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.

The suffering of millions in the Great Depression is well known. Watching BBC Horizon’s Eat, Fast and Live Longer I was therefore surprised to learn that the Great Depression may have had another altogether more positive impact – increasing life expectancy by six years. Was this true? And, if so, in a decade marked by poverty, inadequate nutrition and an inability to pay for medical bills, how did the USA’s longevity rates leap forward so starkly?

According to a University of Michigan study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in September 2009, overall life expectancy in the United States increased from 57.1 in 1929 to 63.3 years in 1932. This represents a stark and unprecedented increase of 6.2 years squeezed into just 3 years.

Was this improvement down to calorie deficit and people going hungry? Not necessarily. The University of Michigan paper points to less disposable income to spend on tobacco and drink, work-related stress and overworking and a general reduction in pollution.

These findings have been questioned in subsequent studies, such as a paper published by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Diseases in 2011. Other researchers have suggested that any increase in longevity was down to other factors, such as a reduction in motor accidents, the prohibition on alcohol and the introduction of manual labour as part of work relief programmes.