Great Depression: 1929–1938

Herbert Hoover's Presidency and the Dust Bowl

Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression

President Herbert Hoover favored a constrained approach to federal intervention in the Great Depression, focusing his efforts on stimulating business in lieu of offering direct aid to citizens.

President Herbert Hoover was at the country's helm through the beginning of America's greatest economic depression. He, like many others, hoped and believed that the depression would be short-lived. He even went so far as to describe the effects of the stock market crash as "a passing incident in our national lives." Hoover would soon realize that this was not the case.

Hoover experienced poverty as a child and was a firm believer in individualism and self-reliance. It was this notion that largely colored his conservative response to the deepening economic depression. Hoover feared that providing direct relief to citizens would undermine their self-confidence and would set the country on a slippery slope of government handouts. There was a danger that Americans would come to rely on government funds instead of on their own capacity to survive and succeed. Hoover also believed in keeping a balanced national budget. A wide-scale social welfare program would unbalance the budget and sink the country into debt.

Herbert Hoover's strategy to right the economy emphasized programs to stimulate the economy. He met with business leaders and owners to prevent layoffs and wage cuts. He also backed the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) to provide loans to banks and businesses to prevent their failure. Protecting businesses, he believed, would protect American jobs. Hoover emphasized the importance of private charities and encouraged state and local government involvement in such organizations. And like his successor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hoover backed public works projects to create government jobs for unemployed Americans.

Unfortunately, Hoover's measures did not have an immediate impact on the country's dire economic situation. They could not match the magnitude of the crisis. The United States and the rest of the world spiraled deeper into the depression. Banks and businesses failed, wages dropped, and millions of Americans lost their jobs, homes, and savings. Many came to view Hoover as the cause of the failing economy. Makeshift towns of the unemployed and dispossessed came to be known as Hoovervilles, while empty, inside-out pockets were called Hoover flags.
Makeshift towns, called shantytowns, like this one in Portland, Oregon, came to be known as "Hoovervilles." They were home to people who had lost everything and had no other place to go.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USF34-004831-E
The perception that Hoover had done little to help the American people and was indifferent to their plight ultimately led to his defeat in the 1932 presidential election. Despite this fact, since the 1970s, economists and historians have reexamined Hoover and his policies and have characterized him objectively as a far more progressive president than originally credited.

Dust Bowl

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was the result of years of poor farming techniques and drought that caused soil erosion and bred massive dust storms in the center of the country.

The Dust Bowl is the environmental crisis that struck the Great Plains region during the 1930s. Characterized by severe drought and widespread dust storms, the Dust Bowl affected 19 total states, in particular parts of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.

In the mid- to late 1800s, a growing number of settlers moved to the Great Plains, many of whom began raising livestock. The tall prairie grasses were excellent for grazing cattle. After World War I, global demand for wheat rose dramatically. Farmers shifted their attention from livestock and began plowing the grasslands to plant wheat.

As the 1920s progressed, a combination of overgrazing and soil exhaustion stripped the topsoil of valuable nutrients. The removal of the prairie grasses had a further detrimental impact on the land. Without the roots of the tall grasses, the soil was more susceptible to moisture loss and erosion, or gradual removal by natural forces like wind.

The poor land management of the 1920s was made worse by a severe drought, or an extended period of below average rainfall, that began in 1930 and lasted nearly a decade. During this time, winds that routinely whipped across the plains created colossal clouds of dust. These dust storms, known as black blizzards, claimed land, homes, and lives. Some dust storms lasted for days.

Dust Bowl, 1931-39

Conditions that produced the Dust Bowl on the southern plains also bred dust storms as far north as Canada. These dust storms stripped topsoil from millions of acres of barren fields.
In the midst of this mounting misfortune, banks began to foreclose on farmers unable to pay off loans on their property. Banks held auctions, selling off farm equipment and land to cover the loans. Farmers were desperate to hold on to their only means of support. To help one another out, they came up with the idea of penny auctions. When notified that a foreclosure auction was being held, neighboring farmers showed up and bid just pennies for each item put up for sale. Real bidders were either discouraged, sometimes forcefully, from attending the auction or from placing bids while there. By the end of the day, banks had collected just a few dollars instead of the hundreds or even thousands expected. They were forced to accept this as payment in full for the loan. Those who had bid on the auction would then sell the property back to the owner. These penny auctions were technically illegal, and banks eventually found a way around them. As the drought continued, more and more farmers were forced to give up their farms.

The harsh conditions of the Dust Bowl forced many families to migrate. As many as 400,000 people left their homes in search of better land or jobs. Later in the 1930s, while the drought was still underway, the federal government intervened in the region. By the 1940s federal efforts that encouraged advanced farming methods, soil renewal and conservation, and grassland restoration had helped the region to recover.