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The Great Depression began in the United States in 1929 and spread worldwide. It was the longest and most severe economic downturn in modern history, lasting until about 1939.
The stock market crash led to a major decline in spending as people worried about the future of the economy. As a result of decreased consumer and business spending, industrial production declined 47 percent, and the real gross domestic product (GDP) fell 30 percent.
The drop in spending ultimately led to a decline in employment. At the height of the depression, unemployment exceeded 20 percent.
The United States experienced four waves of banking panics that took a major toll on the American banking system. By 1933 one-fifth of the banks in existence at the start of 1930 had failed.
The Federal Reserve did little to help stop the downturn, allowing the panics to reduce the U.S. money supply. It also tightened the money supply and raised interest rates in September 1931.
The gold standard, a system that measures the standard unit of currency to a fixed quantity of gold, linked other countries’ currencies to the U.S. dollar and played a major role in spreading the downturn globally.
Also contributing to the global spread of the economic crisis was a reduction in international trade and lending from the United States. Britain’s decline in production was about one-third that of the United States. Germany’s drop in production was nearly equal to that of the United States. The passage of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act (1930) further affected international trade.
In the 1930s severe drought, overcultivation of the land that had begun years before, and dust storms combined to devastate part of the Great Plains of the United States. The section extending over southeastern Colorado, southwestern Kansas, the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, and northeastern New Mexico became known as the Dust Bowl. About 2.5 million people were forced to leave the area in search of new homes and jobs during the depression.
The depression left many Americans hungry and in poverty. People waited in long breadlines, hoping for something to eat. People sold apples on street corners for five cents. One of the most popular songs of the time was “Brother,Can You Spare a Dime?”
Makeshift towns of poorly built shelters made from scrap wood, cardboard, and tin housed the many families who became homeless. These “towns” were called Hoovervilles, named after U.S. President Herbert Hoover.
Franklin D. Roosevelt succeeded Hoover as U.S. president in 1933. Roosevelt’s New Deal program was an economic recovery plan that established federal programs for relief and reform. The New Deal created about 8.5 million jobs for people in building roads, schools, airports, and other public works.
The Great Depression had a major influence on the arts in the United States. Author John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath (1939), about a family’s struggle to escape Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. Photographers such as Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange captured images of the victims of the Dust Bowl. Lange’s photograph titled Migrant Mother became an iconic image of the time.
Although economic production grew in the mid-1930s and millions of people found jobs in government programs, the United States experienced another downturn in 1937–38. Full economic recovery returned in 1942.
Among the factors that led to recovery were the abandonment of the gold standard and an increase in currency supply, increased government spending on jobs and social welfare programs, and, in the United States, increased military spending prior to World War II.
The Great Depression ended in most affected countries by 1933, but many countries did not fully recover until the late 1930s or early 1940s.