*** the Great Depression -- unidentified Depression family Oakie Oakies

Unidentified Depression Family (1936)

Depression family
Figure 1.--While President Roosevelt's motives were questioned at the time, we think it is clear that his goal and that of New Deal figures were humanitarian. But the question of whether they helped end or prolonged the Depression is a very important question. Here a mother with her two children or living in an Elm Grove, Oaklahoma Hooverville (August 1936). While the term Hooverville is commonly used, many New Deal historians do not mention that AAA policies played a major frole in forcing thousands of tennant farmers and share cropers off the land and to this kind of abject poverty. The FSA was in part created to assist the people the AAA policies had unitebnionally forced off the land. Source: Library of Congress LC-USF34- 009694-E. Click on the image for a fuller discussion.

These photographs of the families uprooted by the Depression are heart rending. Unfortunately we do not know their names or what they were doing before the Depression or what happended to them after the photograph was taken. We do know that the New Deal did not end the Depression,. Unemployment finally declined to manafeable levels in 1939 when war orders began to poor in from Europe. And during the ensuing War, unenoloyment declined to minimal levels. This family although unidentified does look like they are refugees from the farm crisis. Perhaps they were share cropers. The father is not in the photograph, but it is possible he was out looking for a job when the photographer took the photograph. The photograph was taken in California so they may have been part of the movement from the Dust Bowl to California.

Reader Question

A reader writes, "Interesting picture. Wondering how rich these people were before the Depression. I understand from novels that in Agriculture there was the dust bowl. A series of droughts that brought about soil erosion and the good earth was blown away. The farming community was heavy in det and the banks forclosed. They were thus thrown into poverty and were forced to migrate to the city in the hope of work. It wasn't there because of the world slump and stock market crashes." Our reader is of course referring to Jojn Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath about the Depression, Dust Bowl, and Oakies.

Agriculture Adjustment Act

While the term Hooverville is commonly used, many New Deal historians do not mention that AAA policies played a major frole in forcing thousands of tennant farmers and share cropers off the land and to this kind of abject poverty. The FSA was in part created to assist the people the AAA policies had unitebnionally forced off the land. The principal AAA effort was to take land out of productuon to reuce the supply of agriculktural products and thus raise prices. Much of the land taken out of production was thst bing farmed by tennant farmders anbd share croppers. Thus people like this were left with no way of supporting themselves. Thus the FSA was in part created to deal with the people dispossed because of AAA polivies.

Farm Security Administration

The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was one of several New Deal agencies designed to assist rural America. A small effort conducted by the FSA was to document Americans living in poverty in rural areas by creating a photographic record. The result is a remarkable set of photigraphs of great historical significance. One of the small group of photographers was Dorothea Lange who took the moving photograph here. These images appeared in magazines and newspapers as Americans debated the Depression and how to address it. The program drew the ire of Congrsssional Republicans who attempted to restrict the funding and eventually kill the program. This became a real problem after the Comgressional byelection in 1938 returned many Republicans and conservative Democrats to Congress. The collection might well have been lost, but the program afministers managed to transfer the archive to the Library of Congress. Dorothea Lange went on to become one of the most significant American photographers. She later worked for the War Relocation Authority (WRA). She is particularly know for her photographs of the Japanese Americans intened during World War II.

Rural America

America had the largest farm industry in the world. Most Americans until the turn-of-the 20th century lived in rural areas. And by the 1930s the rural population was still a major segment of the American population. Anerican farmers furing World War I saved millions of Eurropeans from starving during and after Workd War I. The problem in rural America began before the Wall Street Crash. It is a complicated question, but essentially farmers expanded production to feed Europe during World War I. After Europe began to recover in the 1920s, there was inadequate demand for American farm products. Of course in the 1930s things got worse as prices fell even further and as our reader mentions, the Dust Bowl became just another of the nany problems afflicting farmers.

Dust Bowl

The term "Dust Bowl" was a term coined by the people who lived in the drought-stricken Great Plains during the Great Depression. The Great Plains were opened to farming by new decices such as the steel plow. The afvent of tractors enabled even more intense farming. Farmers did not, however employ needed soil conservation measures. Robert Geiger, an AP correspondent in Guymon, Oaklahoma first used the term in a dispatch. It was quickly picked up by other journalists and became part of the American vernacular. The Dust Bowl was felt all ober the FGreat Plains, but was most severe in the souther area. The most severely affected area was southeastern Colorado, southwest Kansas and the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas. It was the culmination of decades of abuse of the land and a drought. Tons of topsoil were swept off barren fields and and into storm clouds for hundreds of miles. The affects of the dust storms eventually affected the entire country. There were small storms earlier in the early 1930s: 1932 (14 dust storms) and 1933 (38 storms). One source estimated that by 1934 that 100 million acres of farmland had been stripped of their top soil. There were weeks of dust storms when Spring reached the souther plains. It was Black Sunday (April 14, 1935) that caught the nation's attention.

The Oakies

Oakies is the derisive term used for people from Oakloahoma fleeing the Dust Bowl. Oaklahoma was one of the states most severely affected by the Dust Bowl. It became a general term for all the people of the various states of the southern Plains. Many packed their belongings in a drecepit Modet T and headed west for California where there were rumors jons were available. At the time the term took on connotations of vagabonds or shiftless people. The term has since neen embraced by the people of Oaklahoma as describing a tough and resiliant people. They were the people Will Rodgers described when he said, "America was the first country to go to the poor house un an automobile." Actually Rodgers came from Oaklahoma himself and after moving to California and working in Hollywood quipped that the Okies arriving in California managed to increase the average intelligence of both states.


Many of the rural people most severly affected by the problems of rural America during the Depression were share cropers. Sharecropping is an agricultural system which developed in the Southern states during the Civil War. It was a farm tenancy system in which families worked a farm or section of land in return for a share of the crop rather than wages. Sharecropping replaced the plantation system destroyed by the Civil War. The victorious Federal authorities which occupied the South did not seize plantations, but empancipation meant that the owners no longer had a captive labor force. The former planters, even those activly engged in rebellion, for the most part still had their land, but no slaves or money to pay wages. The former slaves on the other hand did not have jobs or land and because they had been denied education, had few options. Sharecropping developed because the former slaves and planters needed each other.

New Deal Agricultural Efforts

The New Deal adopted a range of programs to address the problem of rural America. The first mahor act was the Agricultural Adjustment Act (1933). The goal was to raise farm prices. It was struck down along with other New Deal programs by the Supreme Court as unconstitunional (1936). Other programs included the Resettlement Administration (RA), the Farm Security Administration (FSA), and the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). A variety of rural welfare projects were carried out by the WPA, NYA, Forest Service and CCC. These projects included school lunches, shools construction, roads in rural areas, reforestation, and purchasing marginal farm land to enlarge national forests. The Soil Conservation Service (SCS) was set up in the Agriculture Department to address the problem of the Dust Bowl.


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Created: 7:01 PM 10/13/2009
Last updated: 10:39 AM 10/6/2011