The Sociocultural Impact of the Great Depression

The Great Depression initiated New Deal projects to develop impoverished parts of the United States, crafting a cohesive national culture.

Oct 18, 2021By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA
us development new deal
A painting depicting technological and infrastructural progress during the New Deal era, via Boston Review

 

Throughout the 1920s, the United States had many distinct regional cultures and social class distinctions. When the Great Depression struck in 1929, the resulting New Deal economic reforms helped create a more unified national culture through collective struggle and common infrastructure. Faced with an unprecedented crisis, Americans pulled together like never before.

 

Before the Great Depression: Distinct Cultures

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A 1920s convertible, via the Cleveland Museum of Art

 

This era saw a cultural explosion in terms of art and music. For the first time, the US was more urban than rural, and new technologies gave Americans unprecedented access to entertainment. The “Jazz Age” introduced millions of listeners to new music, especially through recent mass-produced innovations like record players and radios. Transportation exploded with advances in air travel and the mass production of the automobile. Motion pictures increased significantly in popularity, especially when audio was added late in the decade. Because of a booming economy, for which most of the ‘20s is known as the “Roaring Twenties,” innovations were increasingly enjoyed by the average citizen.

 

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A kerosene lantern used on a farm in prior to the New Deal era

 

However, there was a distinct urban/rural divide in terms of quality of life. At the end of the 1920s, many rural Americans still lacked electricity. Even as late as 1936, some 90 percent of rural farms were not electrified. The lack of electricity and other infrastructure in rural areas led to a growing sociocultural divide as the nation surpassed the halfway point in urbanization. In urban areas, the improvement in communication and entertainment technology began unifying the culture, with urban residents able to consume the same mass media as those in other cities. And, as more people had money, they could purchase the same types of products, helping unify urban culture through consumerization.

 

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A Mississippi farm in 1939, via the University of Mississippi, Oxford

 

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Urbanization and its unifying culture was a distinctly northern phenomenon during the 1920s, as the South remained economically underdeveloped. Even 60 years after its defeat in the U.S. Civil War (1861-65), the former Confederate States of America remained a primarily rural region that relied on manual labor. Outside the South, the Appalachia region of portions of West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania were also known for poverty and struggling agriculture. These areas, which had high levels of poverty, often lacked education. In Alabama, for instance, only one of every eleven rural teenagers attended high school in the 1920s. There was resistance to compulsory education laws due to segregation, with some whites fearing the advancement of black citizens if black children were compelled to go to school.

 

Roaring Twenties and Economic Inequality Before and During the Great Depression

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A wealthy woman wearing 1920s fashions, via The American University of Paris

 

While the Roaring Twenties was seeing a growing urban/rural divide, a second divide was also widening: an economic divide between rich and poor. Although the 1920s saw an increase in economic growth overall, much of it was concentrated in the hands of a small group. In 1928, the “income gap” was at its greatest extent, with the wealthiest families making much, much more than middle class and poor families. With few regulations on business and low tax rates, the decade was a boon for the wealthy, and they saw their share of America’s total income rise substantially.

 

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A magazine cover depicting social class resentment between the rich and poor in 1932, via The University of Virginia, Charlottesville

 

The beginning of the Great Depression after the Black Tuesday stock market crash in the autumn of 1929 saw tensions rise between the rich and poor. Not surprisingly, much of the blame for the intense recession was placed on the rich, and historians view the record economic inequality of the era for making the suffering worse than it would have been. Prior to the presidential inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt in March 1933, which began the New Deal economic reforms, much resentment hinged on the fact that poverty relief was predominantly believed to be the domain of local charities and wealthy donors. Violence sometimes erupted when workers attempted to unionize and protect their jobs, putting them at odds with wealthy factory owners and their hired security forces.

 

The New Deal Unifies American Culture

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Many men standing together in a line for food during the Great Depression, via WGBH Educational Foundation, PBS

 

The sheer depths of the economic calamity drove Americans together ideologically. By the mid-1930s, a strong majority of Americans were in agreement on the role of government in regulating and stimulating the economy. In autumn 1932, after more than two years of the Great Depression, voters overwhelmingly chose Democratic presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt. In a groundbreaking move, Roosevelt, known colloquially as “FDR,” promised vigorous federal action to help the economy. His rival, incumbent Herbert Hoover, stuck with traditional Republican values of leaving aid up to state and local organizations.

 

After the freewheeling 1920s, the Great Depression drove Americans together out of necessity. People helped each other out with favors when they could, and family members often helped care for each other’s children. A sense of camaraderie was instilled in a way that had not been felt for decades, perhaps since the U.S. Civil War (1861-65). With so many people struggling, there was a sense of shared struggle and no need for pretension. In the Midwest, the terrible Dust Bowl of the early- and mid-1930s affected all farmers in the region, pulling wealthy and poor into the same boat. With so few Americans able to escape the Great Depression or Dust Bowl entirely, there were unprecedented levels of empathy.

 

Government Is An Accepted Economic Player

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An exhibit showing the federal government role in the economy, via Economy Museum at the St. Louis Federal Reserve

 

Prior to the New Deal, there was a much greater role for state governments as opposed to the federal government. The federal government had a smaller role in domestic affairs, especially in terms of economics, as there was considerably less interstate commerce and foreign trade before 1933. Poverty assistance and most infrastructure projects were left entirely to the states. In the 1920s, shortly after the Red Scare, there was much suspicion in the U.S. of any talk of government oversight, regulation, or control that could be considered “socialism.” Conservatives, especially, balked at the notion that the federal government should have oversight over investing, banking, employment policies, and poverty relief.

 

With the success of the New Deal, the public quickly came to accept, and even demand, that the federal government maintain an active role in the economy. This included both regulatory measures, such as overseeing banking and investing, and serving as an employer, either directly through federal agencies or creating jobs through federal grants. While federal government employment prior to the New Deal was often relegated to the military or the postal service, a myriad of agencies created between the New Deal and the early Cold War employed thousands.

 

Everyone In School

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A school bus in 1936, via State Library of North Carolina, Raleigh

 

Although U.S. states had all made some public education compulsory by the end of World War I (1914-18), compulsory attendance laws were not well-enforced. At the outset of the Great Depression, there was still child labor and there was little public demand to make sure that children were in school. As unemployment drastically increased during the Depression, there was suddenly demand to ensure that older children and teenagers were not competing with adult men for jobs. Oversight of public education also shifted from the county level to the state level, ensuring both better funding and better oversight of attendance and school conditions.

 

A combination of scarce jobs, federal programs to provide school lunches, and new school-related infrastructure like parks and playgrounds led to more teens attending high school during the New Deal era. In 1938, the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act set minimum ages for working outside the home nationwide, effectively ending widespread child labor. Culturally, therefore, the notion of universal schooling, and of most teens having a “high school experience,” can be attributed to the Great Depression.

 

Electrification

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A 1934 pamphlet of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)

 

The New Deal was an opportunity to develop the underdeveloped areas of the country, and the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 provided federal loans to help ensure affordable electricity in rural areas. New Deal agencies like the Tennessee Valley Authority, or TVA, created power plants to provide new energy sources in the South and West. The Hoover Dam, completed in 1935 as a New Deal infrastructure project, was the largest project in the world at the time and provided electricity to Nevada, Arizona, and California. These massive projects to ensure that all Americans could enjoy the benefits of electricity helped reduce the urban/rural cultural divide and unite citizens through shared mediums like radio, television, and telephone.

 

Creation Of A Middle Class

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A stereotypical American middle class nuclear family

 

The New Deal is often credited with creating the American Middle Class, which remains a potent cultural force today. During the Roaring Twenties, there was a significant divide between rich and poor, with most new wealth going to a very small percent of top earners. As a result of the New Deal, which provided jobs to the unemployed masses, subsidized goods and services so they were now affordable, and regulated the banking and investment industries to ensure that citizens would not suddenly lose their savings, millions of Americans had economic stability for the first time. Labor laws mandated the now-iconic 40-hour workweek and required employers to provide overtime pay for any hours worked above those 40.

 

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A Social Security Administration poster from 1936, via the Social Security Administration

 

The creation of the Social Security Administration in 1935, which provided a pension to Americans once they turned 65, reinforced the middle class nuclear family by allowing the elderly to retain their independence. Adults now had some disposable income because they did not have to save every spare penny for retirement, and the creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) ensured that every penny that was saved in the bank would never be lost due to bank failure. Millions of citizens could now spend on new goods and services with confidence, not having to fear upcoming economic crises that had previously brought about bank failure and financial ruin.

 

Entertainment Culture

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The 1930 premier of Hell’s Angels at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, via Water and Power Associates, Los Angeles

 

The conservative 1920s, which saw Prohibition keep Americans sober by banning liquor, crumbled under the stresses of the Great Depression. Faced with unprecedented economic woes, millions of people sought temporary escapes. With the end of Prohibition in 1933, another source of escapism arose in the form of electric entertainment. Despite widespread unemployment and bank failures, Americans were willing to spend on music and movies. A growing array of film genres appealed to those who wanted comedy or action, and higher-quality films were made by major studios. By 1939, the film industry had grown to become the 11th-largest industry in the country!

 

Today’s blockbuster films, made by huge studios, can be seen as descendants of the “Golden Age” of cinema that was spawned by the Great Depression and resulting New Deal. Troubled by woes, Americans sought glitz, glamor, action, and humor on the silver screen. Early Hollywood stars and starlets of this “Golden Age” can be seen as precedents for today’s celebrity-obsessed culture.

 

Great Depression-Era Sociocultural Development Influenced By The New Deal: Executive Orders And Civil Rights

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The White House is the headquarters of the federal Executive Branch, via The White House, Washington DC

 

Collectively, the advancements that occurred under the New Deal helped influence the evolution of today’s culture. Without the New Deal, social progress in terms of civil rights would arguably have been much slower due to conservative resistance. By showing the physical benefits and ardent public support of strong federal action, the New Deal helped pave the way for state and local acceptance of future federal goals, such as school integration in the 1950s and the end of Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s. States learned in the 1930s that a powerful executive branch could be a force of reckoning and win over the masses.

 

Today, when we refer to “the government,” we tend to be referring to the federal government, specifically the executive branch. This strong shift in government power, although it had begun slowly soon after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, rapidly jolted during the New Deal. Power shifted from the states to the federal government, and somewhat from Congress to the President. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unprecedented use of the executive order allowed him to create specific regulations even in the absence of a new law from Congress. FDR’s free use of the executive order as part of New Deal reforms would reinforce the ability to use this tool for civil rights reforms in later years.



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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.