Starving the Hungry

Though most Americans are aware of the Great Depression of 1929, which may well be the most serious problem
facing our free enterprise economic system, few know of the many Americans who lost their homes, life savings and
jobs. This paper briefly states the causes of the depression and summarizes the vast problems Americans faced
during the eleven years of its span. This paper primarily focuses on what life was like for farmers during the time of
the Depression, as portrayed in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and tells what the government did to end the
In the 1920’s, after World War 1, danger signals were apparent that a great Depression was coming. A major cause
of the Depression was that the pay of workers did not increase at all. Because of this, they couldn’t afford
manufactured goods. While the factories were still manufacturing goods, Americans weren’t able to afford them and
the factories made no money (Drewry and O’connor 559).
Another major cause related to farmers. Farmers weren’t doing to well because they were producing more crops and
farm products than could be sold at high prices. Therefore, they made a very small profit. This insufficient profit
wouldn’t allow the farmers to purchase new machinery and because of this they couldn’t produce goods quick
enough (Drewry and O’connor 559).
A new plan was created called the installment plan. This plan was established because many Americans didn’t have
enough money to buy goods and services that were needed or wanted. The installment plan stated that people could
buy products on credit and make monthly payments. The one major problem with this idea was that people soon
found out that they couldn’t afford to make the monthly payment(Drewry and O’connor 559).
In 1929 the stock market crashed. Many Americans purchased stocks because they were certain of the economy.
People started selling their stocks at a fast pace; over sixteen million stocks were sold! Numerous stock prices
dropped to fraction of their value. Banks lost money from the stock market and from Americans who couldn’t pay
back loans. Many factories lost money and went out of business because of this great tragedy (Drewry and O’connor
By the 1930’s, thirteen million workers lost their jobs which is 25 percent of all workers. The blacks and unskilled
workers were always the first to be fired. Farmers had no money and weren’t capable of paying their mortgages.
Americans traveled throughout the country looking for a place to work to support themselves and their family
(Drewry and O’connor 560-561). John Steinbeck, born in 1902, grew up during the Depression near the fertile
Salinas Valley and wrote many books of fiction based on his background and experiences during that time and area
of the country. One of his great works would be the Grapes of Wrath. In this book, Steinbeck describes the farmers
plight during the Great Depression and drought. When the rains failed to come, the grass began to disappear. As the
farmers watched their plants turn brown and the dirt slowly turn to dust they began to fear what was to come. In the
water-cut gullies the earth dusted down in dry little streams. As the sharp su!
n struck day after day, the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect. “Then it was June and the sun shone
more fiercely. The brown lines on the corn leaves widened and moved in on the central ribs. The weeds frayed and
edged back toward their roots. The air was thin and the sky more pale; and every day the earth paled. (4). The
farmers worst fears were realized when their corn and other crops began to die. The dust became so bad they had to
cover their mouths with handkerchiefs so they could breath (5). When the drought hit the Great Plains and the soil
turned to dust, many farmers moved to California because they could no longer farm their land(Drewry and
O’connor 561). The drought began to affect other parts of the country. In 1930, Missouri’s belt of fertile land dried
up. Ponds, streams, and springs all dried up and the great Mississippi River water level sank lower than ever
recorded. Small farmers every-where began to feel the drought. Their smal!
l gardens were ruined and their corn crop was cut almost down to nothing. The hay and grass needed to feed their
livestock was no longer available. They now faced a major problem -how to feed their livestock. The silos were
rapidly emptying and the barns in many cases were empty. The farmers were terrified that the government feed
loans wouldn’t be available to keep the livestock from dying. In many cases, the Red Cross was making allowances
for feed to keep alive livestock (Meltzer 121). The small farmers of fruit trees and vegetable plants depended on
others who ran canneries to bottle and can their produce. The people they depended upon were the same people that
hired scientists to experiment on the fruits and vegetables to come up with better tasting and yielding produce. Thus
the small farmers were dependent on these same rich landowners for almost everything. They couldn’t harvest their
produce on their own so they sold it to the rich landowners and thus made very !
little money on their produce. The farmers found themselves in debt caused by the purchase of land, tools, animals
and other items bought on credit. This credit was due to the bank and when the farmers found them- selves unable to
repay the debts the bank took away everything they had – their land, homes, animals and equipment. When the banks
took over, they went in with tractors and destroyed everything on the farms which included their homes and barns.
This is best portrayed in Steinbeck’s description of how the tractors destroyed everything in its way. “The iron guard
bit into the house corner, crumbled the wall, and wrenched the little house from its foundation, crushed like a bug
“In the little houses the tenant people sifted their belongings and the belongings of their father and of their
grandfathers” (111). This describes how after many generations of farming on their land these people had to gather
their property and memories and then try to sell whatever they could. The farmers were so desperate for money that
they had to sell for literally pennies. Steinbeck describes the desperate conversation of a farmer to a persepective
buyer “Well, take it-all junk-and give me five dollars. You’re not buying only junk, you’re buying junked lives”
The desperation for work and money became so bad that they were willing to work for as little as was offered just so
they could have some sort of job and make any amount of money. Soon it was a fight for life or death (Steinbeck).
In a desperate search for a job farmers moved themselves and their families all over the country. As people
wandered the country looking for work they were unable to live in one place. Large numbers of homeless people led
to Hoovervilles. The farmers and their families had to build homes out of anything that they could acquire as
Steinbeck describes “The south wall was made of three sheets of rusy corrugated iron, the east a square of moldy
carpet tacked between two board, the north wall a strip of roofing paper and a strip of tattered canvas, and the west
wall six pieces of gunny sacking”(310-311). The homes were usually near water source so they could have water to
drink from, cook and wash their clothing (311).
To cut down the number of people seeking jobs or needing help, the government decided to try to come up with
some sort of relief. Among other things, they limited immigration, returned hundreds of Mexicans living here,and
sought other methods to help the farmers. Hoover’s Federal Farm Board urged farmers to plant less so that prices
would go up but there was no encouragement to do so. From 1920 to 1932 farm production did drop 6 percent but
prices fell ten times as much-by 63 percent. Farmers watched prices hit new lows-15 cents for corn, 5 cents for
cotton and wool, hogs and sugar 3 cents, and beef 2.5 cents(Meltzer 123). With farm prices so low, most farmers,
living under the fear of their mortgages, knew that sooner or later they will lose everything. In 1932 the farmers
declared a holiday on selling. They picketed roads asking people to join the. They gave away free milk to the poor
and unemployed rather then let it spoil because they refused to sell it. A thirty-d!
ay holiday on farm selling was begun August 8 and extended indefinitely(Meltzer 125). In December 1932, 250
farmers from twenty-six states gathered together for a Farmers National Relief Conference. They announced that
they demand relief from creditors who threaten to sweep them from their homes and land(Meltzer 126).
In May 1933, the Agricultural Ajustment Act was passed. The aim of this act was to raise the farm prices by
growing less. The farmers were paid not to use all the land to plant crops. The money came from tax on millers,
meat packers, and other food industries. In June of that same year the Farm Credit Act was passed. This act helped
farmers get low interest loans. With this act, farmers wouldn’t lose their farms to the banks that held the mortgages.
The farmers who lost their farms already would also receive low interest loans(Drewry and O’connor 569).
The Great Depression was the end result of World War I. It affected the rich and poor alike, factory workers and
farmers, bankers and stockbrokers. In short, it affected everyone; no one was left untouched. But of all the people
hurt, farmers were the worst off. John Steinbeck chose to write about farmers hoping that Americans would
recognize their plight and correct the situation. The Great Depression is known to be the worst economic disaster in
U. S. history. For this reason, the Depression caused many people to change their ideas about the government and
Work Cited
Drewry, Robert and A. J. O’Connor. The Indigenous Role in Business Enterprise. New Guinea:
New Guinea Reasearch Unit, 1970.
Leonard, Stephen J. Trials and Triumphs: A Colorado Portrait of the Great Depression, With
FSA Photographs. Colorado: University Pres of Colorado, 1993.
Meltzer, Allen. The Economics of price and wage controls. New York: USA American Elsevier
Pub. Co., 1976.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin, 1986