Down and Out in the Great Depression

At the start of the Depression, many letters (mostly discouraging) were sent to President Hoover. These letters came primarily from well-to-do citizens, however some leftist workers’ letters found their way in as well. The well-to-do citizens agreed that the ultimate cause of the lower classes’ depression was their laziness and incompetence. On top of that, these well-to-do citizens thanked Hoover, probably because their money had gone unscathed (McElvaine, 38). Some opinions weren’t as favorable for the Hoover administration, however. Some people believed that “engineers may be intelligent but poor presidents” (pp. 43). Finally, the leftist parties did not appreciate the endeavors of the Hoover presidency. “As I have a lot of ‘Hoover time’ on my hands, would like to improve it. Please let me know where I can get some Socialist literature” (pp. 46).

After the Hoover years, however, a man portrayed as a father figure became some of the nation’s citizens’ only hope, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The middle-class, sometimes seen as hit the hardest by the Depression, pleaded with the Roosevelt administration for any help, but remained very proud in doing so. Many begged to remain anonymous. Also, like many other classes, the members of the middle-class didn’t want charity or handouts; they just wanted employment, or possibly a loan (pp. 53-4). No one took pride in having to write these letters. Many had to swallow their pride just to get pen to paper. “It is very humiliating for me to have to write to you” one Depression victim wrote (pp. 62). Middle-class citizens, like the rural citizens, wanted nothing less than the blacks to take their employment (pp. 94). The rural citizens also turned to the Roosevelt administration as a beacon of hope. The cherished the values of independence and hard work, so they asked only for employment or a loan (pp. 69). Their ideal solution to this economic terror was employment, as a result. They weren’t satisfied with the outcome of the relief though. They believed the relief was just creating ‘loafers’ out of the unemployed who choose not to work (pp. 125). They felt that Roosevelt should “give work to the needy ones, and not to the ones that have everything” (pp. 138). The rural citizens felt slightly forgotten, but not as forgotten as some classes during the Depression.

A couple of classes during the Depression seemed to have been commonly forgotten about. The Black Americans, when having the courage to write these letters, explained their fear of signing their name. The thought of being seen as a ‘complaining black’ terrified them, but not as much as the thought of its consequences (pp. 82). They were unhappy with the relief efforts, much like the elderly and sick, because they felt it never reached them (pp. 84). Some just wanted Roosevelt to recognize the importance of the coloured vote. Most got their point across that the Depression started because of whites hogging all the money, and the solution wasn’t reaching them. The old, sick and poor felt many of these same feelings. Disgruntled, this class considered themselves the ‘forgotten men and women of the Depression’ (pp. 98). They blamed the greedy upper class for the Depression, and while some accepted the elderly-aimed solutions of the Townsend Plan (a system to aid the elderly in economy) and the Social Security Act (a permanent old age pension program) (pp. 98-102). These children had an untainted view of the Depression. At times, they were forced to become adults at age 11, worrying about bills and avoiding eviction (pp. 115). Others concerned themselves with unpopularity at school, and some just begged for jobs for their parents (pp. 116-118).

Economic groups weren’t the only opinionated Depression victims, however. Many social groups had much to say about the New Deal. The Conservatives detested the New Deal. They believed the recipients of relief to be “human parasites” (pp. 145). They felt that if Roosevelt gave the lower classes money, they’d just come back for more. The Conservatives had to be sure that their superfluous amount of money was not used in the aid of others (pp. 148-150). At the opposite end of the spectrum, the desperate also didn’t like the New Deal. Many of these people lived as if they were already dead (pp. 157). The New Deal renewed hope for those who benefited, however the desperate never felt they received any such benefits. Many, reaching a point of suicide, gave the President ultimatums: “If I wont get help from you dear Mr. President than I will take my life away” (pp. 167). Much like the Conservatives, the group of cynical Americans questioned the motives of the Roosevelt administration. They viewed relief as a political game—a game where government agencies care not about the poor but about themselves (pp. 174). Others feared that Roosevelt would be bought into a third term: “We don’t want the millionaires to buy the next president into the White House” (pp. 176). They also believed that Roosevelt didn’t care. “You are getting yours, and never have suffered like our people have, therefore you do not care” (pp. 180). Another way to look at the New Deal with skeptical eyes was to be part of the rebellion. The rebellion consisted of two groups: one with leftist ideology, and one without. They had in common, however, the desire for justice and equality. Some identified with the poorer classes, others only cared about themselves. Most blamed the upper classes, calling them the “laziest people in the world” (pp. 194). Finally, like most Americans, one group just remained completely unconvinced by Roosevelt and his promises of economic recovery. They were ‘unconvinced of his complete sincerity in his claims to be a friend of the common man’ (pp. 205). They doubted Roosevelt knew or cared about the conditions of the Depression. He’d broken promises before, what was stopping him from doing it again? They blamed him for bringing down the good citizens of America, saying he was starving them to death (pp. 206). Many lost faith, but the majority of Americans stood behind their president in this dire time.

Many Americans all over the economic spectrum blamed other classes for their misfortune. The rich blamed the poor, the poor blamed the rich, the middle class blamed the blacks, and no one took responsibility themselves. One complaint most of these classes (with exception to the few that benefited) was the lack of success of the New Deal and other relief efforts. Whether the blacks had too much employment, or the poor were too lazy to receive aid, very few Americans appeared to be happy with Roosevelt’s solution. This didn’t stop his popularity. Many Americans stood behind their president rain or shine, depression or big boom. Regardless of their positions, these citizens who turned to the President in their time of desperation proved that the pen is truly mightier.

McElvaine, Robert S, ed. Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1983.

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