Impact of Great Depression on American History and Culture

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Updated: Jun 15, 2019
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Impact of Great Depression on American History and Culture essay

The Great Depression refers to the economic downturn that occurred in the year 1929, and lasted until the year 1939, with the industrial production in the United States declining by 47%, and the gross domestic product recorded a fall of 30% between the years 1929 to 1933 (Eichengreen 189). While the Great depression originated in the United States, it led to declines in the economic output, high level of deflation and also increased unemployment in many countries across the globe. This period was the longest, and marked by severe depression, which was being experienced in the industrialized world. The depression was caused by a number of factors, such as, monumental decline in the spending, panics in banking institutions and failures, excessive stock speculation in the United States, as well as the maintenance of the international gold standard among other factors (Cohen 236). In addition, to negative economic impacts created by the occurrence of the depression; numerous negative social and cultural implications were evident. This was particularly in the United States whereby the Americans had to be prepared to deal with the worst and the harshest adversity they had ever experienced since the civil war.

Counterarguments have been raised to explain the changes in the American culture during the 1930s, with some of the scholars arguing that the change in culture was not caused by the Great Depression. The first argument is held on the basis that such changes in the culture particularly evident in arts and literature, was majorly through the support that was provided by the funded, New Deal Programs (Cohen 240). A number of New Deal Programs were established across various places in America aiming to support the artists, musicians, and writers enabling them to connect better with the Americans in a way they had never reached the Americans before. Through these new programs, the global and the regional trends of social realism, perfectionism, and also American regionalism guided the Americans with photography, which played a critical role as a medium, which was used to document the lives of the ordinary Americans. Thus, the turning of the Americans to media was not due to the effects of the Great Depression but to fit into the changing global and region trends. The argument is also built on the premise that at the time, the funding made by the various programs enabled many of the artists to come up with various form of literature, music, TV and radio stations, as well as plays, which catered to a large number of Americans. To cater for the American diversity, “the artists were producing diverse cultural content in various forms to reach out to the Americans who had diverse values and traditions” (Shaw et al. 161; par. 2). Thus, these scholars believed that the cultural transformation with regard to the changed lifestyles, spending habits, declining birth rates as well as the changes in the family structure (whereby the single parenthood was a norm) were the impacts of such culturally aired content by the numerous commercially funded programs. Also, the funded programs allowed the artists to produce cheap music, literature and plays which could be afforded by the ordinary Americans, which was a big reason behind Americans buying them because they were so cheap and not for consolation from their desperate states. An example was the locally cheap produced Hollywood movies which (despite being cheap) were addressing the cultural needs of the Americans. These programs were the ones that increased the sensitivity of the Americans to their cultures and sensitized them of their cultural values which they had for long ignored. For example through the plays staged, they understood the advantages of adopting a saving culture and also having smaller families which would allow women to have better opportunities for career progression.

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With regard to migration, some scholars have argued that the first wave of Great Migration that occurred from the year 1919 to 1930 was due to numerous cultural and historical factors and not due to the Great Depression (Abramovitz 386). It is argued that the chain migration played a critical role, whereby education opportunities and trade initiated the chain migrations as it was evident in the migration patterns which were highly related to geography. Thus, there were distinct ‘pull’ factors and ‘push’ factors which were not related to the effects of Great Depression. For example, individuals would migrate to cities and towns in Canada after being enticed by the British Columbia Premier James Douglas or even migrate after the immigration campaigns, which had been previously carried in 1910. Segregation was also played a role whereby many of the African Americans suffered segregation; with great numbers of them killed in the South. So many African Americans would migrate for their own security and not for the sake of the Great Depression. It is the due to the cultural changes that were happening with increased cultural awareness from the media that caused change in the family and society’s formation. These cultural changes for example, induced Harlem Resistance and many other books such as the Warmth of Other Suns written by Isabel Wilkerson which discussed such cultural diversity as the reason for the Great Migration.

Despite the counterarguments raised on the impact of the Great Depression on changes in American culture and historical migration, there is adequate evidence to support that Great Depression played a significant role in the two. The first indication of the greatest negative impact of Great Depression on the history and the culture of the Americans was the changes on the way of life that the Americans adopted with the occurrence of the depression. Americans had their mentality changed and they had to prepare for the worst that was to come. They knew that hard economic times were awaiting them and this brought a high level of desperation. This change of attitude and mentality was characterized by high level of desperations which was evident by their changed lifestyles. In addition, to the changes in spending habits of the Americans, the artistic presentation, majorly in the songs that were produced at the time, highly signaled this level of desperation. An example is the song “Brother, can you spare a dime,” which was a song authored by Bing Crosby in the year 1932 when the Great Depression effects were at their peak. The song encapsulates a high level of desperation that the Americans were going through, it was a period of scarcity to an extent of being not able to save a coin. This was a marked shift from an era whereby they had riches and economic prosperity in 1920s and “their survival required not only physical but also mental conditioning” (Ryder et al. 300; par. 1). They thus changed their lifestyles and spending habits to be able to fit into these times. They were mentally conditioned so that they could deal with hunger and scarcity and such songs in this period of time were to create such mental preparation. There was a decline in the number of birth rates with many of the families opting to have a single child. There was reduction in the divorce rates with many of the partners opting to abandon their spouse which was a cheaper strategy compared to divorce (Bordo et al. 1463). More people turned to mass media whereby they would get consolation; with certain plays such as the Tobacco Road by Broadway recording high level attendance and various radio shows such as The Green Hornet and The Lone Ranger gaining popularity due to the consolation they would offer to the Americans and not because of the cheap funding.

The second instance of the impact of the cultural changes was the massive migration which was being recorded during the 1930s. In this era, individuals would in large masses, pack their belongings; taking their families with them on roads and other public places. Their aim in doing so was based on an expectation that they would get ‘greener pastures’ and not majorly on the other factors such as, cultural diversity, which could have seen them move in other years before the occurrence of Great Depression. Thus, American populations highly migrated from the rural unproductive areas, which they believed to be poverty stricken, to urban centers. This created numerous negative impacts, such as the breakdown of the family ties, increased pollution in the cities, a decline in the agricultural production, as well as increased crime rates. The migration was “highly uprooting families and changing their cultural milieu in was that the families would never reform” (Abramovitz 390; par. 3). These numerous effects were echoed by various writers of the time, which was a shift from the emphasis of economic and prosperity, which had been emphasized by the writers in the 1910s and 1920s during the time of economic prosperity. Such is excellently represented in the John Steinbeck’s work i.e. Grapes of wrath. Many other writers wrote various books illustrating of the impact of the Great Depression on the family and society framework. The books written at this time focused on providing the Americans with the new challenges they were likely to face amidst this era characterized by massive migrations (Bernanke 251).

The occurrence of the Great Depression in the early 1930s created numerous impacts on the American culture and history. Various scholars have given divergent perspectives with some arguing that the Great Depression was not the reason behind the changes in the American culture and also the cause of the historical migration. First, the argument is based on the premise that the changes in the American culture was a result of increased New Deal Programs which enabled the introduction of numerous mass media platforms whereby the artists, musicians, and writers of literary works would connect to the public. Though the case, holding such a premise ignores the fact that most of these arts, music and literary works focused on the effects which had been caused by the Great Depression. This was a characteristic of the music; arts and literary works produced this time were aiming to prepare Americans on how to deal with such challenges created by Great Depression. The second argument, that historical migration was caused by other factors and not due to search for ‘greener pastures’ may not excellently describe the movements occurring in this time span. This is because such reasons would have explained the Second Great Migration which occurred after the Great Depression but the major reason being the first wave of Great Migration in the early 1930s was for the individuals to obtain greener pasture. Thus from this analysis, it is evident that Great Depression played a significant role in changing the American culture with regard to their lifestyles, their family structure and the media consumption habits. The Great Depression also resulted into historic migration with many Americans moving from rural areas to urban areas in search of better opportunities in the industries.

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Impact of Great Depression on American History and Culture. (2019, Jun 15). Retrieved from