The Great Depression in Illinois
David J. Maurer
"I didn't go hungry during the Depression, but some things I did get hungry for. Milk for instance, I never got enough." So wrote Robert Hastings in his book, A Nickel's Worth of Skim Milk. Peggy Terry of Chicago in Studs Terkel's Hard Times relates "I can remember one time, the only thing in the house to eat was mustard. My sister and I put so much mustard on biscuits that we got sick. And we can't stand mustard still today." Probably no one actually starved to death in the Great Depression, but malnutrition promoted the inability to stave off killing infectious diseases or so weakened many individuals that routine illnesses became deadly.
Today many Americans assume that the Stock Market Crash of 1929 created the Great Depression. That myth has been around for decades. Only a brief examination of the nation's economic condition in the latter half of the 1920s reveals how many difficult economic problems existed by 1929. Income was down substantially for many farmers. Miners found annual income declining, a reflection of lower wages and/or fewer working days. Heavy construction began to decline as public funds were less available for infrastructure building (schools, roads, hospitals, and bridges, for instance), and private capital was not being used for plant expansion because of limited potential growth in consumer spending.
The shock of the Crash prompted Americans to examine economic conditions, and what they found caused many to curtail their spending; in a consumer-oriented economy that had a disastrous effect. For want of car sales, auto manufacturing slowed, steel, glass, and tire production dropped, the factory worker bought fewer clothes, spent less on entertainment, withdrew savings from the banks, and so on until by 1932 industrial construction had
fallen from $949 million in 1929 to $74 million. Thirteen million Americans were unemployed by mid-1932 and perhaps another thirteen million were underemployed (wages and hours reduced as much as by half). Tent and shack communities, derisively called Hoovervilles, housed tens of thousands of Americans. In a number of towns the stables at the county fairgrounds were used to house homeless people. A million, maybe two million, persons wandered the country looking for work. In Chicago sympathetic and generous teachers already hit by payless paydays provided help to the suffering in 1930 and 1931. Unfortunately, the spread and depth of the Depression by 1932 overwhelmed private efforts to provide help. Increasingly municipal, county, state, and federal governments were called upon to respond with relief for those unable, in spite of best efforts, to provide for themselves. "A woman in Chicago, when her husband was idle, worked all summer on farms outside the city. She left at four in the morning and returned at seven o'clock at night."
In the presidential election of 1932, the nation supported the Democratic candidate, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in the hope that he could get the country moving again. As Inauguration Day broke on March 4, 1933, the people of the United States were stunned by the news that Governors Henry Horner of Illinois and Herbert Lehman of New York had followed the lead of other governors and ordered that the banks within their respective states close their doors for business. The move was designed to save the banks from having to declare insolvency because they could not meet their depositors' demands for money from their accounts. President Roosevelt followed with an executive order to close all of the banks still open in order to give his administration an opportunity to prepare a plan to reestablish the country's faith in the banking system. A few days later the President explained his plan, and most banks began reopening for business; deposits quickly outdistanced withdrawals.
In succeeding weeks the Roosevelt administration proposed and Congress approved legislation designed to provide relief—the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)—and recovery—the National Recovery Administration (NRA), Public Works Administration (PWA), and Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). The alphabet agencies created in the first one hundred days of the new administration set the tone of the administration's response to the Depression.
Farmers found hope in the plan to curtail agricultural overproduction and thereby increase prices as surpluses evaporated and rising demand pulled prices upward. Factory workers looked forward to plans that would stimulate factory production at steady hours and wages. People saw the creation of a government agency that provided food and jobs for those persons in need.
Relief allowances per family in Cook County went from $29.15 in December 1932 to $33.11 in June 1934, and to $38.65 in June 1935. While those allowances hardly met most family's needs, it kept many families together when coupled with other programs for clothes, medical services, and CCC employment for young men. After the inauguration of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) programs in 1935, many families survived until regular employment opportunities became available.
The New Deal response to the Great Depression changed the nation in many ways. Americans began to realize the extent of the national economy. Local prosperity depended on national prosperity over the long haul. Better labor conditions for the average working man or woman meant more jobs and
Many government projects of the New Deal were aimed at putting people back to
higher income for everyone. The price a farmer received for his corn and hogs determined how the merchant and manufacturer prospered. Industry-based labor unions were formed to support the factory worker. The Farm Bureau represented the farmer in Washington to secure government support for many agricultural products. The federal government was seen as an employer-of-last-resort. Thousands of parks, acres of trees, athletics fields, sidewalks, and roads were built by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, Works Progress Administration, and the Civilian Conservation Corps. Cooperation by the departments of Agriculture and the Interior and the CCC raised the conservation work of the federal government to new heights. The Social Security Act placed a "floor" under the American economy and has helped the nation avoid a depression as crippling as that of the 1930s. Millions of Americans depend on Social Security pension checks to provide the major portion of their income in their retirement years. The Wagner Labor Relations Act enabled millions of workers in major industries such as steel, auto, rubber, farm implement, aircraft, and appliances to begin to match wages with productivity. The Act also established safer working conditions.
America changed in other ways during the Depression. Some New Deal administrators demanded that their agencies respond equally to white and black Americans. The efforts to reduce discrimination were not always successful, but even the Edward J. Kelly and Patrick J. Nash political machine in Chicago courted black political leaders. Their success and the response of Chicago's black community led Congressman William L. Dawson to switch his allegiance from the Republican to the Democratic Party. The middle class, threatened economically and socially by the depth of the Depression, responded to legislation that saved their homes and dignity. In a letter to Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt in 1934 a New Jersey housewife wrote, "Thank you very much for helping me to keep my house. If it wasn't for you I know I would have lost it. . . . I went to the Home Loan and they said everything would be alright."
Illinois, with its mixed agricultural and manufacturing base, responded to many of the New Deal initiatives to get the economy moving again. Unfortunately, the severity of the Depression meant the state was not able to provide full employment until America's basic industries were stimulated by increased defense spending very late in the decade. Also, the farm community would not realize substantial prices for agricultural commodities until demand increased overwhelmingly in the early 1940s. For many, however, hope for the future was real. As Robert Hastings remembered grade school graduation in 1938:
In another year Mom and Dad would have jobs with steady, if small incomes. In another year we would have a telephone. . . and the next year a secondhand car. That fall, before I started high school, there would be a new green wool coat . . . and to top everything off, I had just learned that at Southern Illinois Normal University, only seventeen miles away, anyone could work enough to pay his way through college.