The Dust Bowl
The New Deal tried to give long-suffering farmers a break by paying them not to grow crops, thus limiting supply, conserving land, and raising prices of now more moderately produced food. When things were already bad for farmers, over plowed dry land blew away in the Dust Bowl (1935), centered in Kansas and Oklahoma. This led to an exodus of poor farmers who headed west to look for work and food.
The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939) tells the story of the Joad family's trip from barren Oklahoma to California in search of a new life. Enduring death and the desertion of family members, the Joads push on, learning that their only hope lies in solidarity with other poor people. A New Deal relief program tries to help, but in the end their daughter Rose of Sharon gives up the milk she had for her stillborn baby to save a starving man.
Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the film version won two Academy Awards. The Grapes of Wrath showed rural poverty up close and put a face on the bravery it took to confront Depression homelessness. The story built solid support for social programs in the United States, a country that only a few years before had elected presidents who said the government shouldn't help people. Films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) showed honesty winning through a corrupt political system.
The legacy of the New Deal
Fighting the Depression before World War II closed in, Roosevelt managed to cut unemployment from 25 percent to 12 percent. His programs literally kept people all over the country from starving. The New Deal also started programs that prevented something as horrible as the Great Depression from happening again. Millions of people got a chance to improve their lives, and the spirit of the New Deal put a safety net under the American people that no president — no matter how conservative — has ever seriously tried to take away.
You don't really have to memorize all the New Deal programs, but be ready for questions on the Depression. For essay answers, an understanding of the scope of Roosevelt's recovery program and some specific agencies is important. At minimum, you want to know the agencies started in the New Deal that are still part of America: FDIC, TVA, SEC, FHA, NLRB, and Social Security. If you can figure out what the letters mean, the agencies pretty well explain themselves.
DEMAGOGUES OF THE DEPRESSION
Whenever there is a shortage of money, there is a surplus of people with good sounding schemes about how to change things. The 1930s had its share of demagogues ready to fool the people with big talk:
- Huey P. "Kingfish" Long (1934) promised big money bonuses for everyone in his native Louisiana in order to get almost-dictatorial power as governor and senator.
- Father Charles Coughlin (1935) was a thorn in the side of the Roosevelt administration, preaching a kind of fascism, anti-Semitism, and isolationism over a national radio network.