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Great Depression

This comes from Chapter 8 Of America 1929-1941 The Great Depression By Robert s McElvaine

To the factory gates, only to find a hundred others already there, staring blankly at the sign: no help wanted. The search then became more feverish. One day in 1934 a man in Baltimore walked twenty miles in search of a job. “I just stopped every place,” he said, “but mostly they wouldn’t even talk to me.” Perhaps an employment agency? A long wait, but it will be worth it to get a job. At last a chance. The questions: name, age, experience. Yes, well, well see what we can do, but there are already more than a hundred men in our files with similar backgrounds, and most of them are younger than you. Employers can be choosy, you know. It’s a buyer’s market. Why hire a man who is over forty, when there are plenty of unemployed men still in their twenties? Business has to be efficient, after all. “A man over forty might as well go out and shoot himself,” said a despairing Chicago resident in 1934. Gradually those over forty, though fit physically, began to feel old and look and act poor. Keeping up the appearance necessary to secure employment, particularly of the white-collar variety, became increasingly difficult”

As the days without finding a job became weeks, the weeks months, and the months years, it came to be more difficult even to look for work. . . You can get pretty discouraged and your soles can get pretty thin after you’ve been job hunting a couple of mouths,” a Minnesota Depression victim pointed out. First you came to accept the idea of taking a job of lower quality than you thought you deserved. Then you began to wonder just what you did deserve. It came finally, for some, to be a matter of begging: “For God’s sake. Mister, when are you going to give us work?” “How,” asked the daughter of a long-unemployed man, “can you go up and apply for a job without crying?”

As scant resources ran out, self-blame often grew into the shame of having to seek assistance. In some areas, people “Would almost starve rather than ask for help.” Indeed, some of their fellow citizens expected no less from them. “I have had too much self respect for my self and family to beg anything.” wrote a North Carolina man in 1933. “I would be only too glad to dig ditches to keep my family from going hungry.” But there were no ditches to be dug. For many, there seemed “little to look forward to save charity,” with all the stigma that implied. The loss of one’s “good standing” was a matter of great concern.

The thought of seeking charity was “very distasteful and humiliating.” Desperation began to take over. For many, nighttime was the worst. “What is going to become of us?” wondered an Arizona man. ‘Ive lost twelve and a half pounds this last month, just thinking. You can’t sleep, you know. You wake up about 2 a.m.. and you lie and think.” When you could sleep, bad dreams were likely. Worry and fear became dominant.  Sometimes you would look at your children and wonder what would happen to them. Sheer terror would suddenly overcome you. Some say you appear to be shell-shocked;
others tell you that you look like a frightened child. And well you should, because at times that’s just the way you feel. Often you cry like a youngster; you try to do it privately, but you know the children hear you at night. Of course you try to forget.For some, alcohol was a means of escape. It was not much help when you were hungry, though. “It’s funny’ a nineteen-year old in Providence said. “A lot of times I get offered a drink. It seems like people don’t want to drink alone. But no one ever offers me a meal. Most of the time when I take a drink it makes me sick. My stomach’s too empty.” An alternative to drinking was withdrawal from social contacts. Convinced that you are a failure, you try to avoid your friends, fearing that they will look upon you with scorn or, what is sometimes worse, pity. Thus you are unlikely to find out that many of your friends have also fallen victim to the Depression”

“My children have not got no shoes and clothing to go to school with,” a West Virginia man complained in 1935, “and we have’nt got enough bed clothes to keep us warm.” You resort to using old coats in lieu of blankets. What can be done? What of the children? They are cold and hungry, but “to do anything desperate now they would never live down the disgrace.” “What is a man to do?” You face “a complete nervous breakdown as a result of being idle. . . . What is the next move for a desperate man? To commit some crime in this time of need?” When “all else has failed,” one must do something. Is it wrong to steal coal to keep your family warm? Survival becomes the goal, the justification. Much like the slaves of the Old South, some Depression victims developed a distinction between stealing (from a fellow sufferer) and what the slaves had called taking (what you need and can convince yourself is rightfully yours because its possessor has exploited you or others like you). To some, it was acceptable to get “busy” and bring “home some extra money,” as the wife of a Michigan WPA man put it. “I’d steal if I had the guts,” declared a Rhode Island boy”

“The bulk of the help-seeking letters of the thirties were written by women to Eleanor Roosevelt. What was inappropriate behavior for most men—”begging”—was proper for women, either because women were believed to be naturally weak or because a mother seeking help was not showing weakness, but playing her accepted role. Thousands of the down-and-out, almost all of them women, wrote to Mrs. Roosevelt asking for old clothes. Americans facing adversity clung to their traditions and pride as long as possible, but the Depression forced many to set aside the former and swallow the latter, lest they have nothing at all to swallow. Clothing was considered an area of female responsibility. “Please do not think this does not cause a great feeling of shame to me to have to ask for old clothing,” an Iowa woman wrote to the First Lady in 1936- “I am so badly in need of a summer coat and under things and dresses, oh don’t think that it is not with a effort I ask you to please send me anything you may have on hand
in that line which you don’t care to wear yourself.” “I can sew and would only be too glad to take two old things and put them together and make a new one,” wrote a desperate Philadelphia woman. “I don’t care what it is, any thing from an old bunch of stockings to an old Sport Suit or an old afternoon dress, in fact. Any-thing a lady 40 years of age can wear.” Although men were more plentiful among writers asking for direct financial assistance than among those seeking clothing, women appear to have outnumbered men in this category as well. Men might be as pleased as women to receive help, but their expected sex role made it more difficult for them to ask. To do so would be further admission of failure as a provider”

 

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