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The Great Depression Essay Research Paper by

The Great Depression Essay, Research Paper

by steve Carson



Though most Americans are aware of the Great Depression of 1929,

which may well be “the most serious problem facing our free enterprise

economic system”, few know of the many Americans who lost their homes,

life savings and jobs. This paper briefly states the causes of the

depression and summarizes the vast problems Americans faced during the

eleven years of its span. This paper primarily focuses on what life

was like for farmers during the time of the Depression, as portrayed

in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and tells what the government

did to end the Depression.

In the 1920’s, after World War 1, danger signals were apparent

that a great Depression was coming. A major cause of the Depression

was that the pay of workers did not increase at all. Because of this,

they couldn’t afford manufactured goods. While the factories were

still manufacturing goods, Americans weren’t able to afford them and

the factories made no money (Drewry and O’connor 559).

Another major cause related to farmers. Farmers weren’t doing to

well because they were producing more crops and farm products than

could be sold at high prices. Therefore, they made a very small

profit. This insufficient profit wouldn’t allow the farmers to

purchase new machinery and because of this they couldn’t produce goods

quick enough (Drewry and O’connor 559).

A new plan was created called the installment plan. This plan was

established because many Americans didn’t have enough money to buy

goods and services that were needed or wanted. The installment plan

stated that people could buy products on credit and make monthly

payments. The one major problem with this idea was that people soon

found out that they couldn’t afford to make the monthly payment(Drewry

and O’connor 559).

In 1929 the stock market crashed. Many Americans purchased stocks

because they were certain of the economy. People started selling

their stocks at a fast pace; over sixteen million stocks were sold!

Numerous stock prices dropped to fraction of their value. Banks lost

money from the stock market and from Americans who couldn’t pay back

loans. Many factories lost money and went out of business because of

this great tragedy (Drewry and O’connor

By the 1930’s, thirteen million workers lost their jobs which is

25 percent of all workers. The blacks and unskilled workers were

always the first to be fired. Farmers had no money and weren’t

capable of paying their mortgages. Americans traveled throughout the

country looking for a place to work to support themselves and their

family (Drewry and O’connor 560-561). John Steinbeck, born in 1902,

grew up during the Depression near the fertile Salinas Valley and

wrote many books of fiction based on his background and experiences

during that time and area of the country. One of his great works would

be the Grapes of Wrath In this book, Steinbeck describes the farmers

plight during the Great Depression and drought. When the rains failed

to come, the grass began to disappear. As the farmers watched their

plants turn brown and the dirt slowly turn to dust they began to fear

what was to come. In the water-cut gullies the earth dusted down in

dry little streams. As the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves

of the young corn became less stiff and erect; then it was June and

the sun shone more fiercely. The brown lines on the corn leaves

widened and moved in on the central ribs. The weeds frayed and edged

back toward their roots. The air was thin and the sky more pale; and

every day the earth paled. (qtd. Steinbeck 2-3). The farmers worst

fears were realized when their corn and other crops began to die. The

dust became so bad they had to cover their mouths with handkerchiefs

so they could breath (Steinbeck 3- When the drought hit the Great

Plains and the soil turned to dust, many farmers moved to California

because they could no longer farm their land(Drewry and O’Connor 561).

The drought began to affect other parts of the country. In 1930,

Virginia’s belt of fertile land dried up. Ponds, streams, and springs

all dried up and the great Mississippi River water level sank lower

than ever recorded. Small farmers every-where began to feel the

drought. Their small gardens were ruined and their corn crop was cut

almost down to nothing. The hay and grass needed to feed their

livestock was no longer available. They now faced a major problem -how

to feed their livestock. The silos were rapidly emptying and the barns

in many cases were empty. The farmers were terrified that the

government feed loans wouldn’t be available to keep the livestock from

dying. In many cases, the Red Cross was making allowances for feed to

keep alive livestock (Meltzer 121). The small farmers of fruit trees

and vegetable plants depended on others who ran canneries to bottle

and can their produce. The people they depended upon were the same

people that hired scientists to experiment on the fruits and

vegetables to come up with better tasting and yielding produce. Thus

the small farmers were dependent on these same rich landowners for

almost everything. They couldn’t harvest their produce on their own

so they sold it to the rich landowners and thus made very little money

on their produce (Steinbeck 444-447). The farmers found themselves in

debt caused by the purchase of land, tools, animals and other items

bought on credit. This credit was due to the bank and when the

farmers found them- selves unable to repay the debts the bank took

away everything they had – their land, homes, animals and equipment.

When the banks took over, they went in with tractors and destroyed

everything on the farms which included their homes and barns. This is

best por- trayed in Steinbeck’s description of how the tractors

destroyed everything in its way. “The iron guard bit into the house

corner, crumbled the wall, and wrenched the little house from its

foundation, crushed like a bug (50).

“In the little houses the tenant people sifted their belongings

and the belongings of their father and of their grandfathers”

(Steinbeck 111). This describes how after many generations of farming

on their land these people had to gather their property and memories

and then try to sell whatever they could. The farmers were so

desperate for money that they had to sell for literally

pennies.Steinbeck describes the desperate conversation of a farmer to

a persepective buyer “Well, take it-all junk-and give me five dollars.

You’re not buying only junk, you’re buying junked lives” (Steinbeck


The desperation for work and money became so bad that they were

willing to work for as little as was offered just so they could have

some sort of job and make any amount of money. Soon it was a fight

for life or death (Steinbeck). In a desperate search for a job

farmers moved themselves and their families all over the country. As

people wandered the country looking for work they were unable to live

in one place. Large numbers of homeless people led to Hoovervilles.

The farmers and their families had to build homes out of anything

that they could acquire as Steinbeck describes “The south wall was

made of three sheets of rusy corrugated iron, the east a square of

moldy carpet tacked between two board, the north wall a strip of

roofing paper and a strip of tattered canvas, and the west wall six

pieces of gunny sacking”(Steinbeck 310-311). The homes were usually

near water source so they could have water to drink from, cook and

wash their clothing (Steinbeck 311).

To cut down the number of people seeking jobs or needing help, the

government decided to try to come up with some sort of relief. Among

other things, they limited immigration, returned hundreds of Mexicans

living here,and sought other methods to help the farmers. Hoover’s

Federal Farm Board urged farmers to plant less so that prices would go

up but there was no encouragement to do so.From 1920 to 1932 farm

production did drop 6 percent but prices fell ten times as much-by 63

percent. Farmers watched prices hit new lows-15 cents for corn, 5

cents for cotton and wool, hogs and sugar 3 cents, and beef 2.5

cents(Meltzer 123). With farm prices so low, most farmers, living

under the fear of their mortgages, knew that sooner or later they will

lose everything. In 1932 the farmers declared a holiday on selling.

They picketed roads asking people to join the. They gave away free

milk to the poor and unemployed rather then let it spoil because they

refused to sell it. A thirty-day holiday on farm selling was begun

August 8 and extended indefinitely(Meltzer 125). In December 1932, 250

farmers from twenty-six states gathered together for a Farmers

National Relief Conference. They announced that they demand relief

from creditors who threaten to sweep them from their homes and

land(Meltzer 126).

In May 1933, the Agricultural Ajustment Act was passed. The aim

of this act was to raise the farm prices by growing less. The farmers

were paid not to use all the land to plant crops. The money came from

tax on millers, meat packers, and other food industries. In June of

that same year the Farm Credit Act was passed. This act helped

farmers get low interest loans. With this act, farmers wouldn’t lose

their farms to the banks that held the mortgages. The farmers who

lost their farms already would also receive low interest loans(Drewry

and O’connor 569).

The Great Depression was the end result of World War I. It

affected the rich and poor alike, factory workers and farmers, bankers

and stockbrokers. In short, it affected everyone; no one was left

untouched. But of all the people hurt, farmers were the worst off.

John Steinbeck chose to write about farmers hoping that Americans

would recognize their plight and correct the situation. The Great

Depression is known to be the worst economic disaster in U. S.

history. For this reason, the Depression caused many people to change

their ideas about the government and economy.