The Great Depression’s surprising silver lining

The Great Depression brought misery, poverty and suffering to millions across America. Did it also bring a significant rise in life expectancy and, if so, how? 

People look towards the camera ravaged by abject poverty and downcast by crushed hopes. It is the Great Depression and America’s urban and rural poor are photographed for newspapers and unwittingly create some of the most iconic images of the twentieth century.

Wooden farmsteads are battered and broken, timbers bleached and blistered, neglected homes collapsing back into the ground. The land that had previously supported these pioneer farmers was lost – the fertile top soil literally swept up in to the air in a series of devastating dust storms (described in more detail in a previous post on Black Sunday and the creation of the dust bowl).

Things were not much better in America’s cities. Factories closed down, their manufactured goods now out of reach of both domestic and overseas consumers and their workers joining lengthening unemployment queues. Soup kitchens, shanties (named Hoovervilles after the maligned president) and labour exchanges now studded the urban landscape.

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Black Sunday and the winds that destroyed the west

Chapter eight of the book of Hosea sets out the following stark warning:

“For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind: it hath no stalk: the bud shall yield no meal: if so be it yield, the strangers shall swallow it up.”

This biblical admonishment is usually interpreted in a metaphorical sense as a warning for those who do evil. In its simplest sense, what goes around, comes around – although, in line with the Old Testament’s characteristically hard edged morality, with devastatingly disproportionate consequences.

In America’s mid-west of the 1930s, the verse had a terrible and terrifying literal significance. The whirlwinds that came to destroy American farms and farmers would also have a wide-ranging and devastating impact far beyond the borders of both the mid-western states and the USA.

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