Summer Unemployment Blues

Before the stock-market crash in October 1929, about 3 percent of American workers were unemployed -- 1.5 million people in a labor force of 50 million.

By 1932, a total of 12 million people -- 24 percent of the labor force -- were out of work.

There were few signs of new hiring in the Great Depression’s third summer, even as prices for farm products and corporate stocks rebounded. Even “young college and professional school graduates were unable to get placed,” Ohio lawyer Benjamin Roth wrote in “Great Depression: A Diary.”

What did the unemployed do, and how did communities and governments help them?

Jobless Americans tried two broad strategies: relocating and retooling. Single men took to the rails and roads seeking new opportunities. Some displaced Southerners migrated toward the delta near New Orleans, hammering together simple houseboats as floating homes.

“Their builders say that they can cultivate a patch of ground nearby, produce nearly all their food, and live independently without money, for such boats are not taxed,” the New York Times reported.

In the West, widespread interest in panning for gold rekindled, with more than 10,000 unemployed men equipping themselves “to try their luck in the gold fields.” In Washington, the Spokane Chamber of Commerce, cooperating with regional universities, offered a three-day course, heavily attended and hugely oversubscribed by men anticipating making the average dollar-a-day return for amateur prospectors, the New York Times reported.

Others attended “summer schools for the unemployed.” In New York, these offered women fast-track training in beauty culture and nursing, and men took classes in electrical wiring and auto mechanics.

Programs also abounded for sending city folks “back to the land.” New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt advocated a state plan to provide startup rent, tools, seed and household necessities. In June 1932, about 250 families had been helped by this plan, the Chicago Defender reported.

But soon, reality returned. Agriculture Secretary Arthur Hyde noted that there were few jobs available at farms generating profitable crops, and working on them did “not offer much hope except for people who have recently come from farms,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

On another front, economists and unions argued for a five-day work week to share available employment, but too many jobs were already part-time.

Communities also tried to help. Georgia welfare societies sponsored canning projects, and the state sent convicts to work in a Jenkins County community cannery, whose output fed the jailed and the jobless.

In Atlanta and other cities, county officials, the Red Cross and others sponsored public gardens where unemployed men could work two days a week to raise food for canning and secure a week’s rations for their families. Memphis appropriated $10,000 for canning equipment, and its citizens donated enough seeds to sow 2,500 vacant city lots.

Elsewhere, Long Islanders held bridge tournaments and donated the proceeds to the jobless. With greater effect, Chicago business leaders pledged more than $4 million to sustain unemployment relief during the summer.

Yet such large sums were just a trickle given the yawning crisis. Even a new $120 million federal-highway program creating 250,000 jobs would reduce the jobless rate by only 0.5 percentage point, the New York Times reported. These were hard times, indeed.

(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the History of Industry and Technology at the University of Rutgers, Camden, and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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