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"Growing Up in Down Times: Children of the Great Depression"

This essay provides historical perspective on the social, political, and economic circumstances of the Great Depression. It suggests some ways the hard times of the 1930s affected young people and left their mark on them as adults.

The United States’ dynamic capitalist economy has been a rollercoaster of booms and busts, sparing no generation from its astonishing dips and climbs. New markets, products, and efficiencies have enabled many Americans to live comfortably and sometimes acquire great wealth, yet the nation has also suffered severe economic downturns throughout its history. Depressions were regular occurrences in the industrializing nineteenth century, striking at least once every decade except for the 1860s (which was visited by civil war). Generally understood as prolonged business slumps causing widespread unemployment, depressions are no less devastating for being so common. And most devastating of all in terms of its length and depth was the Great Depression of the 1930s. It began just before the stock market crash of 1929 and ended with the outbreak of World War II in 1941. In between, fifteen million Americans, a quarter of the work force, lost their jobs. Millions more lost their homes, farms, businesses, and life savings. 

Historians still disagree about the causes of the depression, or rather about which combination of causes was most critical. Contributing factors generally include the overproduction of crops and manufactured goods, or their under-consumption due to low wages and the limited purchasing power of ordinary families. At the same time easy credit and overconfidence born of the prosperous 1920s prompted investors large and small to play the stock market like a carnival game and carry more personal debt than was prudent. Additionally, high tariffs and mismanagement of foreign debts stemming from the First World War stifled international trade. And an environmental crisis – partly natural and partly man-made – ravaged the Great Plains, stirring up droughts and dust storms that drove thousands of tenant farmers off their land. The resulting hardships can be glimpsed in iconic photographs of the period showing gaunt-faced migrant families driving west in over-packed jalopies; gangs of boys hopping freight trains in search of work; endless breadlines wrapped around city blocks, somber picketers demanding food, jobs, or housing; and angry strikers clashing with police. 

An inability to reassure a battered public, let alone turn the economy around, led to the defeat of an immensely popular president, Herbert Hoover, and an end to the Republican Party’s twelve-year reign in the White House. In his first hundred days in office in 1933, Hoover’s successor, New York Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, launched a host of programs to aid farmers, workers, homeowners, and the unemployed. He repealed Prohibition, reformed the monetary system, and restored people’s confidence in banks. Aided by a formidable first lady – Eleanor Roosevelt, economic advisers nicknamed “the brain trust,” and a powerful new medium – radio, which enabled him to speak directly to the public, Roosevelt offered a route to recovery. Conservatives still argue that his liberal “New Deal” policies and support for labor unions actually delayed recovery, but without a doubt his actions helped keep millions of Americans and their hopes alive. 

There are two schools of thought about the impact of the Great Depression on children. One school holds that the hard times left young people physically damaged and psychologically scarred. The other insists that the decade of dire want and desperate wandering served to strengthen their character and forge what became America’s “greatest generation” of the World War II era. In fact, children’s experience of the depression varied widely, depending on their age, race, sex, region, and individual family circumstances. Nevertheless, certain patterns have emerged. Demographically, birthrates fell during the decade to a low of 18 births per 1,000 population, and children’s health declined due to the poorer nutrition and health care available. 

Economically, many children worked both inside and outside the home; girls babysat or cleaned house, boys hustled papers or shined shoes, and both ran errands and picked crops. Yet the scarcity of jobs led record numbers of children to remain in school longer. Socially, high school became a typical teenage experience for the first time. A record 65 percent of teens attended high school in 1936; they spent the better part of their days together, forming their own cliques and looking to each other for advice and approval. Thus arose the idea of a separate, teenage generation. 

Politically, the state began to play a larger role in children’s lives. The federal government established day-care centers, supplied school lunches, built playgrounds, swimming pools, and ball fields. The 1935 Social Security Act provided aid for rural, disabled, and dependent children, while the Civilian Conservation Corps and National Youth Administration created jobs and educational opportunities for teens. Culturally, young people became a distinct market for comic books featuring Superman and other superheroes, movies starring child stars like Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney, and Disney cartoons introducing Mickey Mouse and the Three Little Pigs, whose theme song, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” became an anthem of the era.

Source | Vincent DiGirolamo, "Growing Up in Down Times: Children of the Great Depression," American Social History Project, February 2007,
Creator | Vincent DiGirolamo
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Article/Essay
Cite This document | Vincent DiGirolamo, “"Growing Up in Down Times: Children of the Great Depression",” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed May 28, 2023,

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