At this time the United States had no system of unemployment benefit. Those without work therefore faced great hardship. Due to their lack of money to buy goods, they could not help the economy to revive.
The Depression forced many Americans to use desperate methods to survive. Groups of unemployed men often prevented poor families who could not afford their rent from being evicted. They proved resourceful in providing help for themselves when the authorities did not. In the city of Seattle, the Unemployed Citizens’ League organised self-help on a large scale. The unemployed were allowed to pick unmarketable fruit and vegetables by nearby farmers, and to cut wood on scrub timberland. Food and firewood obtained in this way were exchanged with barbers who cut hair, seamstresses who mended clothes, carpenters who repaired houses and doctors who treated the sick.
Many families had to sell their homes in order to raise money to buy food and other essentials. Others had to leave rented accommodation because they could no longer afford it. They moved into makeshift shelters constructed from packing cases and corrugated iron on the outskirts of cities. The shanty towns which resulted were nicknamed ‘Hoovervilles’ because many people blamed their homelessness on President Hoover.
During the Depression car production was cut by 80 percent. Road and building construction fell by 92 percent. Average hourly wages in manufacturing industry fell from 59 cents in 1926 to 44 cents in 1933. The total income of American farmers dropped from $12 billion to $5 billion per year. In 1932 farmers in the state of Iowa went on strike because the price they could obtain for their milk had dropped to 2 cents a quart.
In previous depressions, farmers were usually safe from the severe effects of a depression because they could at least feed themselves. Unfortunately, during the Great Depression, the Great Plains were hit hard with both a drought and horrendous dust storms, creating what became known as the Dust Bowl. Years and years of overgrazing combined with the effects of a drought caused the grass to disappear. With just topsoil exposed, high winds picked up the loose dirt and whirled it for miles. The dust storms destroyed everything in their paths, leaving farmers without their crops. Small farmers were hit especially hard. Even before the dust storms hit, the invention of the tractor drastically cut the need for manpower on farms. These small farmers were usually already in debt, borrowing money for seed and paying it back when their crops came in. When the dust storms damaged the crops, not only could the small farmer not feed himself and his family, he could not pay back his debt. Banks would then foreclose on the small farms and the farmer's family would be both homeless and unemployed. When the Depression began, many poorly paid women, particularly those working the textile industry, were quickly laid off. At the same time, middle-class families were quick to shed domestic help when the economic climate deteriorated. Given that domestic service was a major employer of working-class women, this was a major factor in increasing female unemployment. The impact on the relatively small number of women employed in professions were more evident in terms of falling pay rather than outright unemployment. Female teachers, for example, generally retained their jobs, but had to accept sweeping pay cuts.
More positively, the fact that many women worked in clerical posts and service industries tended to shelter them from the most damaging forces of Depression which were felt in the manufacturing industry. Of course, women managing households without an adult male breadwinner were faced with perpetual struggle against poverty. Many women were placed under immense psychological pressure through the mental suffering of their male partner when they were thrown on the breadline.
The Depression exacerbated the plight of many African Americans because a shortage of work made many whites ‘resort’ to occupations which they had previously regarded as the domain of African Americans. This meant that unemployment rates among their community were extremely high. For example, in 1931 around 33 percent of African Americans in southern cities were unemployed. Employment opportunities to lift African-Americans out of the poverty trap were rare.
The impact of the depression meant that some white people now turned to jobs which they hitherto would have regarded as beneath them. This made it even more difficult for African Americans to find jobs. In the Deep South employment opportunities were even more restricted. In 1940, for example there was not a single African American policeman in the states of Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia and Alabama.