reform.

The relief tenet of the New Deal is a misnomer, implying that it was primarily concerned with the provision soup kitchens and dole money. This part of the New Deal was still based around principles of self-help, but by directly intervening in the market economy it provided openings for the destitute to work and so feed themselves and their families. Large public works schemes provided employment and injected money into the wider economy; a Resettlement Administration relocated people from the most desperate areas to parts of the country where they could find work.

Whether the New Deal or the onset of World War II pulled America out of the Great Depression is still a matter of historical debate. However, the New Deal left a lasting impression on the American political landscape, not so much for the social policy aspects of it—which have largely been overstated—but because it showed that America's historic aversion to government intervention was not as deep-lying as previously thought. The New Deal's great significance for American social policy came not with the establishment of a limited social security program in 1935, but in investing the confidence in government welfare and relief programs.



Galbraith, J.K.The Great Crash. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955.

McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America 1929–1941. New York: Times Books, 1993.