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  • Browse content in O - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth
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Article Contents

I. introduction, ii. narrative, iii. analysis, iv. what are the policy lessons, lessons from the 1930s great depression.

We thank Steve Broadberry and Ken Wallis for helpful discussions. Christopher Adam, Ken Mayhew, and, especially, Christopher Allsopp made very thoughtful comments on an earlier draft. The usual disclaimer applies.

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Nicholas Crafts, Peter Fearon, Lessons from the 1930s Great Depression, Oxford Review of Economic Policy , Volume 26, Issue 3, Autumn 2010, Pages 285–317, https://doi.org/10.1093/oxrep/grq030

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This paper provides a survey of the Great Depression comprising both a narrative account and a detailed review of the empirical evidence, focusing especially on the experience of the United States. We examine the reasons for and flawed resolution of the American banking crisis, as well as the conduct of fiscal and monetary policy. We also consider the pivotal role of the gold standard in the international transmission of the slump and leaving gold as a route to recovery. Policy lessons for today from the Great Depression are discussed, as are some implications for macroeconomics.

The Great Depression deserves its title. The economic crisis that began in 1929 soon engulfed virtually every manufacturing country and all food and raw materials producers. In 1931, Keynes observed that the world was then ‘in the middle of the greatest economic catastrophe . . . of the modern world . . . there is a possibility that when this crisis is looked back upon by the economic historian of the future it will be seen to mark one of the major turning points’ ( Keynes, 1931 ). Keynes was right; Table 1 shows some of the dimensions.

The Great Depression vs Great Recession in the advanced countries

Sources : 1929–38: Real GDP: Maddison (2010) western European countries plus western offshoots; Price level: League of Nations (1941) ; data are for wholesale prices, weighted average of 17 countries; Unemployment: Eichengreen and Hatton (1987) ; data are for industrial unemployment, weighted average of 11 countries; Trade volume: Maddison (1985) , weighted average of 16 countries.

2007–2010: IMF, World Economic Outlook Database, April 2010.

What are the key questions that we should ask about the Great Depression? Why the crisis began in 1929 is an obvious start, but more important questions are why it was so deep and why it lasted so long? Sustained recovery did not begin in the United States until the spring of 1933, though the UK trough occurred in late 1931 and in Germany during the following year. Why and how did the depression spread so that it became an international catastrophe? What role did financial crises play in prolonging and transmitting economic shocks? How effective were national economic policy measures designed to lessen the impact of the depression? Did governments try to coordinate their economic policies? If not, then why not? Why did the intensity of the depression and the recovery from it vary so markedly between countries?

Even in recovery, both the UK and the USA experienced persistent mass unemployment, which was the curse of the depression decade ( Table 2 ). Why did the eradication of unemployment prove to be so intractable? In 1937–8 a further sharp depression hit the US economy, increasing unemployment and imposing further deflation. What caused this serious downturn and what lessons did policy-makers draw from it?

The Great Depression in the United Kingdom and the United States

Note : Unemployment based on the whole-economy series constructed by Weir (1992) .

Sources : UK: Real GDP: Feinstein (1972) ; GDP deflator: Feinstein (1972) ; Unemployment: Boyer and Hatton (2002) ; Stock market prices: Mitchell (1988) . USA : Carter et al . (2006) .

By the late twentieth century, the memory of international financial seizure in the US and Europe, mass unemployment, and severe deflation had receded. However, during 2007–8, an astonishing and unexpected collapse occurred which caused all key economic variables to fall at a faster rate than they had during the early 1930s. As Eichengreen and O’Rourke (2010) report, the volume of world trade, the performance of equity markets, and industrial output dropped steeply in 2008. Moreover, a full-blown financial crisis quickly emerged. The US housing boom collapsed and sub-prime mortgages, which had been an attractive investment both at home and abroad, now became a millstone round the necks of those financial institutions that had eagerly snapped them up. In April 2007, New Century Financial, one of the largest sub-prime lenders in the US, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In August, Bear Stearns, an international finance house heavily involved in the sub-prime market, teetered on the verge of bankruptcy. The US Treasury helped finance its sale to J. P. Morgan during the following year. During 2008 the financial crisis developed with a sudden and terrifying force. In September, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, which together accounted for half of the outstanding mortgages in the US, were subject to a federal takeover because their financial condition had deteriorated so rapidly. At the same time Lehman Brothers, the fourth largest investment bank in the US, declared bankruptcy. It seemed as if financial meltdown was not only a possibility, it was a certainty unless drastic action was taken.

The crisis was not confined to the US. In August 2007, the French bank, BNP Paribas, suspended three investment funds worth €2 billion because of problems in the US sub-prime sector. Meanwhile, the European Central Bank was forced to intervene to restore calm to distressed credit markets which were badly affected by losses from sub-prime hedge funds. On 14 September 2007, the British public became aware that Northern Rock, which had moved into sub-prime lending after concluding a deal with Lehman Brothers, had approached the Bank of England for an emergency loan. Immediately the bank’s shares fell by 32 per cent and queues formed outside branch offices as frantic depositors rushed to withdraw their savings. Such was the pressure that Northern Rock was nationalized in February 2008. The run on Northern Rock was an extraordinary event for the UK. During the Great Depression no British financial institution failed, or looked like failing, but in 2007 there was immediate depositor panic. It was clear that without some assurance on the security of deposits other institutions were at risk. In 2009, UK GDP contracted by 4.8 per cent, the steepest fall since 1921.

A comparison of the catastrophic banking crisis in 1931 with that of 2007–8 shows that the countries involved in 1931 accounted for 55.6 per cent of world GDP, while the figure for the latter period is 33.5 per cent ( Reinhart, 2010 ; Maddison, 2010 ). This is the most widespread banking crisis since 1931 and it is also the first time since that date that major European countries and the United States have both been involved. The financial tidal wave was totally unexpected and was of such severity that immediate policy action was required to prevent total meltdown. For a while it seemed that the world stood at the edge of an abyss, a short step away from an even greater economic disaster than had occurred three-quarters of a century earlier.

In these circumstances, it has been natural to ask what the historical experience of the crisis of the 1930s has to teach us. The big lesson that has been correctly identified is not to be passive in the face of large adverse financial shocks. Indeed, aggressive monetary and fiscal policies were immediately implemented to halt the financial disintegration. Fortunately, countries were not constrained by the oppressive stranglehold of the gold standard. Both monetary and fiscal policies could be used to support economic expansion rather than to impose deflation or try to restore a balanced budget. Flexible exchange rates gave policy-makers the freedom to use devaluation as an aid to recovery. The exception was in the Eurozone, where weak member states, for example, Greece, Ireland, and Portugal, were forced to deflate their economies ( Eichengreen and Temin, 2010 , this issue).

In the United States, the Fed began aggressively to lower interest rates in January 2008 and by the year’s end had adopted a zero-rate policy. Quantitative easing was used on a massive scale during 2008 through to early 2010 and, as a result, the money supply rose dramatically. The American Restoration and Recovery Act, which became law in early 2009, earmarked $787 billion to stimulate the economy and was described by Christina Romer, distinguished economic historian of the great depression and Chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, as ‘the biggest and boldest countercyclical action in American History’ ( Romer, 2009 ). In the UK, the Bank of England adopted the lowest interest rates since its foundation in 1694, quantitative easing was used aggressively, and bank bail-outs were funded where necessary. In October 2007 the guarantee for UK bank deposits was raised to £36,000 per depositor and further increased to £50,000 during the following year. In both countries, monetary and fiscal policies were pursued on a scale that would have been unacceptable during the 1930s but, crucially, these bold initiatives prevented financial meltdown. Fortunately, the crisis did not encourage the adoption of the beggar-thy-neighbour policies that helped to reduce the level of international trade so drastically during the 1930s.

This represents a dramatic contrast with the policy stances of 80 years ago. Thus far, the upshot is that a repeat of the Great Depression has been avoided ( Table 1 ). A dramatic financial collapse has been averted, economic recovery, though tenuous, is progressing, and unemployment has not reached the levels that some commentators feared when the downturn began. As we shall see, the ‘experiment’ of the 1930s shows only too clearly the likely outcome in the absence of an aggressive policy response.

The 1930s has more to offer. In particular, we can look not only at the downturn but also the recovery phase. Here the issues that had to be addressed included re-regulation of the banking system, avoiding a double-dip recession, and dealing with the various legacies of the depression which included long-term unemployment and the need for a new, post-gold-standard, macroeconomic policy framework.

This paper proceeds in the following way. Section II provides a narrative of events, section III delivers an analysis of the 1930s depression, and section IV identifies important policy lessons from that experience.

(i) The context of the Great Depression

It is sensible to begin an investigation of the Great Depression with an analysis of the world’s most powerful economy, the USA. During the 1920s America became the vital engine for sustained recovery from the effects of the Great War and for the maintenance of international economic stability. Following a rapid recovery from the post-war slump of 1920–1, Americans enjoyed until the end of the decade a great consumer boom, which was heavily dependent upon the automobile and the building sectors. High levels of investment, significant productivity advances, stable prices, full employment, tranquil labour relations, high wages, and high company profits combined to create the perfect conditions for a stock-market boom. Many contemporaries believed that a new age of cooperative capitalism had dawned in sharp contrast to the weak economies of class-ridden Europe ( Barber, 1985 ).

America was linked to the rest of the world through international trade as the world’s leading exporter and second, behind the UK, as an importer. Furthermore, after 1918 America replaced Britain as the world’s leading international lender. The First World War imposed an onerous and potentially destabilizing indebtedness on many of the world’s economies. Massive war debts accumulated by Britain and France were owed to both the US government and to US private citizens. Britain and France sought punitive damages from Germany in the form of reparations. But the post-war network of inter-government indebtedness eventually involved 28 countries, with Germany the most heavily in debt and the US owed 40 per cent of total receipts ( Wolf, 2010 , this issue).

Between 1924 and 1931 the US was responsible for about 60 per cent of total international lending, about one-third of which was absorbed by Germany. American investors, attracted by relatively high interest rates, enabled Germany both to discharge reparations responsibilities and to fund considerable improvements in living standards. Austria, Hungary, Greece, Italy, and Poland, together with several Latin American countries, were also considered attractive opportunities by US investors. By paying for imports and by investing overseas the US was able to send abroad a stream of dollars, which enabled other countries not only to import more goods but also to service their international debts. The fact that a high proportion of the borrowing was short term did not disturb the recipients ( Feinstein et al ., 1997 ).

The majority of the world’s economies were linked to each other by the gold standard, which had been suspended during the First World War, but its restoration was considered a priority by virtually all the major economic powers. It is easy to understand the appeal of the gold standard to contemporaries. The frightening inflations after 1918 and the severe deflation of 1920–1 made policy-makers yearn for a system that would provide international economic and financial stability. To policy-makers the gold standard represented a state of normality for international monetary relations; support for it was a continuation of the mindset that had become firmly established in the late nineteenth century ( Eichengreen and Temin, 2010 ). There was a widespread belief that the rules of the gold standard had imposed order within a framework of economic expansion during the 40 years before 1914 and order was certainly required in the post-war world. In particular, contemporaries believed that the discipline of the gold standard would curb excessive public spending by politicians who would fear the subsequent loss of bullion, an inevitable consequence of their profligacy. Unfortunately, the return to gold was accomplished in an uncoordinated fashion. Several countries (e.g. Belgium and France) adopted exchange rates that were not only significantly below their 1913 levels, but also provided a significant competitive advantage.

The reverse was true for the UK, which, in 1925, returned to gold at the 1913 exchange rate after a deflationary squeeze had made this possible. In general, financiers and bankers supported the return to gold at the pre-war exchange rate, but, as a result, sterling was overvalued and Britain’s export industries were disadvantaged. The achievement of international competitiveness through deflation was the dominant force determining domestic economic policy during the 1920s. Unfortunately, UK exports suffered from war-induced disruption. Markets which had been readily exploited before 1914 offered much reduced opportunities after 1918. UK difficulties would have been more manageable if the bulk of Britain’s exports had been in categories that were expanding rapidly in world markets. Unfortunately coal, cotton and woollen textiles, and shipbuilding faced severe international competition. Over-capacity led to high and persistent structural unemployment in the regions where these industries were dominant. During the 1920s, UK unemployment was double the pre-1913 level and also higher than in all the other major economic powers. On average, each year between 1923 and 1929, almost 10 per cent of the UK insured workforce was unemployed. The jobless were concentrated in the export-oriented staple industries. In those parts of the economy not exposed to foreign competition, unemployment was closer to pre-war levels.

A further problem for Britain, and many other countries too, was the uneven distribution of gold stocks. The US was gold rich throughout the 1920s, but, after the stabilization of the franc in 1926, the Bank of France began to sell its foreign exchange in order to purchase bullion ( Clarke, 1967 ). By 1929, the US and France had accumulated nearly 60 per cent of the world’s gold stock and their central banks sterilized much of their gold so that it did not inflate the money supply. In other words, both countries kept a high proportion of the world’s gold stock in their vaults and withdrawn from circulation. As a result, other countries were forced to deflate in order to compensate for a shortage of reserves. Unfortunately, the gold standard imposed penalties on countries which lost gold while the few which gained did so with impunity.

Gold shortages compelled UK policy-makers to impose relatively high interest rates in order to attract foreign funds—hot money—which bolstered the country’s inadequate bullion reserves. Unfortunately, potential domestic investors suffered as the real cost of credit rose. Nevertheless, as the membership of the gold standard club grew in the 1920s, policy-makers congratulated themselves that all major trading countries were bound together in a system that was dedicated to the maintenance of economic stability.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the international economy was in a potentially precarious position in 1929. Continuing prosperity was dependent upon the capacity of the US economy to absorb imports and to maintain a high level of international lending. If an economic crisis struck the US, how would the Federal Reserve deal with it? The Fed, created in 1913, was a relatively untested central bank. Would it act aggressively as lender of last resort if the banking system became stressed? Would its decentralized division into 12 regional reserve banks with monetary policy formulated by a seven-member Board demonstrate weakness or strength in fighting a depression? And, should a crisis materialize, would the gold standard’s rules force contracting economies to deflate, thus worsening their plight rather than providing a supportive international framework?

(ii) From boom to slump

In January 1928 the Federal Reserve ended several years of easy credit and embarked on a tight money policy. The Fed began a sale of government securities and gradually raised the discount rate from 3.5 to 5 per cent. The Fed was fully aware that a sudden rise in interest rates could be destabilizing for business and might bring a period of economic prosperity to an unhappy conclusion. To avoid this possibility, the monetary authorities aimed gently to deflate the worrying bubble on Wall Street by making bank borrowing for speculation progressively more expensive. Monetary policy-makers believed that by acting steadily rather than suddenly, speculation could be controlled without damaging legitimate business credit demands. It seemed a good idea at the time, but unfortunately this policy had serious unforeseen domestic and international repercussions. The new higher rates made more funds from non-bank sources available to the ever-rising stock market, and speculation actually increased. Many corporations used their large balances to fund broker’s loans, and investors who normally looked overseas found loans to Wall Street a more attractive option. Unfortunately, countries that had become dependent on US capital imports, for example, Germany, were suddenly deprived of an essential support for their fragile economies.

Adversely affected by Fed policies, the US economic boom reached a peak in August 1929 and after a few months of continuously poor corporate results the confidence of investors waned and eventually turned into the panic which became the Wall Street Crash in October 1929. After the stock-market collapse the Fed embarked on vigorous open-market operations and reduced interest rates. The Wall Street crash markedly diminished the wealth of stock holders and could well have adversely affected the optimism of consumers. But in late 1929 the market seemed to stabilize close to the level it had reached in early 1928. For several months it appeared that the US economy was recovering after a dramatic financial contraction. Overseas lending revived and interest rates throughout the world responded to the Fed’s monetary easing. Optimists saw no reason why vigorous economic expansion should not be renewed, as it had been in 1922.

The optimists were wrong. From the peak of the 1920s expansion in August 1929 to the trough in March 1933 output fell by 52 per cent, wholesale prices by 38 per cent, and real income by 35 per cent. Company profits, which had been 10 per cent of GNP in 1929, were negative in 1931 and also during the following year. The collapse in demand centred on consumption and investment which experienced unprecedented falls. Gross private domestic investment, measured in constant prices, had reached $16.2 billion in 1929; the 1933 total was only $0.3 billion. In 1926, gross expenditure on new private residential construction was $4,920m; in 1933 the figure had fallen to a paltry $290m. Consumer expenditure at constant prices fell from $79.0 billion in 1929 to $64.6 billion in 1933. Durables were especially affected; in 1929, 4.5m passenger vehicles rolled off assembly lines; in 1932, 1.1m cars were produced by a workforce that had been halved. Automobile manufacture and construction had been at the heart of the 1920s economic expansion but, as they fell, supporting industries tumbled, too. Inventories were run down, raw material purchases reduced to a minimum, and workers laid off. In particular, companies producing machinery, steel, glass, furniture, cement, and bricks faced a collapse in demand. The number of wage earners in manufacturing fell by 40 per cent, but many lucky enough to hang on to their jobs worked fewer hours and experienced pay cuts. The producers of non-durable goods, such as cigarettes, textiles, shoes, and clothing, faced more modest declines in output and employment.

The most dramatic price falls were in agriculture and a fall of 65 per cent in farm income was unsustainable for farm operators, especially if they were in debt. Unlike manufacturers, individual farms did not reduce output in response to low prices. Indeed, their reaction to economic distress was to produce more in a desperate attempt to raise total income. The result was the accumulation of stocks which further depressed prices. Nor could farmers lay off workers, as most only employed family members. As banks and other financial institutions foreclosed on farm mortgages, distress auctions caused so much local anger that the Governors of some states were obliged to suspend them. Farmers who were unable to pay their debts put pressure on the undercapitalized unit banks that served rural communities. As bank failures spread unease among depositors, the natural reaction of institutions was to engage in defensive banking. Loans were called in and lending, even for deserving cases, was curtailed; the banks gained liquidity by bankrupting many of their customers. Rural families were forced to reduce their purchases of manufactured goods, adding to urban unemployment. The bitter irony of starving industrial workers unable to buy food that farmers found too unprofitable to sell helped to undermine faith in the free-market economic system.

The slide from mid-1929 to spring 1933 was not smooth and continuous. Periodically, it seemed that the depression had bottomed out and recovery was under way. In spite of a destabilizing fall in consumption during 1930 ( Temin, 1976 ) it seemed possible that the economy would revive. This expectation was quashed by a wave of bank failures at the end of the year. Although mostly confined to small banks in the south east of the US, the failures gave depositors a warning sign. During the first half of 1931 the economy revived, but hopes were dashed in the aftermath of Britain’s abandonment of the gold standard in September, when a wave of bank failures served to undermine the diminishing faith of depositors who rushed to withdraw their money, thus making the closure of their banks inevitable. Many kept their withdrawn funds idle rather than trust another bank with their savings. Economic expansion in the summer and autumn of 1932 was reversed during the policy vacuum between Roosevelt’s electoral victory in November 1932 and his inauguration in March 1933. The uncertainties present during this ‘lame duck’ period led to a further wave of bank failures which became so serious that, by the time Roosevelt delivered his inaugural address in March 1933, the Governors of the vast majority of states had declared their banks closed to prevent almost certain failure ( Calomiris, 2010 , this issue). There was a sharp difference between the British experience, where no financial institution failed, and that of the US, where financial paralysis was the end result.

Friedman and Schwartz (1963) emphasized the contraction by one-third of the US money stock between 1929 and 1933, a reduction which they believe explains fully the severity of the depression. They accused the Federal Reserve of pursuing perverse monetary policies which transformed a recession into a major depression. It was, however, a combination of monetary and non-monetary causes, varying in intensity during these critical years, which accounts for the depth of this crisis (Gordon and Wilcox, 1981 ). Nevertheless, as Fishback (2010, this issue) shows, the judgement of the Fed was at times seriously flawed, although policy errors are sometimes more apparent with the benefit of hindsight. For example, because nominal interest rates had been reduced to a very low level, the Fed believed that it was pursuing an appropriate easy money policy. Indeed, it was difficult to see how interest rates could be forced lower. However, the monetary authorities failed to take account of the savage deflation which caused real interest rates to rise to punitive levels for borrowers. The central bank was convinced that it was pursuing an easy money policy when the reverse was the case. Moreover, when faced with a policy choice, the Fed always opted to follow the gold standard rule. As a result, during late 1931, and also during the winter of 1932–3, the Fed raised interest rates to protect the dollar from external speculation in order to halt gold losses. Unfortunately, this was the exact reverse of the low interest rate, easy credit policy needed to save the battered banking system. Little wonder that so many banks closed their doors. There is no doubt that monetary policy had serious adverse effects during the worst depression years.

Unemployment was one of the great curses of the depression. Widely accepted estimates show that the percentage of the US civilian labour force without work rose from 2.9 in 1929 to 22.9 in 1932 ( Table 2 ). Many classified as employed were on short time and some had also experienced wage cuts. Unlike Britain, the US had no national system of unemployment benefits; the jobless were subjected to a harsh regime which included dependence on miserly, poorly administered, local relief. Those most affected included the young, the old, and ethnic minorities, whose unemployment rates were relatively high. In addition, social workers stressed that those who had been out of work for long periods became increasingly unattractive to employers. Loss of income and employment uncertainty combined to reduce consumer spending.

Even fortunates who felt secure in their jobs and whose real incomes had risen were deterred by the persistent deflation. Why buy a motor vehicle, or a house, now, when both would be significantly cheaper in a few months’ time? Deflation increased the burden of existing debt and acted as a warning against the accumulation of new obligations. Deflation also intensified business uncertainty and further undermined the confidence necessary to make investment decisions. Traditionally, price falls were seen as one of the natural self-correcting mechanisms of the market economy. Deflation automatically led to a rise in real incomes, it was argued, and consumers would soon start a purchasing drive that would lift the economy out of recession. The persistent price falls over such a long period, however, brought about a paralysis in consumption and investment. Potential spenders wanted to wait until the price falls had reached their nadir before they committed themselves to major purchases and new debt.

Herbert Hoover was hard-working, energetic, and intelligent. He probably had a greater grasp of contemporary economics than any twentieth-century president and was confident enough to be his own economic advisor ( Stein, 1988 ). He was familiar with the current literature on business cycles and was not a man to stand aside and watch as recession accelerated into depression ( Bernstein, 2001 ). Hoover publicly urged business leaders to share scarce work rather than add to the unemployed, and pleaded with them not to cut wage rates, which had been the instant response of employers in 1920–1. Big business held out against wage cuts until mid-1931 when, faced with overwhelming financial losses, the dam broke and they could resist no more. Nominal wage cuts became common, as did mass lay-offs. Some critics see Hoover’s unwavering commitment to high wages and the maintenance of purchasing power as a serious mistake, which added to the severity of the downturn ( Ohanian, 2009 ; Smiley, 2002 ).

Hoover refused to listen to the pleas of 1,038 American economists who, in 1930, urged him to veto the Smoot–Hawley tariff bill. When it became law, this legislation raised US import duties and ultimately led to retaliatory action throughout the world. Not surprisingly, US foreign trade declined once the depression began to bite. The value of US exports was $7 billion in 1929 but only $2.5 billion in 1932; imports declined from $5.9 billion to $2 billion during the same period. Nevertheless, the US balance of payments remained in surplus. It was, however, the rapid income decline in countries that wanted to purchase US goods which was the most significant factor in causing the contraction in international trade ( Irwin, 1998 ). Hoover’s support of tariff increases demonstrated his consistency. His priority was to protect companies that paid high wages from competition from cheap imported goods ( Vedder and Gallaway, 1993 ).

In early 1932, following Hoover’s lead, Congress approved the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) with a remit to lend to distressed banks. The hope that the RFC, acting as lender of last resort, would bring stability to the financial system was compromised by a Congressional decision to publicize the names of all institutions that approached the RFC for financial help. Hoover also authorized a large increase in federal spending on work relief projects, but the federal budget, at 4 per cent of GNP, was too small to make a noticeable dent in the growing social distress. Inevitably, declining revenue forced the budget into deficit for fiscal year 1931. The deficit was too small to exert an expansionary effect on the economy but it did enable Roosevelt to attack Hoover during the election campaign of 1932 for failing to appreciate the necessity of economy in government. Ironically, the budget deficit of 1931 was the most expansionary of the entire decade, though no one at the time saw this as a benefit. In 1932, Hoover became so concerned about the domestic and foreign disapproval of the federal budget deficit that spending was reduced and the Revenue Act (1932) introduced a raft of substantial tax increases. In spite of his efforts, the budget remained in the red and, not surprisingly, unemployment remained stubbornly high. Unfortunately, Hoover’s understanding of contemporary economics led him to an unshakeable belief in the gold standard. He shared with many contemporary economists the view that fiscal and monetary policies must be directed to support gold rather than directly to promote domestic economic expansion or bank stability.

(iii) The transmission of the depression

It is easy to see that the year-on-year reduction in imports by the main industrial powers and the collapse of international lending placed many economies in great difficulty. In particular, a regular flow of dollars had been crucial to debtor countries, enabling them to buy goods and services and discharge their debt payments. Once the flow dried up, countries had to confront balance-of-payment and debt-repayment problems which were entirely unanticipated. Primary producers had to act quickly to reduce imports and boost their exports as the terms of trade moved sharply against them. Desperate to curb gold and foreign-exchange loss, they used restrictive monetary and fiscal policies to deflate their economies savagely. Public spending was slashed, wages were cut, and misery increased, but all to no avail. It was impossible to earn sufficient foreign currency, or to attract new international loans. Once the cure of deflation was judged more painful than the disease it was supposed to remedy, default on international loans was inevitable. When this happened, foreign investors panicked. In 1931, US lending virtually ceased and did not recover during the rest of the decade.

The key element in the transmission of the Great Depression, the mechanism that linked the economies of the world together in this downward spiral, was the gold standard. It is generally accepted that adherence to fixed exchange rates was the key element in explaining the timing and the differential severity of the crisis. Monetary and fiscal policies were used to defend the gold standard and not to arrest declining output and rising unemployment.

Contemporaries believed that the gold standard imposed discipline on all economies wedded to the system. But in operation the gold standard was not even-handed. As we have seen, states accumulating gold were not forced to inflate their currencies, but when gold losses occurred governments and central banks were expected to take immediate action in order to stem the flow. The action was always deflation but never devaluation ( Temin, 1993 ). Between 1927 and 1932 France experienced a surge of gold accumulation which saw its share of world gold reserves increase from 7 to 27 per cent of the total. Since the gold inflow was effectively sterilized, the policies of the Bank of France created a shortage of reserves and put other countries under great deflationary pressure. Irwin (2010) concludes that, on an accounting basis, France was probably more responsible even than the US for the worldwide deflation of 1929–33. He calculates that through their ‘gold hoarding’ policies the Federal Reserve and the Bank of France together directly accounted for half the 30 per cent fall in prices that occurred in 1930 and 1931. This illustrates a serious flaw in the operation of the interwar gold standard.

When US capital flows to Germany began to dry up in 1928, the German economy was already experiencing an economic downturn and, at the same time, had a formidable reparations debt to discharge. Germany was forced to deflate, even though already in the early stages of a depression. Soon mounting unemployment and violent political unrest gripped the country. In May 1931 Austria’s largest bank, the Credit-Anstalt, experienced such difficulty that speculators attacked the Austrian schilling. Austria’s gold and foreign-exchange reserves were inadequate and soon exhausted and the country was forced to introduce exchange controls. Speculators then turned to Germany, which had a weak economy, a suspect banking system, a high level of short-term debt, and worrying political divisions.

This was an opportunity for decisive coordinated intervention by the major economic powers. A flawed German economy faced the possibility of a catastrophic financial crisis, which, if not contained, could have serious ramifications for others. Who among the great powers would help? Britain was too financially enfeebled to offer more than marginal assistance. In June 1931 President Hoover acted by unilaterally proposing a moratorium, for 1 year, on reparation and war debts payments. The moratorium referred only to inter-government debt. Hoover expected private debts to be honoured. His intervention was opposed by the French, who were furious at the lack of consultation but more fundamentally believed that they lost more than they gained from the moratorium. France, with ample gold reserves, was in a position to assist, but the political conditions attached to its offer of help made it impossible for Germany to accept. In August 1931, Germany abandoned the gold standard, introduced exchange controls, and halted the free flow of gold and marks. Even though this was a time of falling prices, the horrors of post-war hyperinflation were fresh in the memory of the German public and policy-makers. As a result, the mark was not devalued and the government continued with the draconian deflation that had been introduced in accordance with gold-standard rules.

The speculative wave then engulfed sterling. There had been obvious signs of recession in the UK as early as 1928, when the curtailment of US lending affected UK international trade in services. About 40 per cent of UK overseas trade was with primary producing countries, which were forced immediately to restrict their spending when US credit dried up ( Solomou, 1996 ). The crisis worsened in 1929 as world demand collapsed and the UK experienced a sharp fall in the export of goods and services. Following gold-standard rules, real interest rates rose to defend sterling and public-expenditure cuts were imposed in an attempt to achieve budget balance. Like Austria and Germany, Britain was faced with the withdrawal of foreign deposits as the holders of sterling anticipated the potential loss to them from devaluation. The struggle to defend the pound was all to no avail. On 21 September Britain was forced to leave the gold standard, the first major country to do so, and devalue sterling. The devaluation was substantial; sterling, once free to float, fell by 25 per cent against the dollar, though, of course, it is the multilateral effects of devaluation rather than the bilateral which are the most significant. Speculators then attacked the US dollar, which, as we have seen, was defended by the Federal Reserve, though at the cost of compromising the banking system and intensifying an already serious depression.

Curiously, once free from the need to pursue a deflationary monetary policy to defend sterling, the Bank of England actually increased the bank rate. In spite of experiencing one of the largest price falls in modern history, policy-makers worried about the inflationary effects of devaluation. Fortunately, Britain had not lived through the horrors of hyperinflation, or, indeed, the high levels of inflation endured by the French before the stabilization of the franc in 1926. The fears of financial instability quickly subsided and from early 1932 interest rates were reduced and a nominal interest rate of 2 per cent was a persistent feature of the British economy for the remainder of the 1930s. In contrast, fiscal policy was not expansionary until the end of the decade and the attraction of an annual balanced budget remained ( Middleton, 2010 , this issue).

It is clear that unemployment was the major effect of the Great Depression as far as the UK is concerned. The proportion of workers who were unemployed rose to a peak of 17 per cent in 1932 ( Table 2 ). However, other indicators show that the impact of the crisis was relatively benign. No British bank or building society failed during these troubled years. Between 1929 and 1931, the peak-to-trough contraction in real GDP was a mere 5.4 per cent ( Table 2 ). Even in these crisis years, consumption remained relatively stable. The early exit from the gold standard and the robustness of the financial system created a platform for UK recovery which could be exploited. Indeed, between 1929 and 1937, the peak of 1930s performance, real GDP increased by 16.4 per cent. Unfortunately, 10.1 per cent of the insured population remained without work in 1938 and the numbers of long-tern unemployed were seemingly an intractable socio-economic problem ( Hatton and Thomas, 2010 , this issue). Nevertheless, the UK depression experience is a sharp contrast with that endured by the US ( Table 2 ). Even today, no US macro textbook would be complete without a section analysing the causes and the course of the Great Depression. In the UK, apart from persistent unemployment, the downturn was not deep and was over quickly, and the recovery was impressive.

However, 1931 was a watershed for UK economic policy. The gold standard was abandoned and sterling was devalued. Monetary policy was freed from its obligation to support the gold standard and could be used as a tool for economic expansion. The crisis also provided the incentive for Britain to turn away from an emotional commitment to free trade. The Imports Duties Act (1932) imposed a general 10 per cent duty on a range of imports. Within a few months, the Imperial Preference system instituted agreements between Commonwealth countries and Britain to favour each other’s exports.

Early UK recovery was helped by a favourable exchange rate, though within a few years that significant advantage had gone, as other countries devalued and as British tariffs improved the domestic trade balance. It was not foreign trade but a reflationary monetary policy that drove recovery. Cheap money stimulated the housing industry and, with building societies playing a promotional role, this sector became a visible sign of prosperity, particularly in the Midlands and the south-east of England. Unfortunately, the regions dominated by the old staple industries remained depressed. Apart from unemployment, UK macro performance during the recovery period was impressive. Between 1932 and 1937, GDP growth averaged 4 per cent ( Table 2 ).

In 1931, 47 countries were members of the gold-standard club. By the end of 1932 the only significant members were: Belgium, France, Netherlands, Poland, Switzerland, and the US ( Eichengreen, 1992 ). The year 1931 was a dramatic one, when a major financial crisis dealt a mortal blow to the gold standard while output and prices continued to decline throughout the world. Far from providing stability and fulfilling the expectations of its supporters, the gold standard was instrumental in forcing economies to deflate during a period of intense depression. Indeed, departure from gold was a prerequisite for recovery.

For a while the countries freed from the shackles of gold seemed overwhelmed by the enormity of their action. Policy-makers were concerned that devaluation might lead to inflation, so there was no immediate rush for expansionary economic policies. However, by 1935 it was clear that all the countries that had devalued their currencies in 1931 had performed far better than those who had opted for exchange control. In 1933, the US decided to leave the gold standard and devalue the dollar as it was clear that New Deal policies designed to inflate the economy were inconsistent with the rules of the game. Unlike Britain, the US was not forced to leave the gold standard but chose to do so. The performance of the gold bloc, headed by France, was increasingly dismal and in 1936 France, too, abandoned gold.

Devalued currencies gave exports a competitive edge which trade rivals remaining on gold sought to blunt by the imposition of tariffs, quotas, and bi-lateral trade agreements ( Eichengreen and Irwin, 2009 ). In Nazi Germany, a drive for greater self-sufficiency was added to strict exchange controls and these policies were accompanied by a reliance on bilateral rather than multilateral trade ( Obstfeld and Taylor, 1998 ). Japan and Italy also provide examples of autarkic imperialism. Liberal internationalism was no more. Individual countries, or groups, strove to minimize their imports and maximize their exports. Trade restrictions increased dramatically during the 1930s but even when there was some relaxation it was not multinational. With the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act (1934), the US Congress authorized the President to negotiate bilateral tariff reductions with other countries. By 1939 the US had signed 20 treaties with countries accounting for 60 per cent of its trade ( Findlay and O’Rourke, 2007 ). Unfortunately, during the 1930s, multilateral trade gave way to bilateral arrangements as trading within blocs, of which Imperial Preference was one, grew more common. The outcome was trade diversion rather than creation.

(iv) The post-gold-standard world

Roosevelt (FDR) promised the American people ‘bold persistent experimentation’ and, although scholars see in the New Deal continuity with America’s past, the public saw decisive action and lots of it. Immediately on entering office the new President addressed the banking problem. A bank holiday closed all the nation’s banks and the President assured the public that they would only be permitted to re-open when an independent examination had declared them sound. Roosevelt’s assurances, and a raft of new regulations designed to curb the failings which Congress believed had helped to cause the depression, ushered in a period of banking stability. FDR’s decision to leave the gold standard and significantly devalue the dollar horrified conservatives but banished the need for the Fed to impose deflationary policies on a stricken economy. Indeed, after devaluation, the US became a safe haven for gold, especially from a troubled Europe. The gold flows generated an expansion of the money supply which helped to stimulate recovery.

From the exceptionally low base of 1933, real GDP grew rapidly at an average of over 8 per cent a year until 1937. After a check, growth between 1938 and 1941 was, at over 10 per cent, even more rapid. Between 1929 and 1933 real GDP fell by 27 per cent; between 1933 and 1937 it rose by 36 per cent ( Table 2 ). In 1937, the best year of the decade, output had just reached 1929 levels and there were as many people at work as there had been in the prosperous year of 1929. Unfortunately the labour force had grown by 6m and the unemployment rate, at 14.3 per cent, remained unacceptably high. Private investment failed to revive satisfactorily. Total gross private domestic investment (current $) rose from $1.4 billion in 1933 to $11.8 billion in 1937. The figure for 1929 was $16.2 billion. The recession of 1937–8 was a sudden and devastating blow to an economy functioning far below full capacity. Private investment was driven down to $6.5 billion and full recovery was held back for several years. The economy did not reach its long-run trend until June 1942.

The New Deal is difficult to evaluate economically, partly because of its lack of consistency ( Fishback, 2007 ). In the first New Deal, 1933–5, Roosevelt attacked the surpluses which many commentators believed had dragged the economy down. Farmers were paid to reduce the acreage on which they grew specified crops in the hope that reduced output would increase farm income and, indeed, revive the entire economy. The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) encouraged cooperating businesses to curb competition, which was seen as potentially destabilizing as it led to price reductions. Minimum wages and maximum hours were supposed to increase consumer spending power and help spread the available work. It was a misguided attempt to regenerate the economy by producing less. This bureaucratic nightmare was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1935.

FDR now abandoned the attempt to cooperate with business and advocated a more competitive society. He denounced the ‘economic royalists’, who, he maintained, were trying to thwart the will of the people by undermining his policies. In order to protect the vulnerable, who would be exposed to exploitation in this new competitive environment, the formation and growth of trades unions was promoted by the Labor Relations Act (1935), more popularly known as the Wagner Act. Roosevelt gained a stunning re-election victory in 1936 but by the following year the 1937-38 recession necessitated another change in direction. FDR, who had always disliked budget deficits, now came to accept that spending was a vital tool for recovery. Extra spending did bring about a revival.

The President’s frequent changes of direction are seen by his opponents as cynicism. His supporters praise him for pragmatism. It is hard to think of the twists and turns of New Deal policies having a uniformly positive effect on economic performance. On the positive side, the achievement of bank stability was an important plus, but Roosevelt’s poor relations with business and the administration’s inclination to balance increases in spending with new taxes did not create a favourable environment for private investment to flourish and negated the expansionary effects of federal spending.

The New Deal was not Keynesian. Neither fiscal nor monetary policy was used as a tool for economic revival. The reaction of many contemporaries to the problem of unemployment, for example, was to promote polices that would share work, promote high wages to aid purchasing power, remove married women from the workforce, and institute a compulsory age of retirement. Although the federal budget was in deficit for every year during Roosevelt’s presidency, these deficits were too small and unplanned to be described as Keynesian ( Fishback, 2010 ). The growing money stock did exert a positive influence, but its cause was the substantial flow of gold entering the banking system from troubled Europe rather than direct policy action by the Fed ( Romer, 1992 ). The inflow also imposed costs even though it provided advantages. The Fed became concerned at the potentially inflationary excess reserves held by member banks and, in 1936 and 1937, raised reserve requirements. The banks responded by reducing their lending. Coincident with this restriction, federal spending was reduced. The combination of restrictive monetary and fiscal policies plunged the economy into a serious yearlong downturn during which real GDP fell by 10 per cent and unemployment rose to 12.5 per cent. Fortunately, the recession bottomed out in May 1938, as both fiscal and monetary policy became expansionary. Recovery was rapid but prices continued to fall for another 2 years. This recession was a serious self-induced wound.

(v) Unemployment

Hatton and Thomas (2010) offer an explanation for the mass unemployment in both the US and the UK during the 1930s. Unemployment in the UK during the 1930s was similar to that of the 1920s. It was concentrated in the regions where the old staple industries, cotton textiles, coal mining, ship building, and iron and steel, dominated. However, in other parts of the country, a private housing boom, encouraged by low interest rates and rising real wages, created many jobs and there was employment growth, too, in the manufacture of consumer durables and in the service sector. By the mid-1930s, UK unemployment was primarily regional and structural.

In contrast, the US had enjoyed low unemployment during the 1920s. The stubborn refusal of unemployment to decline to pre-Depression levels as economic recovery got under way ensured that expenditure on relief was a new and major item in the federal budget. There were other differences between the 1920s and the 1930s. The Roosevelt administration encouraged the growth of trades unions and in the first New Deal, minimum wages and maximum hours raised both real wages and labour costs. Indeed, the support of both Hoover and Roosevelt for polices designed to prevent wage rates from falling helps to explain the extraordinary growth in money wages during a period of mass unemployment. The employed benefited, but real wages increased above market-clearing levels and, as a result, unemployment persisted.

Unlike British policy-makers, the New Dealers were totally opposed to ‘dole’ payments, which they feared would lead to a dependency culture. Instead, they stressed the benefits of work relief with a cash wage and hourly wage rates identical to those in the private sector. Hours worked were restricted so that take-home pay was not so munificent that private-sector work would be rejected if it was offered. Unfortunately, limited funding enabled only 40 per cent of workers eligible for work project placements to find employment on them. Rejected applicants were forced to accept relief from their counties, which was far less generous than that provided by Washington.

Mass unemployment was a worldwide phenomenon during the depression. Sweden, Denmark and Norway, like Britain, endured double-digit unemployment in both the 1920s and the 1930s ( Feinstein et al ., 1997 ). In Germany, the deflationary policies pursued even after the gold standard had been abandoned led to an unemployment total of 6m in 1933, roughly double that of the UK. The social and political distress in Germany, which played a significant part in the election of Hitler as Chancellor in 1933, was widely seen at the time as one of the unacceptable costs of unemployment. The eradication of unemployment was a Nazi priority and the new government acted swiftly by imposing a ‘new deal’ on Germany which was radically different from Roosevelt’s model. The Nazis abolished German trades unions and with them collective bargaining. A mass programme of public works financed by budget deficits was begun immediately. Industrial recovery emphasized the production of capital goods not consumer goods. Labour service, and the introduction of military conscription in 1935, helped to reduce the ranks of the jobless so that, in 1937, unemployment had been reduced to less than 2m. A striking feature of the labour market was the very modest growth in real wages which this totalitarian regime was able to control. When the market became tight and shortages appeared, there were no trades unions to help workers exploit their scarcity.

The contribution of Nazi work-creation schemes and the state’s ability to control wage growth explains why the decline of unemployment in Germany appeared a success story when compared to Roosevelt’s efforts in the US ( Temin, 1989 ). Depressed commentators in the free world wondered if the only way to eradicate unemployment was to embrace the policies of either Nazi Germany, or the Soviet Union. Neither option had great appeal. It was, however, preparation for war which sheltered Britain, France, and Germany from sharing the US experience during 1937–8. Expansionary fiscal policies sustained the European economies as they geared up for conflict and minimized the effects of this contraction.

(i) What caused the downturn?

Economic historians have traditionally viewed the large falls in real GDP that happened in the Great Depression as the result of large aggregate demand shocks. We think this is still appropriate and identify the main sources of these shocks. 1 However, the translation of adverse shifts in aggregate demand into an impact on output as well as the price level, implies that the aggregate supply curve was non-vertical and the reasons for this need to be explored. Moreover, it is now generally accepted that the shocks which started the downward spiral were greatly amplified by the financial crises which characterized the early 1930s. A further key aspect of the Great Depression is that recessionary impulses were not immediately countered by an effective policy response, and this also has to be explained. Here, a central role was played by the gold standard, the fixed exchange-rate system, of which all the major economies were members at the end of the 1920s.

The most important source of shocks to the world economy from the late 1920s onwards was the United States. This was not only because the collapse in output in the world’s largest economy was spectacular, but because other countries responded to deflationary changes in American monetary policy, notably at the end of the 1920s ( Eichengreen, 2004 ). At least since Friedman and Schwartz (1963) , monetary policy errors have been blamed by many economists; the M1 measure of the money supply fell by over 25 per cent between 1929 and 1933 and it is generally agreed that, notwithstanding the constraints of the gold standard, at least through early 1932, there was scope for the Federal Reserve to reverse this decline by an aggressive response. Instead, adhering to the real bills doctrine, it was believed that monetary policy was loose and expansionary policy was inappropriate, even though real interest rates were very high. More details can be found in the paper by Fishback (2010) .

Econometric analysis has supported the view that declines in the money supply tended to have negative effects on real output in the United States in the interwar period; however, the decline in output in the early 1930s was much bigger than would be predicted simply on the basis of the fall in M1 (Gordon and Wilcox, 1981 ). This might imply that there were other demand shocks working through autonomous falls in consumption and investment spending, as argued by Temin (1976) . A major additional factor was the spate of banking crises that engulfed the United States in the early 1930s when more than 9,000 banks failed (comprising about a seventh of total deposits).

In a seminal paper, Bernanke (1983) found that adding changes in deposits of failing banks to an equation to predict output based on money and price shocks substantially improved its predictive power. This should not be surprising since it is well known that systemic banking crises tend to be associated with large output losses ( Laeven and Valencia, 2008 ). Bernanke interpreted his result as an indication that bank failures implied a loss of services of financial intermediation, a ‘credit crunch’, in which output fell consequent on an adverse shift in the supply of loans. This claim, based on correlations at the macro level, has subsequently been strongly supported by micro-level research into bank behaviour ( Calomiris and Mason, 2003 a ; Calomiris and Wilson, 2004 ). So bank failures were an important channel for the transmission of monetary impulses to real-economy outcomes.

Friedman and Schwartz (1963) interpreted the bank failures as primarily a result of a ‘scramble for liquidity’ with the implication that, if the Federal Reserve had acted as a vigorous lender of last resort, they could largely have been averted, at least in 1930 and 1931. Bordo and Lane (2010, this issue) provide support for this view based on an econometric analysis using examiners’ reports on failed banks. That said, it is clear that the United States entered the 1930s with a weak financial system, under-capitalized and based on unit rather than branch banking, and that the probability that a bank would fail strongly reflected fundamentals and insolvency stemming from ex ante balance-sheet weakness rather than panic ( Calomiris and Mason, 2003 b ). It is also clear that high failure rates reflected weaknesses in regulation, notably in terms of capital adequacy, and prudential supervision, in particular because of inadequate standards at the state level; indeed, Mitchener (2007) estimated that the bank failure rate might have been halved had regulatory and supervisory practices across states improved by one standard deviation.

Obviously, a more resilient banking system would have coped better with the stress created by macroeconomic problems. The incorporation of a financial sector into a dynamic stochastic general equilibrium (DSGE) model of the interwar American economy gives similar insights. Christiano et al . (2003) found that shocks that raise liquidity preference (reduce bank deposits relative to currency holdings) lower funds for investment and contribute to a non-neutral debt deflation, but that a monetary policy rule that responded to these money demand shocks could have limited the fall in real GDP in the early 1930s to only about 6 per cent.

Where does the Wall Street Crash fit into this story? To the person in the street, the collapse of stock-market prices is surely the iconic aspect of the Great Depression. The Dow Jones industrial index fell from 381 to 198 between the peak in early September and mid-November 1929, while from peak to the trough in 1932 about five-sixths was wiped off stock-market values. The crash in the autumn of 1929 included the infamous Black Thursday and Black Tuesday (24 and 29 October). In contrast, economists and economic historians have generally thought that the Wall Street Crash played at most a minor role in the downturn. In part, this is because the fundamental value of a share reflects the discounted present value of future earnings and is thus an endogenous variable. That said, share price indices exhibit ‘excess volatility’—they jump about much more than can be explained by an efficient markets hypothesis ( Shiller, 2003 )—and probably were quite a bit ‘too high’ ex ante in 1929. 2 So there is scope to think in terms of an exogenous shock to share prices. The question then is how much effect might this have had on the real economy. The answer is probably a small impact on consumption through wealth effects and postponement of durables as a response to increased uncertainty ( Romer, 1990 ). There is good evidence that increases in uncertainty affected investment quite significantly through increased risk premia, but, that said, this does not seem to result from discrete events such as the stock-market crash ( Ferderer and Zalewski, 1994 ). So, overall, the impact of the Wall Street Crash on the real American economy was very modest in comparison with that of monetary policy and banking crises.

In sum, the collapse in economic activity was the result of large shocks, both monetary and expenditure, to aggregate demand interacting with a fragile financial system so as to magnify the impact. Discretionary policy responses were, at best, too little, too late, while automatic stabilizers were very weak in an economy with a small federal budget together with low tax rates and transfer payments. Although nominal interest rates fell by several percentage points, ex post real interest rates rose steeply, while bank failures and declining asset prices delivered a credit crunch.

For the typical small open economy in the rest of the world, the big problem as the Depression took hold was being subjected to deflationary pressure as world output and prices fell while being severely constrained in making a policy response by membership of the gold standard. The concept of the macroeconomic trilemma tells us that such a country can only have two of a fixed exchange rate, capital mobility, and an independent monetary policy. This last was typically given up while the gold standard prevailed, although in the globalization backlash that ensued capital controls were very widely adopted. It follows that a monetary-policy response to the deflationary shocks needed to be coordinated across countries (thereby allowing interest-rate differentials to remain unchanged) but, as Wolf (2010) explains, international coordination was out of the question. Indeed, non-cooperative behaviour was the order of the day, epitomized by France’s accumulation and sterilization of gold reserves.

Besides having no control over monetary policy, staying on the gold standard required reductions in prices and money wages and entailed high real interest rates and increased the risk of a banking crisis as balance sheets deteriorated. The decision not to leave the gold standard was influenced by the strength of worries about loss of monetary discipline and the degree of pain in terms of price falls and devaluations by important trading partners ( Wolf, 2008 ). Banking crises were experienced in many countries and were associated with weaknesses in banking systems as well as the deflationary pressures which stressed them ( Grossman and Meissner, 2010 , this issue). Banking crises were bad for the real economy, and countries which went through them were exposed to much larger decreases in real output ( Bernanke and James, 1991 ).

It is implicit in this discussion that the aggregate supply curve is positively sloped rather than vertical so that aggregate demand shocks have output as well as price-level effects. This seems to be borne out by the evidence. Bernanke and Carey (1996) , in a careful panel-data econometric study, found both that there was an inverse relationship between real wages and output and that this reflected incomplete (and indeed quite sticky) nominal wage adjustment in the presence of aggregate demand shocks. It is not fully understood why wages were so sticky, but ‘new-Keynesian’ arguments may be relevant. In particular, there is evidence to support an ‘insider–outsider’ explanation. Consistent with this, for the United States, it has been shown that the delay in nominal wage cuts was most pronounced in industries where there was market power ( Hanes, 2000 ). However, the impact of President Hoover’s attempts to persuade employers to agree not to cut wages may have also delayed wage cuts ( O’Brien, 1989 ). 3

The volume of international trade fell dramatically during the Great Depression, both absolutely and relative to GDP, and the period is notable for a surge in protectionism following the Smoot–Hawley Tariff imposed by the United States in 1930. For the advanced countries, real GDP fell by 16.7 per cent between 1929 and 1932, but import volumes fell by 23.5 per cent ( Table 1 ). Grossman and Meissner (2010) review the reasons for the decline in trade in some detail. Obviously a major factor is the fall in world incomes, but increasing barriers to trade clearly played a very significant role; although estimates of their contribution are sensitive to methodology, it seems likely to have been at least 40 per cent, as estimated by Madsen (2001) .

The goals of protectionist policies were typically to safeguard employment, to improve the balance of payments, and to raise prices. Unlike today, there were no constraints from World Trade Organization (WTO) membership. Protectionism is usually thought of as the triumph of special-interest groups but, in this period, it may be more a substitute for a macroeconomic-policy response. For example, Eichengreen and Irwin (2009) found that, on average, tariffs were higher in countries that stayed on gold longer. It seems unlikely that protection generally had any major impact on GDP during the downturn, because with retaliation there were offsetting effects on imports and exports. Eichengreen (1989) estimated that Smoot–Hawley raised American GDP in the short run by about 1.6 per cent after allowing for retaliation and effects on income in the rest of the world.

(ii) What drove the recovery?

The decline in economic activity across the world came to an end in 1932–3, although there were substantial output gaps for a long time afterwards. Changes in economic policy played a major role in promoting economic recovery on the demand side and to some extent by inhibiting it on the supply side. In the United States, the inauguration of the Roosevelt administration in 1933 ushered in the New Deal and most countries left the gold standard and embarked on a new macroeconomic policy regime. There is a large literature that seeks to account for the role of policy in macroeconomic outcomes in the post-Depression years, but, as this section shows, there remains room for debate.

In the United States, recovery after 1933 can be characterized as strong but incomplete. In the 4 years 1933–7, real GDP rose by 36 per cent compared with a fall of 27 per cent in the previous 4 years, taking the level in 1937 back to about 5 per cent above that of 1929. Assuming trend growth at the pre-1929 rate, however, there was still an output gap of some 25 per cent. From 1933 the New Deal swung into action with its alphabet soup of public-spending initiatives. It is natural to assume that this represented a substantial Keynesian fiscal stimulus but, as has been known since the calculations of Brown (1956) and Peppers (1973) , this was not the case.

Fishback (2010) points out that the New Deal was largely financed by tax increases and notes that the direct effects of fiscal stimulus were, at most, a very small part of the recovery. The federal deficit in 1936 was about 5.5 per cent of GDP and between 1933 and 1936 the discretionary increase probably amounted to around half of this figure. So, fiscal policy was not really tried. Would it have worked? This turns on the value of the fiscal multiplier. In the circumstances of the mid-1930s, with interest rates at or near the lower bound, there are good reasons to believe that, for temporary government spending increases, fiscal multipliers should be a good deal higher with much less crowding out than in normal times ( Hall, 2009 ). Gordon and Krenn (2010) provide estimates of the fiscal multiplier based on a vector autoregression (VAR) analysis of the impact of government expenditure on preparations for the Second World War in 1940–1 which are 1.8 in 1940 falling to 0.8 by the end of 1941. However, as Fishback (2010) notes, there are few estimates of the fiscal multiplier during the New Deal; his own research at the state level suggests a range of 0.9 to 1.7—perhaps a bit below Hall’s best guess of 1.7 for similar conditions. In any event, this would make dealing with the output gap of 1933 a daunting task.

The New Deal was a package of measures, some of which, notably NIRA in 1933 and later the National Labor Relations Act, were intended to increase the bargaining power of workers vis-à-vis employers and to prevent nominal wage declines. Cole and Ohanian (2004) , in the RBC tradition, argue that the effect was to raise real wages and unemployment compared with competitive market outcomes and that this accounts for a significant part of the shortfall of output in 1937 relative to the pre-1929 trend. Hatton and Thomas (2010) review the evidence for this claim and conclude that the New Deal may well have raised the equilibrium level of unemployment considerably; they find that the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment (NAIRU) was 12 percentage points higher in the American economy in the 1930s compared with the 1920s. So, it seems that the adverse supply-side impact of the New Deal probably outweighs any positive demand stimulus that it delivered.

Romer (1992) argued that the main stimulus to recovery in the United States was monetary policy, noting very rapid growth in the monetary base and M1 after 1933. This was driven by (largely unsterilized) gold inflows after the United States left the gold standard. M1 grew at nearly 10 per cent per year between 1933 and 1937 and Romer estimated that this was sufficient to raise real GDP in 1937 by about 25 per cent compared with what would have happened under normal monetary growth. She found a large reduction in real interest rates from 1933 and concluded that this had favourable impacts on investment spending. By implication, the positive effect of monetary policy on nominal GDP was a major reason why the federal debt-to-GDP ratio only went up from 16 per cent in 1929 to 44 per cent in 1939.

This account needs to be supplemented by explicitly considering how the United States escaped the liquidity trap, i.e. delivered monetary stimulus despite interest rates at the lower bound. The key here was ‘regime change’, as was originally stressed by Temin and Wigmore (1990) . They argue that leaving the gold standard was a clear signal that the deflationary period was over. Eggertsson (2008) , working with a standard DSGE model, built on this and provided some quantification. His argument is that Roosevelt’s actions on taking office, comprising leaving gold, announcing an objective of restoring the prices to pre-Depression levels, and implementing New Deal spending, amounted to a credible policy that delivered a major change in inflationary expectations which drove down real interest rates, matching the classic recipe for escape from the liquidity trap ( Svensson, 2003 ). Eggertsson’s calibration implied that the regime change accounted for about three-quarters of the recovery in output between 1933 and 1937. Interestingly, this kind of model makes the New Deal a major factor in promoting recovery, but through its indirect effects in changing expectations rather than through a Keynesian fiscal stimulus.

An important ingredient in recovery in the United States was rehabilitation of the banking system to put an end to the waves of bank failures and to ease the credit crunch; this was, indeed, a major priority for legislators. Both re-capitalization and re-regulation of the banks were required. Following a compulsory closure of all banks for 3 days for inspection of their books, the Roosevelt Administration passed an Emergency Banking Act in March 1933 and this was followed by the Banking Acts of 1933 (Glass–Steagall) and of 1935. About 4,000 banks were declared insolvent and not allowed to re-open after the ‘bank holiday’. Inter alia , these banking acts empowered the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), a government agency, to buy preferred stock in banks with voting rights that frequently entailed effective control, introduced federal deposit insurance, separated investment from commercial banking, and imposed interest-rate ceilings on bank accounts (regulation Q). However, nationwide branch banking continued to be prohibited.

This approach was successful in part, as Mitchener and Mason (2010, this issue) discuss. Deposit insurance, made permanent under the auspices of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), was important in ending the threat of further bank runs, as theory suggests it should ( Diamond and Dybvig, 1983 ). The RFC provided substantial capital; by March 1934 it owned stock in nearly half of all commercial banks and in June 1935 it owned more than a third of the capital ($1.3 billion in 6,800 banks) of the American banking system ( Olson, 1988 ). The RFC imposed conditions on banks which were a good substitute for market discipline on risk taking ( Calomiris and Mason, 2003 c ) and the RFC made money for the American taxpayer. Bank runs ceased and failures returned to normal low levels; the deposits-to-currency ratio which had fallen from 10.9 to 5.1 between 1929 and 1933 went back above 7. Bank lending, however, remained far below pre-Depression levels and deposit-to-reserve ratios continued to fall from 13 in 1929, to 8.2 in 1933, to 5 in 1937, when loans were a little over half but bank capital was over 80 per cent of the 1929 level. This reflected continued efforts by banks to reduce default risk at a time when they found it costly to raise new equity ( Calomiris and Wilson, 2004 ).

The regulatory response to the banking crises, captured by political interest groups intent on preserving unit banking and imbued with the ideology of the real bills doctrine, was highly unsatisfactory ( Calomiris, 2010 ). 4 Calomiris notes that the legislation was designed to support unit banking, yet this was the main structural weakness of the system which inhibited diversification of risks, prevented coordinated responses to shocks, restricted competition, and was a major source of banking instability. In contrast, the Glass–Steagall Act mandated the separation of commercial and investment banking, whereas the evidence is that banks which did both were better diversified and less likely to fail ( White, 1986 ) and that there were no good investor-protection reasons for this legislation ( Kroszner and Rajan, 1994 ). In the longer term, the downside of deposit insurance in terms of encouragement of greater risk taking was an important concern but politically it was impossible to remove; this might be seen as a significant cost of the ineffectiveness of the Federal Reserve as lender of last resort.

A key issue with macroeconomic policies to promote recovery is when to withdraw monetary and fiscal stimulus and revert to normal bank policy: too soon and a double-dip recession ensues, too late and inflation takes off. These ‘exit-strategy’ issues are considered by Mitchener and Mason (2010) . For the United States, the former problem materialized in 1937–8 when there was a short but severe recession in which real GDP fell by 10 per cent from peak to trough. This seems to have been consequent on a combination of monetary and fiscal policy tightening in which the former was probably more important ( Velde, 2009 ). This entailed a doubling of banks’ reserve requirements between August 1936 and May 1937, motivated by fear that excess reserves held by the banks might lead to a rapid rise in bank lending, together with the adoption of a policy to sterilize gold inflows as a result of which M1 growth stalled, and tax increases which saw the full-employment surplus rise by about 3.4 per cent of GDP ( Peppers, 1973 ), motivated by moves to re-balance the federal budget in the face of increases in the public debt-to-GDP ratio.

For countries in the rest of the world, a key factor in recovery was exit from the gold standard, as would be expected on the basis of the earlier discussion. On average, the earlier this happened the shallower was the downturn and the sooner recovery began, as was first shown in a very influential paper by Eichengreen and Sachs (1985) and has subsequently been confirmed for wider samples of advanced and middle-income countries by Bernanke (1995) and Campa (1990) . Bernanke (1995) points to leaving gold as permitting monetary expansion and leading to big declines in real interest rates.

In principle, going off gold also allowed countries with balance-of-payments deficits to escape from the deflationary pressures on fiscal policy that, with sterilization of monetary inflows in surplus economies, bore heavily as they tried to prevent a currency crisis ( Eichengreen and Temin, 2010 ). This might have allowed temporary fiscal stimulus to promote recovery but, as Wolf (2010) explains, for a variety of reasons including continued fear of inflation, many countries were reluctant to follow this path in the first half of the 1930s. Would the injection of fiscal stimulus have been successful? Almunia et al . (2010) obtain results that suggest it might well have been, given near liquidity trap conditions, and believe that there were positive results based on sizeable multipliers where it was employed, as in late-1930s France and Italy.

In similar vein, it should be noted that sovereign default was good for relatively rapid and strong recovery ( Eichengreen and Portes, 1990 ). Continuing to service debt as nominal GDP fell implied severe fiscal austerity and, not surprisingly, default was widespread both in Europe and Latin America in an era when the creditors were typically private bondholders, rather than banks, and creditor governments took a relatively relaxed attitude. 5

These themes can be further illustrated by considering economic recovery in the UK which is covered in some detail in Middleton (2010) . Compared with the United States, the UK experienced a relatively mild downturn, with real GDP falling by only about 5 per cent and an early recovery with real GDP returning to the 1929 level by 1934. 6 This fits the picture. The UK had a concentrated banking system but no universal banking and there were no bank failures. An early exit from the gold standard in September 1931 was a blessing in disguise and the result of a currency crisis driven by the fear that rising unemployment in an economy hard hit by falling exports was incompatible with continuation of deflationary policies ( Eichengreen and Jeanne, 1998 ). Devaluation permitted a ‘cheap-money’ policy together with a significant gain in competitiveness, and this accounts for much of the early recovery which started in a period of fiscal consolidation ( Broadberry, 1986 ). The UK did not default but, in 1932, achieved a significant reduction in debt-interest payments through conversion of a large war loan into lower-interest bonds. Unlike the United States, fiscal policy eventually played a significant part through the rearmament programme associated with a discretionary fiscal stimulus of about 3 per cent of GDP between 1935 and 1938; the evidence suggests a short-run fiscal multiplier of around 1.5 ( Thomas, 1983 ; Dimsdale and Horsewood, 1995 ).

(iii) What were the long-term implications of the Great Depression?

The Great Depression had long-lasting effects on economic policy and performance. In the UK it can be seen as a major step down ‘the road to 1945’ and the favourable reception in the 1940s and 1950s to the ideas of Beveridge and Keynes, while in the United States there is a widely held belief that it was the ‘defining moment’ in the development of the American economy ( Bordo et al ., 1998 ). Obviously, there is a danger of attributing to the Depression changes which would have come about anyway, but there is no doubt that the failures of the market economy in the 1930s were game-changing.

Clearly, one implication was a major re-thinking of macroeconomics by the economics profession which, in the Anglo-American world, rapidly adopted Keynesian thinking. This had implications for policy-making, although these need to be handled with care. In the United States, the main change was that it became generally accepted that the automatic stabilizers would not be over-ridden in pursuit of a balanced budget, and these were now much more powerful, with federal spending considerably bigger, but there was no move to trying to fine-tune the economy through Keynesian demand management ( De Long, 1998 ). In the UK, after the war, activist government intervention to prevent shortfalls of aggregate demand did become the norm and, by the 1950s and 1960s, short-term demand management was very prominent in a way that would have been unthinkable in the early 1930s. 7

There was also a legacy from the 1930s for the framework of macroeconomic policy in terms of the macroeconomic trilemma. The move to controls on international capital movements proved to be long-lasting; in most countries, they continued throughout the Bretton Woods period with the return to pegged exchange rates and freer international trade. These years were characterized by very small current-account positions, very high correlations of domestic savings and investment, and the insulation of domestic from foreign interest rates, thus allowing independent monetary policy ( Obstfeld and Taylor, 2004 ). This has been portrayed by Rodrik (2002) as the ‘Bretton Woods Compromise’ in terms of the acceptable limits on globalization required by domestic politics at the level of the nation state after the debacle of the 1930s.

The crisis of the 1930s surely also contributed to the massive increase in social transfers that characterized the OECD countries in the 50 years from 1930 to 1980, during which time the median percentage of GDP rose from a strikingly low 1.66 to 20.09 per cent ( Lindert, 2004 ). Here, too, the story should not be over-simplified—many other factors played a role, including population ageing, trends in income distributions, and rising prosperity. Nevertheless, the ‘defining moment’ hypothesis for the United States is perhaps at its most persuasive in terms of federal social-insurance schemes; Wallis (2010, this issue) sees a fundamental change in terms of fiscal federalism as the New Deal succeeded in putting rules in place that underpinned the political acceptability of inter-state transfers.

The Great Depression also had big implications for microeconomic policy; Hannah and Temin (2010, this issue) suggest that the immediate impact can be seen as a serious retreat from the capitalist free market, with a new emphasis on government interventions to correct market failures. This implies a greater role for regulation and, in most OECD countries, for state ownership. The short-term implication was undoubtedly a substantial reduction in the extent of competition in product markets, including the rise of cartels encouraged by government and the anti-competitive effects of protectionism. The weakening of competition turned out to be much more pervasive and long-lasting in the UK than in the United States ( Broadberry and Crafts, 1992 ; Shepherd, 1981 ).

It is well known that financial crises can have permanent adverse effects on the level and possibly also the trend growth rate of potential output and this is a major reason why such crises usually have serious fiscal implications, including big increases in structural deficits as a percentage of GDP. Thinking in terms of a production function, there will be direct adverse effects on the amount of capital as investment is interrupted, on the amount of labour inputs through hysteresis effects, and on TFP if R&D is cut back. Indirect effects—either positive or negative—may also be felt depending on the impact the crisis has on supply-side policy. Furceri and Mourougane (2009) estimate that for OECD countries a severe banking crisis reduces the level of potential output by about 4 per cent, while the review of the evidence in IMF (2009) , which covers lower-income economies, suggests 10 per cent; in neither case is long-run trend growth thought to be affected.

What does the experience of the United States in the 1930s reveal? One way to address the issue is through time-series econometrics where the shock in the 1930s has been a focal point in debates about deterministic or stochastic trends. 8 Here the evidence is rather inconclusive and the picture is muddied by the Second World War. In fact, assuming trend-stationarity and extrapolating the pre-1929 trend of per capita income growth into the long run gives quite a good approximation to actual experience, but a more careful look suggests a break in trend in 1929 comprising a levels decrease followed by a modest increase in trend growth through 1955 ( Ben-David et al ., 2003 ). The pre-1929 trend line was crossed in 1942.

More insight may be obtained by considering business-cycle peak-to-peak growth-accounting estimates, as in Table 3 . The obvious feature of the 1930s is that the financial crisis undermined growth in the capital stock. Had growth of the capital stock continued at the pre-1929 rate, by 1941 it would have been about 35 per cent larger and, accordingly, potential GDP perhaps 12 per cent bigger. Growth of labour inputs was sluggish, impaired by the impact of the New Deal. However, TFP growth was very strong, powered by sustained R&D, and Field (2003) labelled the 1930s the most technologically progressive decade of the twentieth century in the United States. This theme is pursued in Hannah and Temin (2010) .

Growth accounting decompositions, United States 1919–41 (% per year)

Notes : Δ A / A is TFP growth derived by imposing an aggregate Cobb–Douglas production function, Y = AK α L 1–α . L is measured in terms of hours worked.

Source : Derived from Kendrick (1961) .

A legacy of the depression was a large rise in the number of long-term unemployed workers and the share of unemployment which was long term. In the UK this was to a large extent the result of job losses in the traditional export industries interacting with the unemployment-insurance system to generate a group of workers who would have liked their old jobs back but could survive on the dole. These long-term unemployed workers seem to have experienced declining re-employment probabilities over time as they became discouraged, their human capital deteriorated, and employers regarded them as damaged goods ( Crafts, 1987 ). The plight of these workers scarred the period and, virtually excluded from the labour market, they did not hold down wage pressures ( Crafts, 1989 ). So, at any level of unemployment, wage pressure was greater than in the 1920s or, equivalently, hysteresis effects had raised the NAIRU—perhaps by about 1.5 percentage points.

The UK did not experience a banking crisis but its supply-side policy was greatly affected by the response to the shocks of the 1930s and the damage limitation of the period had persistent effects well into the post-war period. Booth (1987) pointed to the logic of the so-called ‘managed-economy approach’ that was adopted—namely, that it cohered in terms of trying to promote an increase in prices relative to wages through a combination of devaluation, tariffs, and cartels. This amounted to a big reduction in product-market competition which took a long time fully to reverse. In the late 1950s, tariffs were still at mid-1930s levels and about 60 per cent of manufacturing output was cartelized. The retreat from competition had adverse effects on productivity performance over several decades and provided the context in which industrial relations problems and sleepy management proliferated ( Broadberry and Crafts, 2011 ).

Finally, it should be noted that international trade did not return to pre-Depression levels until well after the Second World War. As of the late 1930s, it looked as though the increase in trade costs in the 1930s had ‘permanently’ reduced total trade (exports + imports) to income ratios by about 30 per cent for the advanced countries. Using modern research on the impact of trade on the level of income which allows for impacts on capital stock and TFP (rather than welfare triangles), following in the tradition of Frankel and Romer (1999) , suggests that the long-term effect would have been to reduce the level of GDP per person by about 15 per cent. 9

This section pulls out the strongest policy lessons from the 1930s that have emerged from the above. Some of these are well understood and, fortunately, in the Great Recession of the last 2 years many of the worst mistakes of 80 years ago have not been repeated. The economic history of the Great Depression is, of course, well known to key players such as Ben Bernanke and Christina Romer, who are distinguished contributors to the literature. We are, of course, aware that some things are different now—for example, there was no European Monetary Union or too-big-to-fail doctrine in the 1930s— and that policy decisions and outcomes were contingent on the circumstances of the time; nevertheless, we believe that there is value in re-visiting the experience of that decade.

Starting with monetary and fiscal policy, the headlines from the American experience are clear enough. Monetary policy bears a big responsibility for the early-1930s slump; subsequent research has refined rather than refuted the claims of Friedman and Schwartz (1963) . Monetary policy errors were of both commission and omission. Inappropriate tightening of policy precipitated the downturn, while the subsequent failure to provide greater monetary stimulus allowed recession to develop into depression. In particular, as Bordo and Lane (2010) show, the Federal Reserve failed in its role as lender of last resort and thus made the financial crisis much more serious. These mistakes were not repeated in 2008–9 when monetary policy was aggressively expansionary ( Wheelock, 2010 ).

In the 1930s recovery, by contrast, monetary growth provided a major impetus, while there was virtually no fiscal stimulus, even though it is reasonable to suppose that the fiscal multiplier was quite big. It is important not to be misled by the frenetic activity of the New Deal; fiscal policy did not fail, rather it was not tried. It should also be recognized that a strong recovery was rudely interrupted by the severe recession of 1937–8 and this seems to be explained by deflationary moves in both monetary and fiscal policy.

The British fiscal-policy experience offers rather different messages. In the rearmament phase of the later 1930s, fiscal stimulus had a substantial positive impact on real output. On the other hand, in the crisis at the start of the decade, attempts to prevent the budget deficit rising as the recession deepened reduced aggregate demand appreciably, with the structural deficit being reduced by over 2.5 per cent of GDP ( Middleton, 1985 ). The big difference compared with the present day is that the government attempted to over-ride the automatic stabilizers. 10 The context, in terms of the very unpleasant budgetary arithmetic arising from wartime borrowing and being on the gold standard, is important. 11 This drastically reduced freedom to manoeuvre in the face of fears of an adverse reaction from financial markets and of deflation. The lessons here are that falling prices greatly magnify worries about fiscal sustainability, and that, at times when fiscal policy is a valuable weapon, it is highly advantageous to enter the crisis with a history of fiscal prudence.

The experience of the 1930s tells us to expect that a legacy of the current crisis will be a substantial increase in long-term unemployment and economic inactivity. It seems clear that once again this will imply that the NAIRU goes up and the level of potential output goes down. The analysis in Guichard and Rusticelli (2010) suggests that the average increase in NAIRU through hysteresis effects, both across the OECD as a whole and also in the UK, could be around 0.75 percentage points. The adverse impact on the well-being of those who become long-term unemployed will be severe and sustained ( Clark et al ., 2008 ). As Hatton and Thomas (2010) point out, this represents a major challenge for active labour-market policies.

There is a further major lesson from the recovery phase of the 1930s, namely, the importance of regime change for escaping the liquidity trap. Exit from the gold standard by the United States in 1933, together with New Deal policies, changed inflationary expectations and produced a dramatic fall in real interest rates. More generally, abandoning the gold-standard rule restored independence of monetary policy which was valuable for many countries in a world with no policy coordination and bedevilled by wage stickiness. Devaluation promoted early recovery and made fiscal consolidation much less painful. Here was a classic case where adhering to the wrong policy rule made things worse.

This obviously has resonance for current Eurozone problems and, especially, for Greece, which does not have readily available the classic 1930s escape route of devaluation. Eichengreen and Temin (2010) argue that it is virtually impossible for a country to impose capital controls and leave the Eurozone and that, as the failure of the interwar gold standard illustrates, successful fixed exchange-rate systems generally need to be managed in ways that share burdens of adjustment between surplus and deficit countries. Wolf (2010) sees the Eurozone crisis as reinforcing the need for binding fiscal rules together with a credible commitment to a permanent European Stabilization Mechanism to preclude the financial crisis that sovereign default would bring.

At the beginning of the current crisis, international trade collapsed and it was widely remarked that there was a chilling parallel with the trade-wars period of the early 1930s with its seriously adverse implications for income levels in the long term. Subsequently, research has found that the contribution of trade barriers to falling world-trade volumes in 2008–9 was very small, perhaps only 2 per cent ( Kee et al ., 2010 ), which is well below estimates of 40 per cent or more in the Great Depression. It seems that the structure of world trade has changed in ways that make volumes much more sensitive to demand shocks; the evidence is reviewed by Grossman and Meissner (2010) .

This raises the important question of why we have seen creeping rather than rampant protectionism this time. Research on the interwar period by Eichengreen and Irwin (2009) finds that protectionist policies were less likely to be adopted by countries which left the gold standard early, i.e. where there was more freedom to adopt expansionary monetary and fiscal policies. They argue that this makes protectionism much less likely now because the scope for a macroeconomic policy response is much greater.

Even so, another big difference from the 1930s may also be relevant, namely, that now we have the trade rules overseen by the WTO including bound tariff agreements. Evenett (2009) points out that these tariff bindings have held. Unfortunately, it is also true that there is a great deal of leeway for WTO-legal increases in trade barriers, partly because in many cases tariffs are well below bound levels and partly because anti-dumping is not well addressed by the rules. This underlines the importance of reducing the scope for governments legally to raise levels of protection and emphasizes that there could be real value from concluding the Doha Round ( Hoekman et al ., 2010 ).

Banking crises were at the heart of the Great Depression in the United States. That experience and the wider evidence base tells us that such crises are typically very expensive in terms of the depth and length of the downturns with which they are associated and the fiscal legacy that they bequeath through increased structural deficits and government debt-servicing ( Laeven and Valencia, 2008 ). The costs are greater when pre-crisis regulation and supervision are weak ( Ahrend et al ., 2009 ), as is borne out by the variance of bank failure rates across the states of the USA in the 1930s.

Microeconomic analysis incorporating implications of asymmetric information predicts that there is the potential for serious market failures in the banking sector with attendant risks of banking crises; for example, a bank run (a coordination failure) can happen even though agents are rational and banks are solvent ( Diamond and Dybvig, 1983 ). Moral hazard leading to excessive risk-taking which is rational for banks may compound this problem in the context of free-riding in monitoring by depositors. Banks’ lending decisions do not take into account the (potentially large) social costs of bank failures via the threat to financial stability that they entail.

As the catastrophic experience of the United States in the 1930s makes clear, the policy implication is that there is a need both for regulation to reduce the possibility of a crisis by curtailing excessive risk-taking and also for crisis-management measures to reduce the impact of any crisis ( Freixas, 2010 ). The latter might include deposit insurance together with a central bank that acts effectively as a lender of last resort. The former might just comprise regulation that improves the quality of publicly available information to facilitate market discipline of banks. In practice, however, deposit insurance tends to exacerbate moral hazard, especially if implicit full-insurance guarantees are given de facto when banks are deemed too big to fail. This makes strict regulation of bank behaviour, for example, in terms of capital-adequacy rules, or of the size and/or scope of banking activities imperative ( Bhattacharya et al ., 1998 ).

In 1929, the United States had a badly regulated and under-capitalized banking system, an inexperienced and incompetent lender of last resort, and no federal deposit insurance. At the end of the crisis, responses were made both in terms of prudential regulation and crisis management. In 1933, ending the waves of banking crises was both an economic and a political imperative. As today, reliance on market discipline appeared unrealistic. The lender of last resort had failed. So, the solution was deposit insurance plus regulatory reform, and the political attractions of the former meant that it would be a permanent feature of the American banking system ( Calomiris, 2010 ). Many other countries have followed down this path, a choice reinforced by the present crisis. For this solution to work effectively, it is crucial that regulation is well designed. The lesson from the 1930s is that it most probably will not be, because vested interests are likely to hijack the politics of regulatory design. In particular, it is clear that the Glass–Steagall Act introduced unjustified restrictions on universal banking while failing to address the real structural problem, namely, unit banking. Nevertheless, given the scope for, and potentially large costs of, market failure in banking together with the unavoidable presence of deposit insurance, in principle, tighter regulation to contain moral hazard was appropriate both then and now. 12

In late 2008, the Queen pertinently asked why no one had seen the crisis coming. A similar question would have been entirely appropriate in 1931. In some sense, such a lack of foresight represents a failure of economics but it is important to be clear what this comprises. As the research reviewed in this essay shows, economics has powerful tools that explain the reasons for and the consequences of financial crises, ex post . There is no great mystery about what went wrong in the United States in the early 1930s and, in principle, it is known how to prevent a repetition. Forecasting the course of the depression ex ante would, however, have been extremely difficult, then as now. Inter alia , it would have required detailed knowledge of bank balance sheets and a model of when banks would fail, together with an estimate of the impact of bank failures on economic activity, plus an ability to predict the Federal Reserve’s policy moves and when the United States would leave the gold standard.

The key point is surely the need to take banking crises seriously. Microeconomic analysis based on incentive structures in the presence of asymmetric information explains why these are likely to happen ( Dewatripont and Tirole, 1994 ), while economic history tells us that they have been quite frequent and often very costly (Reinhart and Rogoff, 2009 ). This suggests that there is a clear need to supplement conventional macroeconomic forecasting models with models for policy analysis and simulation which incorporate a financial intermediation sector with incentive distortions and information frictions ( Bean, 2010 ) and with ‘early-warning’ models that focus on threats to financial stability.

Unfortunately, the latter are still far from satisfactory. For example, the preferred model in Davis and Karim (2008) gave the probability of a banking crisis in the UK in 2007 as 0.6 per cent while Giannone et al . (2010) show that the recent financial crisis was more severe on average in countries which had very high-quality financial regulation according to existing indicators! Moreover, economists have not yet identified with any precision ex post the initial conditions which made for greater vulnerability ( Claessens et al ., 2010 ). The policy implication is to recognize that maintaining financial stability is a policy objective that will not be achieved by inflation targeting but requires additional policy instruments.

Finally, it is worth noting that in some very important ways economics has had a good crisis and lessons from the 1930s have been well heeded. Accepting that the financial crisis was allowed to happen and was not predicted, at least the policy response based on economic analysis and historical experience prevented a repeat of the trauma of the Great Depression.

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Until relatively recently, this was also commonplace among macroeconomists, even those of a strong neoclassical persuasion. Since Cole and Ohanian (1999) there have been attempts to explain the Great Depression in a real business cycle (RBC) framework. This would naturally look to adverse total factor productivity (TFP) shocks as the recessionary impulse; in common with most economic historians—for example, Pensieroso (2007) and Temin (2008) —we do not believe that this venture has been successful. The strong point of RBC modelling of the 1930s has been to point out and seek to quantify impacts of the New Deal on aggregate supply during the recovery phase ( Cole and Ohanian, 2004 ). Indeed, in that tradition the term ‘Great Depression’ is applied to the whole of the 1930s for the United States on the grounds that, despite quite a strong recovery after 1933, real GDP remained well below what would have been predicted on the basis of 1920s trend growth.

Whether there was a ‘bubble’ in the 1929 stock market has been controversial. The most persuasive evidence that there was a substantial bubble comes from the pricing of loans to stockbrokers and the valuation of closed-end mutual funds; see Rappoport and White (1993) and De Long and Shleifer (1991) .

Bordo et al . (2000) constructed a DSGE model incorporating overlapping Taylor-wage contracts and found that sluggish wage adjustment could have been a powerful aspect of the transmission mechanism from monetary shocks to real output effects.

The real bills doctrine held that the Federal Reserve should simply supply credit to meet the needs of trade and should not seek to target monetary growth or inflation; adherents believed in the separation of investment and commercial banking.

Eichengreen and Portes (1990) list 12 ‘heavy’ and 16 ‘light’ sovereign defaulters; the former include Germany and Greece and the latter include Canada, France, Italy, and Spain.

This raises the question as to why British folklore thinks the 1930s were so bad. The answer probably relates to regional trends in unemployment. In particular, adjustment to declines in the export-staple industries concentrated in ‘Outer Britain’ proved very difficult, cf. Hatton and Thomas (2010) . This is symbolized by the Jarrow March, which took its participants in 1936 from the depressed North-east to the prosperous South-east.

The initial stance of the Labour government in the late 1940s was to embrace planning rather than fine-tuning. It should also be noted that there has been a vigorous debate among economic historians about the validity of the concept of a ‘Keynesian revolution’ in British economic policy-making; see Booth (2001) for an introduction and further references.

With a stochastic trend, a shock only has a temporary effect and the economy then returns to the previous trend growth path; in contrast, if the trend is a non-stationary stochastic process, shocks have an enduring effect on the future growth path and long-run forecasts are affected by historical events.

This is based on the point estimate of an elasticity of 0.5 for the effect of trade exposure on income found for the period 1960–95 by Feyrer (2009) using an improved estimation technique. As far as we know, a similar study has not yet been performed for the interwar years. For the pre-1914 period, Jacks (2006) found larger elasticities based on the original Frankel–Romer methodology.

The large UK budget deficit in 2009–10 of about 11 per cent of GDP mainly results from the fiscal impact of the crisis on top of a pre-existing structural deficit of about 3 per cent of GDP; discretionary fiscal stimulus was equivalent to only about 1.5 per cent of GDP ( IFS, 2010 ). But the key point is that there was no attempt through fiscal stringency to stop the deficit from increasing, quite unlike 1931.

Using the standard formula that for fiscal sustainability b > d ( r – g ) where b is the primary surplus/GDP, r is the interest rate on government debt, and g is the growth rate of nominal GDP with the data set from Middleton (2010) , in the late 1920s, d = 1.7, r = 4.6, and g = 2.5; if inflation is zero then b = 3.6 per cent, but if prices fell at 5 per cent per year, b rose to 12.1 per cent. Conversion of the war debt and gently rising prices in the post-gold-standard world changed this so that b fell below 2 per cent. The value of b is quite small in each of these scenarios if d is at the 1913 level of 0.25.

The claim that there is a market-failure-based justification for stronger regulation is related to the special features of banking that create instability risks and clearly does not generalize to a case for state intervention across the board on the grounds that the market economy as a whole has failed. That error was commonplace in the 1930s but should not be repeated now. It should also be apparent that 1930s experience does not offer a blueprint for the optimal details of regulation in the different world of today.

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Essays on the Great Depression

  • Ben S. Bernanke

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Economics & Finance

From the Nobel Prize–winning economist and former chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, a landmark book that provides vital lessons for understanding financial crises and their sometimes-catastrophic economic effects

research papers on the great depression

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As chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve during the Global Financial Crisis, Ben Bernanke helped avert a greater financial disaster than the Great Depression. And he did so by drawing directly on what he had learned from years of studying the causes of the economic catastrophe of the 1930s—work for which he was later awarded the Nobel Prize. This influential work is collected in Essays on the Great Depression , an important account of the origins of the Depression and the economic lessons it teaches.

"Bernanke certainly knows the importance of well-functioning markets. In Essays on the Great Depression he wrote persuasively that runs on the banks and extensive defaults on loans reduced the efficiency of the financial sector, prevented it from doing its normal job in allocating resources, and contributed to the Depression severity. The Depression-era problems he studied are mirrored by similar issues today, and they need urgent attention."—Robert J. Shiller, New York Times

"Bernanke probably knows more about the Depression of the 1930s, about specific events and economic interpretations, than any other living person."—Michael Barone, U.S. News & World Report

"Tempting as it is to focus on President Herbert Hoover and the 1929 U.S. market crash, Bernanke explores conditions across dozens of countries—assessing where banking crises erupted, how deeply economic activity plummeted and which central banks made the right calls."—Carlos Lozada, Washington Post

"Having devoted much of his career to studying the causes of the Great Depression, Bernanke was the academic expert on how to prevent financial crises from spinning out of control and threatening the general economy. One line from his Essays on the Great Depression sounds especially prescient today: 'To the extent that bank panics interfere with normal flows of credit, they may affect the performance of the real economy.'"—Roger Lowenstein, New York Times Magazine

"Fortunately, before he became entangled in these restrictions [Bernanke] did edit and help write a book, Essays on the Great Depression . . . . Bernanke's motive was that understanding the depression would provide important clues to what can go wrong with capitalist market systems."—Samuel Brittan, Financial Times

"The financial crisis has made Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's book Essays on the Great Depression a hot seller. . . . Bernanke, a former Princeton University economist, is considered the pre-eminent living scholar of the Great Depression. He is practicing today what he preached in his book: Flood the system with money to avoid a depression."—Dennis Cauchon, USA Today

"When Ben Bernanke arrived at the Federal Reserve in February 2006 as the new chairman of the central bank, he had a copy of his 2001 book, Inflation Targeting: Lessons from the International Experience , tucked under his arm. Not literally, of course. He was hoping to convince his colleagues on the Federal Open Market Committee of the value of an explicit inflation target. Little did he know that less than two years later he'd be shelving Inflation Targeting and turning to Essays on the Great Depression , another of his books, for guidance. In his book of essays, Bernanke calls the Great Depression the 'Holy Grail of macroeconomics.' He writes that 'the experience of the 1930s continues to influence macroeconomists' beliefs, policy recommendations, and research agendas.'"—Caroline Baum, Bloomberg.com

"With some observers saying that the ongoing financial crisis could be the worst since the Great Depression, the greatest living expert on that period is getting the chance to apply its economic lessons. . . . In Essays on the Great Depression . . . [Bernanke] notes that understanding that period is the 'holy grail of macroeconomics.'"—Spencer Jakab, Dow Jones Newswires

"Bernanke is the master of applied microeconomics. Not only is he technically proficient but his ability to place his results in a larger macroeconomic context is unparalleled."—Mark Toma, Financial History Review

"This influential body of work is a significant contribution to our understanding the depth and persistence of the Great Depression. . . . This book will become a standard reference in the field of business cycle research."—Randall Kroszner, University of Chicago

"Bernanke's work has had a powerful impact on the economics profession, alerting macroeconomists to the advantages of historical analysis, and a number of important figures (James Hamilton, Steve Cecchetti, for example), inspired by his work, have followed him into the field. The nine essays form a remarkably coherent whole."—Barry Eichengreen, University of California, Berkeley, and author of Globalizing Capital: A History of the International Monetary System

"Collecting these essays together will provide a single source for students to find Bernanke's substantial contributions. . . . His papers demonstrate conclusively that the international view of the great depression has impressive explanatory power."—Peter Temin, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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research papers on the great depression

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book: Essays on the Great Depression

Essays on the Great Depression

  • Ben S. Bernanke
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  • Language: English
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Copyright year: 2000
  • Audience: Professional and scholarly;College/higher education;
  • Main content: 352
  • Other: 11 b/w illus. 48 tables.
  • Published: January 9, 2024
  • ISBN: 9780691259666

Federal Reserve History logo

The Great Depression

A bread line at Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street, New York City, during the Great Depression

“Regarding the Great Depression, … we did it. We’re very sorry. … We won’t do it again.” —Ben Bernanke, November 8, 2002, in a speech given at “A Conference to Honor Milton Friedman … On the Occasion of His 90th Birthday.”

In 2002, Ben Bernanke , then a member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, acknowledged publicly what economists have long believed. The Federal Reserve’s mistakes contributed to the “worst economic disaster in American history” (Bernanke 2002).

Bernanke, like other economic historians, characterized the Great Depression as a disaster because of its length, depth, and consequences. The Depression lasted a decade, beginning in 1929 and ending during World War II. Industrial production plummeted. Unemployment soared. Families suffered. Marriage rates fell. The contraction began in the United States and spread around the globe. The Depression was the longest and deepest downturn in the history of the United States and the modern industrial economy.

The Great Depression began in August 1929, when the economic expansion of the Roaring Twenties came to an end. A series of financial crises punctuated the contraction. These crises included a stock market crash in 1929 , a series of regional banking panics in 1930 and 1931 , and a series of national and international financial crises from 1931 through 1933 . The downturn hit bottom in March 1933, when the commercial banking system collapsed and President Roosevelt declared a national banking holiday . 1    Sweeping reforms of the financial system accompanied the economic recovery, which was interrupted by a double-dip recession in 1937 . Return to full output and employment occurred during the Second World War.

To understand Bernanke’s statement, one needs to know what he meant by “we,” “did it,” and “won’t do it again.”

By “we,” Bernanke meant the leaders of the Federal Reserve System. At the start of the Depression, the Federal Reserve’s decision-making structure was decentralized and often ineffective. Each district had a governor who set policies for his district, although some decisions required approval of the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, DC. The Board lacked the authority and tools to act on its own and struggled to coordinate policies across districts. The governors and the Board understood the need for coordination; frequently corresponded concerning important issues; and established procedures and programs, such as the Open Market Investment Committee, to institutionalize cooperation. When these efforts yielded consensus, monetary policy could be swift and effective. But when the governors disagreed, districts could and sometimes did pursue independent and occasionally contradictory courses of action.

The governors disagreed on many issues, because at the time and for decades thereafter, experts disagreed about the best course of action and even about the correct conceptual framework for determining optimal policy. Information about the economy became available with long and variable lags. Experts within the Federal Reserve, in the business community, and among policymakers in Washington, DC, had different perceptions of events and advocated different solutions to problems. Researchers debated these issues for decades. Consensus emerged gradually. The views in this essay reflect conclusions expressed in the writings of three recent chairmen, Paul Volcke r, Alan Greenspan , and Ben Bernanke .

By “did it,” Bernanke meant that the leaders of the Federal Reserve implemented policies that they thought were in the public interest. Unintentionally, some of their decisions hurt the economy. Other policies that would have helped were not adopted.

An example of the former is the Fed’s decision to raise interest rates in 1928 and 1929. The Fed did this in an attempt to limit speculation in securities markets. This action slowed economic activity in the United States. Because the international gold standard linked interest rates and monetary policies among participating nations, the Fed’s actions triggered recessions in nations around the globe. The Fed repeated this mistake when responding to the international financial crisis in the fall of 1931. This website explores these issues in greater depth in our entries on the stock market crash of 1929 and the financial crises of 1931 through 1933 .

An example of the latter is the Fed’s failure to act as a lender of last resort during the banking panics that began in the fall of 1930 and ended with the banking holiday in the winter of 1933. This website explores this issue in essays on the banking panics of 1930 to 1931 , the banking acts of 1932 , and the banking holiday of 1933 .

Men study the announcement of jobs at an employment agency during the Great Depression.

One reason that Congress created the Federal Reserve, of course, was to act as a lender of last resort. Why did the Federal Reserve fail in this fundamental task? The Federal Reserve’s leaders disagreed about the best response to banking crises. Some governors subscribed to a doctrine similar to Bagehot’s dictum, which says that during financial panics, central banks should loan funds to solvent financial institutions beset by runs. Other governors subscribed to a doctrine known as real bills. This doctrine indicated that central banks should supply more funds to commercial banks during economic expansions, when individuals and firms demanded additional credit to finance production and commerce, and less during economic contractions, when demand for credit contracted. The real bills doctrine did not definitively describe what to do during banking panics, but many of its adherents considered panics to be symptoms of contractions, when central bank lending should contract. A few governors subscribed to an extreme version of the real bills doctrine labeled “liquidationist.” This doctrine indicated that during financial panics, central banks should stand aside so that troubled financial institutions would fail. This pruning of weak institutions would accelerate the evolution of a healthier economic system. Herbert Hoover’s secretary of treasury, Andrew Mellon, who served on the Federal Reserve Board, advocated this approach. These intellectual tensions and the Federal Reserve’s ineffective decision-making structure made it difficult, and at times impossible, for the Fed’s leaders to take effective action.

Among leaders of the Federal Reserve, differences of opinion also existed about whether to help and how much assistance to extend to financial institutions that did not belong to the Federal Reserve. Some leaders thought aid should only be extended to commercial banks that were members of the Federal Reserve System. Others thought member banks should receive assistance substantial enough to enable them to help their customers, including financial institutions that did not belong to the Federal Reserve, but the advisability and legality of this pass-through assistance was the subject of debate. Only a handful of leaders thought the Federal Reserve (or federal government) should directly aid commercial banks (or other financial institutions) that did not belong to the Federal Reserve. One advocate of widespread direct assistance was  Eugene Meyer , governor of the Federal Reserve Board, who was instrumental in the creation of the  Reconstruction Finance Corporation .

These differences of opinion contributed to the Federal Reserve’s most serious sin of omission: failure to stem the decline in the supply of money. From the fall of 1930 through the winter of 1933, the money supply fell by nearly 30 percent. The declining supply of funds reduced average prices by an equivalent amount. This deflation increased debt burdens; distorted economic decision-making; reduced consumption; increased unemployment; and forced banks, firms, and individuals into bankruptcy. The deflation stemmed from the collapse of the banking system, as explained in the essay on the  banking panics of 1930 and 1931 .

The Federal Reserve could have prevented deflation by preventing the collapse of the banking system or by counteracting the collapse with an expansion of the monetary base, but it failed to do so for several reasons. The economic collapse was unforeseen and unprecedented. Decision makers lacked effective mechanisms for determining what went wrong and lacked the authority to take actions sufficient to cure the economy. Some decision makers misinterpreted signals about the state of the economy, such as the nominal interest rate, because of their adherence to the real bills philosophy. Others deemed defending the gold standard by raising interests and reducing the supply of money and credit to be better for the economy than aiding ailing banks with the opposite actions.

On several occasions, the Federal Reserve did implement policies that modern monetary scholars believe could have stemmed the contraction. In the spring of 1931, the Federal Reserve began to expand the monetary base, but the expansion was insufficient to offset the deflationary effects of the banking crises. In the spring of 1932, after Congress provided the Federal Reserve with the necessary authority, the Federal Reserve expanded the monetary base aggressively. The policy appeared effective initially, but after a few months the Federal Reserve changed course. A series of political and international shocks hit the economy, and the contraction resumed. Overall, the Fed’s efforts to end the deflation and resuscitate the financial system, while well intentioned and based on the best available information, appear to have been too little and too late.

The flaws in the Federal Reserve’s structure became apparent during the initial years of the Great Depression. Congress responded by reforming the Federal Reserve and the entire financial system. Under the Hoover administration, congressional reforms culminated in the  Reconstruction Finance Corporation Act and the Banking Act of 1932 . Under the Roosevelt administration, reforms culminated in the  Emergency Banking Act of 1933 , the  Banking Act of 1933 (commonly called Glass-Steagall) , the  Gold Reserve Act of 1934 , and the  Banking Act of 1935 . This legislation shifted some of the Federal Reserve’s responsibilities to the Treasury Department and to new federal agencies such as the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. These agencies dominated monetary and banking policy until the 1950s.

The reforms of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s turned the Federal Reserve into a modern central bank. The creation of the modern intellectual framework underlying economic policy took longer and continues today. The Fed’s combination of a well-designed central bank and an effective conceptual framework enabled Bernanke to state confidently that “we won’t do it again.”

  • 1  These business cycle dates come from the National Bureau of Economic Research . Additional materials on the Federal Reserve can be found at the website of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.


Bernanke, Ben. Essays on the Great Depression . Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Bernanke, Ben, “ On Milton Friedman's Ninetieth Birthday ," Remarks by Governor Ben S. Bernanke at the Conference to Honor Milton Friedman, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, November 8, 2002.

Chandler, Lester V. American Monetary Policy, 1928 to 1941 . New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

Chandler, Lester V. American’s Greatest Depression, 1929-1941 . New York: Harper Collins, 1970.

Eichengreen, Barry. “The Origins and Nature of the Great Slump Revisited.” Economic History Review 45, no. 2 (May 1992): 213–239.

Friedman, Milton and Anna Schwartz. A Monetary History of the United States: 1867-1960 . Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963.

Kindleberger, Charles P. The World in Depression, 1929-1939 : Revised and Enlarged Edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Meltzer, Allan. A History of the Federal Reserve: Volume 1, 1913 to 1951 . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Romer, Christina D. “The Nation in Depression.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 7, no. 2 (1993): 19-39.

Temin, Peter. Lessons from the Great Depression (Lionel Robbins Lectures) . Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989.

Written as of November 22, 2013. See disclaimer .

Essays in this Time Period

  • Bank Holiday of 1933
  • Banking Act of 1933 (Glass-Steagall)
  • Banking Act of 1935
  • Banking Acts of 1932
  • Banking Panics of 1930-31
  • Banking Panics of 1931-33
  • Stock Market Crash of 1929
  • Emergency Banking Act of 1933
  • Gold Reserve Act of 1934
  • Recession of 1937–38
  • Roosevelt's Gold Program

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Article contents

African americans in the great depression and new deal.

  • Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy Department of History Eastern Michigan University
  • https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.013.632
  • Published online: 19 November 2020

For African Americans, the Great Depression and the New Deal (1929–1940) marked a transformative era and laid the groundwork for the postwar black freedom struggle in the United States. The outbreak of the Great Depression in 1929 caused widespread suffering and despair in black communities across the country as women and men faced staggering rates of unemployment and poverty. Once Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), a Democrat, was inaugurated as president in 1933, he launched a “New Deal” of ambitious government programs to lift the United States out of the economic crisis. Most African Americans were skeptical about benefiting from the New Deal, and racial discrimination remained rampant. However, a cohort of black advisors and activists critiqued these government programs for excluding African Americans and enacted some reforms. At the grassroots level, black workers pressed for expanded employment opportunities and joined new labor unions to fight for economic rights. As the New Deal progressed a sea change swept over black politics. Many black voters switched their allegiance from the Republican to the Democratic Party, waged more militant campaigns for racial justice, and joined interracial and leftist coalitions. African Americans also challenged entrenched cultural stereotypes through photography, theater, and oral histories to illuminate the realities of black life in the United States. By 1940, African Americans now wielded an arsenal of protest tactics and were marching on a path toward full citizenship rights, which remains an always evolving process.

  • African American history
  • cultural history
  • labor history
  • political history
  • women’s history

Last Hired, First Fired: The Crisis of the Great Depression

On the eve of the Great Depression, African Americans across the country already occupied a fragile position in the economy. 1 In the late 1920s, the vast majority of African Americans toiled as domestic servants, farmers, or service workers, jobs marked by low wages, weak job security, and fraught labor conditions. 2 Approximately eleven million African Americans lived in the American South, where they principally labored as sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and wage workers. Approximately 10 percent of black southerners owned land, but most cultivated crops on white-owned land and received a small share of the harvest. 3 Many regions of the South were already suffering from an economic downtown, and most black southerners were locked in an endless cycle of poverty, exploitation, and malnutrition. Disfranchisement and violence—especially the dangers of lynching and sexual assault—created a culture of fear for -black southerners. 4

Between 1915 and 1930 , approximately 1.5 million black southerners had migrated to northern and midwestern cities, such as Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Philadelphia. Not only did New York attract southern migrants, but thirty thousand immigrants from the West Indies also settled in the city, which made the Harlem neighborhood a very cosmopolitan place. 5 African Americans also streamed into western cities, such as Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco. 6 Black migrants had aspired to improve their economic and political standing in their new cities. But most discovered that Jim Crow was ever present beyond the Mason-Dixon line, marked by racial segregation, interracial police violence, and labor segmentation. Some black men were able to secure low-level positions in industry, while most black women labored as servants, cooks, and laundresses. However, southern migrants were able to vote in elections, which created black political constituencies to be courted by politicians. The ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 enabled most migrant women to vote, and they participated enthusiastically in politics. 7

In October 1929 , the US stock market crashed, which precipitated the most serious economic crisis in the nation’s history. Banks began to fail, businesses closed, and workers across the nation lost their jobs. The Great Depression triggered immediate suffering in black communities. Economic conditions had been poor in the South since the early 1920s, but the Great Depression marked a new low. Between 1929 and 1933 , the price of cotton dropped from eighteen cents to six cents, which only exacerbated black southerners’ precarious economic position. With a decline in cotton prices, the number of black sharecroppers fell. 8 In northern and midwestern cities, white unemployment reached as much as 25 percent, but for black workers in Chicago, New York, and Pittsburgh, 50 percent were out of work, and that number climbed to 60 percent for black workers in Philadelphia and Detroit. 9 African American workers were often the last hired, and thus, the first fired. The Great Depression initially slowed the pace of migration, but black African Americans continued to stream out of the South throughout the 1930s. 10

With the crisis of the Great Depression, African Americans struggled to receive adequate relief from the crushing impact of unemployment and poverty. White officials distributed relief in the form of food, money, or work programs, but many reasoned that African Americans did not need as many resources as white Americans. 11 At the federal level, President Herbert Hoover’s administration responded to the crisis of the Great Depression by creating the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which offered loan payments to large corporations in order to restart the economy, but very few of these dollars reached suffering workers in the United States. 12

African Americans turned toward their community institutions to alleviate the worst effects of poverty and suffering. Middle-class African Americans spearheaded relief efforts by working with their churches, fraternal orders, and social and political organizations to assist unemployed workers. 13 As the chief purchasers for their families, black women were keenly aware of the cost of living and used the power of their pocketbooks to cope with the Depression. In 1930 , Fannie Peck formed the Housewives’ League of Detroit, asking members to patronize black-owned businesses as a way to protect these establishments and keep money in the black community. By 1934 , the organization had ten thousand members. These organizations mushroomed in other cities, such as Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Pittsburgh, underscoring the importance of black women’s organizing at the grassroots level. Women also banded together to clothe, feed, and house their families. In New York, Detroit, and St. Louis, black women staged meat boycotts and protested rent evictions, while in Cleveland, they protested electricity shut offs. 14 Some African Americans joined the Communist Party (CP) during the Great Depression, finding that this organization was an important vehicle to achieve economic survival for their families. Across the country, black activists united with the CP to fight against interracial police brutality, press for an economic redistribution in society, or protest the unjust criminalization of the thirteen men falsely accused of raping two white women in Scottsboro, Alabama. 15 As black citizens struggled to survive during the Great Depression, they pondered whether they should remain loyal to the Republican Party or cast their lot with Democratic candidate FDR and his vision for a New Deal in American society.

The New Deal and Racial Discrimination

African Americans supported President Hoover by a two-to-one margin in the 1932 election. While most African Americans still associated the Grand Old Party with Abraham Lincoln and civil rights, Hoover had an uneven record on racial justice. 16 He made black equality a plank in his campaign platform and appointed black men to serve in patronage positions and tapped black women to sit on government advisory committees. But other practices in his administration distressed African Americans. In 1930 , he permitted the War Department to segregate black and white gold star mothers on separate ships; gold star mothers were women whose sons had been killed in World War I. 17 That same year, Hoover nominated John J. Parker to the US Supreme Court. A former governor of North Carolina and Republican, Parker had once declared that African Americans should not participate in politics and publicly supported disfranchisement laws. In response, African Americans in the nation’s two largest civil rights organizations—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Association of Colored Women (NACW)—banded together to thwart Parker’s confirmation. In response to this robust lobbying, the senate narrowly voted not to confirm Justice Parker, and many scholars point to this victory as a new era in black politics. 18

Hoover’s opponent in the 1932 election, FDR, bore the burden of the Democratic Party’s long support for racial segregation and intolerance. 19 Between 1913 and 1920 , the last Democratic President, Woodrow Wilson, had installed racial segregation in the federal government and thwarted opportunities for black government workers. 20 On the surface, FDR seemed little better. A northerner who served as governor of New York, he also maintained a home in Warm Springs, Georgia, where he received therapeutic treatments for polio and seemed comfortable in the white South, a crucial region in the Democratic coalition. 21 Furthermore, FDR’s running mate was the Texas politician John Nance Garner—further evidence that FDR would likely embody the worst impulses of the Jim Crow South as a Democratic president. Although some African Americans supported FDR, most black voters remained loyal to the Republican Party. 22

Even before FDR’s inauguration, his administration began to take a different path from his predecessors on race relations. Over half of the servants who were hired to work in the White House were African American, which was the largest number in recent years. Two of the most notable were a married couple from Georgia who had met FDR in Warm Springs; Irvin McDuffie worked as FDR’s valet and his wife, Elizabeth, labored as a maid in the White House. Both Irvin and Elizabeth McDuffie became active in Washington’s black community, and they helped to humanize the Roosevelt administration to African Americans in the early 1930s by giving interviews in the press and attending White House events with black performers. However, while FDR was willing to bring black servants into the White House, he appointed no African Americans to the cabinet or other administrative positions. 23

Once FDR was inaugurated as America’s thirty-second president in March 1933 , he pursued an ambitious agenda to bring relief to unemployed persons and set the economy on a path of economic recovery. In his first hundred days, FDR created five sweeping programs, including the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which created the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). White administrators oversaw all of these programs, and most were not attuned to racial discrimination, which meant that very few black workers experienced immediate relief. For example, both the TVA and AAA were aimed at the South, and without vigilance, it was easy to deny benefits to African Americans. The AAA evicted black sharecroppers and tenant farmers off of the land they were cultivating. The CCC hired unemployed young men to labor on public works projects and its white director, a native of Tennessee, believed that young black men did not need these jobs as much as their white men. As a result, the CCC admitted fewer black men, housed them in segregated dormitories, and barred black CCC workers from most administrative positions. The TVA tried to bring rural electrification and economic development to the South, but its strict practices of racial segregation thwarted black participation. 24

The National Recovery Administration’s (NRA) program of regulated wage codes underscored how the federal government based their programs on the needs of white men and women. In theory, the NRA was intended to provide a minimum wage for worker in various industries. But in practice, the NRA did not recognize the ways that race intersected class and sex. The NRA’s cotton industry hours regulation excluded the central positions where black male workers labored, while the southern lumber industry’s wages were far lower than those wages paid in the North. Even when black workers were eligible for higher wages, employers preferred to pay this money to white workers. 25 The NRA also sought to regulate the hours and wages for hairdressers. Most white hairdressers had white clients who received their treatments during regular working hours. But black domestics who worked during the day and received their treatments in the evening comprised the clientele of most black hairdressers. Across the country, black hairdressers banded together to protest this exclusionary legislation, pointing out that black women did not have identical interests as white women. One black hairdresser in Washington, DC, even declared that the New Deal was “a white man’s law.” 26

The Social Security Act epitomized the New Deal’s negligence toward race and sex. Social Security was a revolutionary piece of legislation that granted unemployment insurance and retirement benefits to workers in the United States. It was designed to mitigate the worst effects of the Great Depression by providing income to unemployed workers and preventing poverty among the elderly. But, southern white men who were determined to preserve the South’s racial order served these on congressional committees and inserted a provision in the proposed Social Security legislation that excluded farmers and domestic workers. 27 Representatives from two major black organizations—Charles Hamilton Houston from the NAACP and George E. Haynes from the National Urban League (NUL)—testified in Congress, stressing the importance of including all black workers. 28 But when FDR signed the Social Security Act into law in 1935 , it deemed farmers and domestics ineligible, which meant that 87 percent of all-black women and 55 percent of all African American workers were excluded. 29 A broad swath of African Americans protested these exclusions, ranging from individual black workers to the NACW and the Grand Order of the Elks, but this legislation was not broadened until the 1950s. 30

During the early 1930s, the one New Deal agency that took decisive action against racial discrimination was the Public Works Administration (PWA), a massive program of construction projects. During the 1930s, the PWA spent $6 billion and built thousands of projects across the country, including airports, schools, hospitals, libraries, and public housing (see figure 1 ). 31 Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, a former president of the Chicago branch of the NAACP, headed the PWA, which was created as part of the NIRA. To express sensitivity toward race, Ickes announced that he would hire a “Special Advisor on the Status of Negroes” for the PWA and selected Clark Foreman, a white southerner. The appointment of a white man, especially when there were hundreds of qualified black men and women for this position, upset African Americans, causing them to express profound concern whether the New Deal would provide substantive change in black communities. 32 However, Ickes also sought the advice of black advisors, who counseled him on the ways that African Americans could benefit from the PWA. He tapped two black graduates of Harvard University—economist Robert Weaver and attorney William Hastie—to serve in the PWA. 33

research papers on the great depression

Figure 1. Through their residency in these PWA housing complexes, African Americans were able to save money and plan for their future. “ PWA (Public Works Administration) housing project for Negroes .” Omaha, Nebraska, November 1938.

One of the most important programs that the PWA spearheaded was the construction of fifty-one public housing projects, which marked the very first time that the US government erected housing for its low-income citizens. Since segregation was rampant in the 1930s, Ickes did not propose integrated housing projects. But he designated nineteen, or one-third, of these housing projects, for African American occupancy. In cities with large black populations, such as Atlanta, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, African American families moved into affordable, new housing that was designed to be transitional and life changing. 34 In September 1933 , the NAACP lobbied Ickes to issue a non-discrimination clause in the PWA, stating that construction projects could not discriminate on the basis of race. Ickes’s advisors, including Clark Foreman, William Hastie, and Robert Weaver, supplemented this clause with a quota system, stating that all construction crews had to employ a number of black workers that was proportional to their population. They also recruited black architects to design some of these public housing complexes. 35 The success of the PWA in assisting African Americans in such a concrete way demonstrated that black advisors could make a significant difference in New Deal programs, and prompted other government agencies to hire black consultants.

Activism in the Black Cabinet

By the mid-1930s, white administrators had begun to tap black advisors for government programs with more regularity. This shift can be traced to the PWA’s success in addressing racial discrimination, as well as growing black support for New Deal programs and the Democratic Party. In 1935 , the National Youth Administration (NYA), an agency focused on finding work opportunities for young people, appointed prominent clubwoman and school president, Mary McLeod Bethune, to become the Negro Advisor, and later chair, of its Division of Negro Affairs (see figure 2 ). In taking this position, Bethune became the first black woman to head a government division. A native of South Carolina, she was the founder of the Bethune-Cookman School in Florida, a former president of the NACW, and an activist with deep networks in black women’s politics. In 1935 , Bethune founded a new civil rights organization, the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). 36 In the NYA, Bethune lobbied for African Americans to serve in leadership positions at the federal, state, and local levels. Under her watchful eye, more African Americans served in administrative positions in the NYA than any other New Deal program. And by the early 1940s, as many as 20 percent of black youth participated in NYA programs. 37 Mary McLeod Bethune also cultivated a public friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and educated her about the particular problems that African Americans faced in the United States. Through this friendship, Eleanor Roosevelt elevated her standing with African Americans and became an ally of black civil rights causes. Eleanor Roosevelt supported a federal anti-lynching bill, an end to the poll tax, and increased funding for black schools. 38

research papers on the great depression

Figure 2. Mary McLeod Bethune was able to use her appointment in the New Deal to form the Black Cabinet and the NCNW. “ Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, founder and former president and director of the NYA (National Youth Administration) Negro Relations .” Bethune-Cookman College, Daytona Beach, Florida, January 1943.

Not only did Bethune assume a prominent position in the NYA and inform the First Lady about racial justice, but she also used her new status in Washington, DC, to gather a group of black consultants into the Federal Council of Negro Affairs, which became known as the Black Cabinet. Composed of lawyers, politicians, and journalists, members of the Black Cabinet advised President Roosevelt on matters related to African Americans. Some members of the Black Cabinet included the economist Robert Weaver, lawyer Charles Hastie, Pittsburgh Courier editor Robert L. Vann, who was in the Office of the Attorney General, social worker Lawrence Oxley, and CCC advisor Edgar Brown. The black press covered the Black Cabinet extensively, thereby introducing African American readers to the cohort of black professionals who advised the Roosevelt administration. By 1940 , one hundred African Americans served in administrative positions in the New Deal. But the Black Cabinet was not a formal government institution and Bethune convened its meetings in her office or apartment. 39

Members of the Black Cabinet worked in concert with civil rights organizations to pressure New Deal agencies and programs to end racial bias. For example, in 1933 , the CCC had enrolled a paltry number of young black men. But, after the NAACP put pressure on the CCC, two hundred thousand African American men participated in the program by 1940 , and one-fifth of them learned to read and write while enrolled. 40 In 1935 , Congress passed the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which took over some of the work from the PWA. The WPA’s administrator, Harry Hopkins, built on Ickes’s example by appointing a series of black advisors to design programs that would assist African Americans. 41 In the first year alone, two hundred thousand African Americans joined WPA programs, and that number climbed steadily each year. 42 The WPA constructed black schools and community centers, opened domestic service training centers, conducted adult education classes, and oversaw a myriad of arts projects (see section on “ Black Stories in the New Deal Era ”). In the rural South, African American men and women flocked to literacy classes, which enabled them to learn to read and supplement the poor education they had received in deeply underfunded schools, or even attend school for the first time in their lives (see figure 3 ). By the end of the 1930s, black illiteracy fell by 10 percent. 43

research papers on the great depression

Figure 3. Older African Americans flocked to the WPA adult literacy programs. Pictured is an 82-year-old woman who is the “star pupil” in Gee’s Bend, Alabama. “ Star pupil, eighty-two years old, reading her lesson in adult class. Gee’s Bend, Alabama .” May 1939.

Despite the presence of racial advisors, however, many New Deal programs failed to address the black structural inequalities that lay at the root of American society. For example, the WPA limited black women’s employment opportunities to domestic service training programs and sewing programs, both of which paid low wages, while it enabled white women to seek opportunities in other industries, such as clerical work, gardening, and nursing. 44 Similarly, when the PWA constructed black housing projects, they engaged in slum clearance by razing black neighborhoods. This practice actually created a housing shortage for African Americans in segregated cities and paved the way for urban renewal programs in the postwar era. When Congress created the United States Housing Authority in 1937 , the bureau did not issue mortgages to African Americans in racially integrated neighborhoods. In all of these instances, New Deal programs did not touch America’s landscape of racial segregation and labor segmentation. 45

New Deal programs were especially challenged to improve the lives of rural black southerners, which was a source of continual frustration. A significant number of FDR’s economic advisors were native to the South and determined to use the New Deal as an instrument to tackle poverty in the region. The Agricultural Adjustment Act tried to increase crop prices by paying farmers to decrease their acreage. But the AAA lacked programs to assist black sharecroppers, who could not receive these payments because they were not landowners. Moreover, prominent white men who served on the AAA’s local committees crafted policies that favored white farmers over black farmers, which sometimes forced black landowners off their land and squeezed sharecroppers out of their jobs. The Resettlement Administration tried to relocate southerners to planned communities, but ultimately, only 1,393 black families were able to benefit from this program. 46 Cumulatively, the New Deal assisted black southerners by allocating money to African American schools, funding public health programs, and improving black housing. 47 While black participation in New Deal programs was uneven, there was no question that it marked a new era for African Americans and enabled them to recast their ideas about citizenship and belonging in the United States. By 1935 , 30 percent of African Americans were recipients of New Deal relief programs and many turned their political allegiances in these shifting times. 48

The 1936 election marked a major test for black politics. In his bid for a second term in office, FDR actively courted the black vote, envisioning African Americans as a part of his expanding electoral coalition that included workers, European immigrants, and white southerners. President Roosevelt was very delicate on the race question. Without supporting anti-lynching legislation publicly, he appealed to black voters by touting his record of black appointments and government programs that assisted African Americans. By the mid-1930s, black voter registration was at an all-time high in cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit. In southern cities, some African Americans had managed to escape the barriers of disfranchisement and formed Democratic political clubs. 49 At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in June 1936 , thirty African Americans served as delegates, which was a first for the party. Furthermore, the black press received seats in the press box, a black minister, Marshall L. Shepard, delivered the invocation, and black politicians delivered addresses. 50 And, in the weeks before the election, FDR sent his maid, Elizabeth McDuffie, on the campaign trail to offer personal testimony about the Democratic Party’s commitment to African Americans. McDuffie traveled to midwestern cities where she held rallies and spoke to a total of fifty thousand black citizens. As the child of former slaves, McDuffie argued that the New Deal represented a second emancipation for African Americans. 51 This outreach worked and FDR was reelected in a landslide victory in 1936 . He captured 61 percent of the total vote, but he won 76 percent of the black vote. In this election, he cemented the relationship between African Americans and the Democratic Party. 52 Not all African Americans switched to the Democratic Party, however, and some black voters lamented that neither party offered a robust response to black poverty and civil rights. 53

Militant Black Protest Politics in the 1930s

While African Americans caused a major political realignment by switching from the Republican to the Democratic Parties, they also formed new protest organizations and deployed strategies of mass action in order to achieve racial justice. Early 21st-century historians point to these activities in the 1930s as evidence of a “long” civil rights movement in the United States, which helped to pave the way for the postwar black freedom struggle. 54 During the 1930s, the NAACP and NUL paid close attention to New Deal programs and put pressure on administrators to end racial bias. African Americans frequently reached out to their local branches or the national organization, and the NAACP was swift to conduct investigations and assisted thousands of African Americans across the country. 55 The NAACP had brilliant lawyers in Charles Hamilton Houston and his student at Howard University Law School, Thurgood Marshall. This legal team won landmark cases: Murray v. Maryland in 1936 and Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada in 1938 , which both whittled away at racial segregation in professional and graduate schools. 56 They also scored a victory in the Supreme Court in Hale v. Kentucky in 1938 which opened jury service to African Americans. And the national NAACP, along with local branches, aligned with the CP, despite worries about the party’s radicalism, to secure justice for the Scottsboro Nine, black teenagers who had been accused of raping two white women on a train in Alabama in 1931 . All but the youngest were given a death sentence by electrocution in Alabama courts. Ada Wright, mother of two of the accused, traveled with the CP’s International Labor Defense throughout Europe in the early 1930s to spread awareness about the case, and her speaking engagements helped to educate a global audience about the injustices of the legal system for African Americans. 57 Through mass marches, newspaper exposes, and a massive fundraising campaign, the defendants were ultimately exonerated and released from jail. 58

African Americans also formed new organizations to fight for their economic rights and political interests in the 1930s. In 1931 , black sharecroppers in Alabama established the Alabama Sharecroppers Union in connection with the CP and by 1934 , it had four thousand members. Black women evaluated the strength of their organizations and tested new strategies. In 1935 , Mary McLeod Bethune founded the NCNW, to serve as a civil rights organization for black women. The NCNW gathered members from the NACW, but also federated with sororities, church groups, and professional organizations. Seeking to distance herself from the NACW’s respectability politics, Bethune designed the NCNW to lobby for black women’s interests with a special emphasis on employment opportunities. However, the NCNW was largely a middle-class organization that did not directly assist working-class women. In 1936 , John P. Davis and Howard Professor Ralph Bunche formed the National Negro Congress (NNC) and its youth organization, the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC). The NNC and SNYC reached down below to the grassroots level, recruiting activists, students, and workers to fight for black rights. By the late 1930s, the NNC established seventy-five local chapters across the country. 59

Men, women, and especially, young people, banded together with these new protest organizations to stage militant campaigns across the country. Activists in the NNC fought to broaden New Deal programs, improve living conditions for African Americans, organize black workers into industrial labor unions, protest disfranchisement, and protect all African Americans from interracial violence, especially lynching and police brutality. 60 In Baltimore, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Washington, DC, black women and men staged Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work campaigns. Citizens picketed the white-owned stores and restaurants in black neighborhoods that did not hire black workers. 61 They also withheld their patronage from these establishments and intimidated black customers. These protests were largely successful and resulted in hundreds of jobs for unemployed and underemployed men and women, including teenagers who needed to supplement their family’s income. 62 African Americans also celebrated a major success when the Supreme Court upheld their right to picket in New Negro Alliance v. Sanitary Grocery in 1938 . These grassroots protests in the 1930s demonstrated the power of mass action and would help to inspire protests in the postwar era. 63

Not only did African Americans fight for jobs, but they also formed labor unions within different industries. In 1935 , Congress passed the Wagner Act, which upheld the right of workers to organize labor unions, participate in collective bargaining, and stage strikes, which nurtured a more supportive climate for industrial black workers. The largest black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), negotiated a contract with the Pullman Company to reduce their hours and increase their wages. 64 White labor leaders formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which organized black and white workers in mining, automobile, meatpacking, and steel industries. The CIO made racial equality central to its organization by fighting against pay scales and hiring black organizers in all of its unions. 65 The CIO also became a civil rights ally by lobbying against the poll tax, supporting a federal anti-lynching law, and fighting against labor discrimination. 66 Black tobacco workers and Red Caps both joined CIO-affiliated unions to fight for economic justice during the 1930s. 67 While black women joined some of these labor unions, they overwhelmingly assisted male workers. 68 In the 1930s, with the backing of the NNC, some black women formed a domestic workers union in New York City. But the union proved unable to improve their circumstances significantly during the Great Depression and New Deal eras, and domestic workers remained one of the nation’s most exploited groups, as they still are. 69

During the New Deal era, domestic workers suffered from abject poverty. Not only were they excluded from the Social Security Act, but white families reeling from the Depression fired servants or slashed wages. In 1935 , activists Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke wrote a landmark piece that was published in the NAACP’s organ, the Crisis , entitled “The Bronx Slave Market.” 70 This piece chronicled the desperate black servants who crowded the streets of the Bronx and the white housewives who would hire them for day wages. By terming this a “slave market,” Baker and Cooke underscored the severity of black women’s economic predicaments and the intersections of race, class, and gender during the Depression. 71 One job coveted by Washington, DC, domestic workers was to become a federal “charwoman,” a worker who cleaned government offices. The positions paid higher wages than domestic service and offered retirement benefits, and when the federal government announced it was accepting applications for these positions, between ten thousand and twenty thousand black women showed up to apply for these jobs. Many had spent the night at the station in order to obtain a good place in line. Their numbers were so large that officials had to stop distributing applications and turn toward crowd control. When women learned that they could not receive job applications, they began to express anger and frustration as white police officers were dispatched to contain the crowds of rioting women. The episode illustrated the dire economic circumstances experienced by black women and black families, the women articulating their collective desire to leave domestic service in white women’s houses and their exclusion from many New Deal programs, especially Social Security. 72

Black women and men who had suffered disproportionately from unemployment sometimes turned to the underground economy for survival. African Americans held rent parties, played numbers games, joined economic cooperatives, engaged in petty theft, and traded in sex to survive the effects of the Depression. 73 Yet these activities also made black women and men vulnerable targets for interracial police violence in cities such as Chicago, New York, and Washington, DC. 74

The visibility of African Americans in this era—whether they were marching in picket lines, staging boycotts, or rioting for jobs—underscored a new era in their culture of protest. Simultaneously, art, photography, writing, and oral history offered African Americans bountiful opportunities to recast their image in American culture and speak some of their truths.

Black Stories in the New Deal Era

Through the New Deal, the federal government first began to finance arts projects that, in turn, involved significant black engagement. Not only were writers, actors, photographers, and painters suffering from higher rates of unemployment than other categories of workers, but New Deal administrators also argued that the arts were a crucial part of the nation’s vitality. Largely through the WPA, the federal government organized the Federal Theater Project (FTP) and the Federal Writers Project (FWP), which employed writers and playwrights. The FWP also dispatched interviewers to travel to the South and interview thousands of former slaves in the United States, which became an invaluable resource for historians of slavery. Finally, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) hired photographers to travel across the country and document the lives of ordinary Americans. Not only did the FSA recruit black photographers, but white photographers also snapped searing and indelible images of African Americans. Collectively, all of these initiatives enabled African Americans to defy some of the pernicious racial stereotypes that were perpetuated against them throughout American culture. 75

African Americans participated enthusiastically in both the FWP and the FTP. During the 1920s, cities such as Chicago, New York, and Washington, DC, had witnessed the flourishing of black arts through literature, poetry, painting, film, and playwriting. These artistic communities laid the groundwork for black participation in New Deal artistic programs. 76 Both the FWP and the FTP had Negro divisions that oversaw black projects. The FTP’s Negro Division staged plays, hired black actors and directors, and took black stories seriously. Prior to the FTP, most black actors were limited to artistic opportunities related to minstrelsy. In rare cases, black actors were able to perform in the early phase of black film with auteurs, such as Oscar Micheaux. 77 The FTP’s Negro Division traveled to twenty-two cities across the country, which enabled African Americans to interact with this new, innovative type of theater. Black performers not only acted in plays with themes rooted in African American history and culture, such as racial prejudice, the Haitian Revolution, and lynching, but they also performed all-black productions of Macbeth and Swing Mikado , which reset expectations about black actors portraying historical white and Asian characters. 78

The FWP hired luminaries in black culture, including the writers Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, the scholars St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, and the poet Sterling Brown. These writers documented the contributions of African Americans to United States history and culture. 79

The gathering of ex-slave narratives may have been the most important aspect of the FWP’s work. In the mid-1930s, the last generation of enslaved men and women were about to die. Members of the FWP recognized that this project represented a transformative opportunity for interviewers to speak with the men and women who had survived the trauma of racial slavery and narrate their experiences. Prior to the ex-slave narrative project, the vast majority of historiography about racial slavery was written from the viewpoint of white masters and mistresses. By inviting former slaves to share their recollections and offer their personal testimony, the nation would be able to reckon with its traumatic past.

Between 1936 and 1938 , dozens of black and white researchers traveled to the American South to interview over two thousand former slaves. When the project had concluded, they had amassed ten thousand typed pages and thousands of hours of testimony. These interviews proved invaluable in illuminating some of the hidden worlds of slavery, including sexual violence, physical brutality, and black survival strategies. The vast majority of these former slaves had regional accents, or in some cases, spoke in black dialect. Since white interviewers conducted the majority of the interviews, power relations were imbalanced and former slaves were not as direct as they would be with black researchers, especially around issues of trauma and sexual violence. Moreover, the interviews starkly illuminated the abject poverty that former slaves experienced. 80 The ex-slave narratives offered invaluable information to future historians, who continue to use the narratives as major sources for understanding both American slavery and the disappointment of Reconstruction.

In addition to listening to African Americans through testimony, the FSA hired a series of black and white photographers, who traveled across the country to visualize African Americans and black culture in the 1930s (see figure 4 ). Photography was a revolutionary instrument that could be wielded for social change. In this era, mass culture, such as advertisements, cartoons, and films, depicted African Americans in derogatory stereotypes as lazy, immature, childlike, and dangerous. These stereotypes were not simply abstract images, but rather, evidence that fueled a social, cultural, and political narrative about who African Americans were. 81 A documentary photograph that depicted a person hard at work, then, made it that much more difficult to deny basic human rights and dignities. These photographs helped to give a human face to African Americans who were suffering as ordinary Americans. White FSA photographers, such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, traveled across the country and snapped indelible photographs of African Americans. These images revealed the complexities of black life across the country. 82 Gordon Parks, one of the most notable black FSA photographers, used his camera as a weapon and captured images of thousands of African Americans throughout the country. His image of Ella Watson, a charwoman in the federal government, dramatically portrayed her between an American flag and a broom, meditating on a black woman who literally mopped the floors of the federal government yet was denied access to major government programs. It is now known as the black American gothic (see figure 5 ). 83

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Figure 4. In this photograph, Dorothea Lange depicts a 13-year-old sharecropper boy in Americus, Georgia, in an image that defies racial stereotypes. “ Thirteen-year old sharecropper boy near Americus, Georgia .” July 1937.

research papers on the great depression

Figure 5. In his photograph of government charwoman Ella Watson, Gordon Parks meditates on a black woman who cleans government offices, yet is excluded from government programs. “ Washington, D.C. Government charwoman .” August 1942.

Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial became one of the most significant cultural moments for African Americans during the New Deal era. Anderson was a classically trained opera singer popular among both black and white audiences. It had been customary for Anderson to perform a concert with the Howard University Music School each year in Washington, DC. But organizers struggled to find a venue that was large enough to accommodate the audience as Anderson’s fame grew. In 1939 , the Daughters of the American Revolution lent their concert space, but then rescinded the invitation, explicitly because of Anderson’s race. After a protracted battle to find a place where Anderson could perform, a coalition contacted Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, who had been an important white ally for African Americans in the New Deal. Ickes arranged for Marian Anderson to perform her concert on Easter Sunday in 1939 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where Anderson’s stunning voice sang the sweet words, “America (My Country Tis’ of Thee).” Only dedicated in 1922 , Anderson’s concert marked the first time when Americans would use the Lincoln Memorial as a site of protest. Her concert foreshadowed future civil rights demonstrations, most notably the iconic March on Washington in 1963 . 84

The Great Depression and New Deal represented a watershed moment for African Americans throughout the country and reshaped the 20th-century trajectory of black life in the United States. By 1940 , black politics had undergone a radical change. The majority of voters now identified with the Democratic Party and used the party as a vehicle for civil rights and economic justice. Through the Black Cabinet and racial advisors, the federal government now turned toward African Americans for advice on the distribution of programs. African Americans scored important legal victories in the United States with the right to serve on juries, stage pickets, and integrate some graduate and professional schools. These legal triumphs were crucial ingredients for the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. the Board of Education and the postwar black freedom struggle. Leaders such as Robert Weaver and William Hastie had experimented with non-discrimination clauses and quota systems that would pave the way for this implementation on a national level as well as the rise of affirmative action in the United States in the 1960s. At the grassroots level, black women and men formed local organizations, staged economic boycotts, picketed businesses, joined labor unions, and engaged in strikes and riots for better jobs. Black women brought their deep organizational networks to all of these campaigns and played a transformative role in the struggle for racial equality and justice. Culturally, African Americans were able to defy racial stereotypes and illuminate the beautiful complexities and contradictions of the black experience in the United States.

Discussion of the Literature

Since the institutionalization of African American History in the 1960s, scholars have devoted significant attention toward the periods of the Great Depression and New Deal eras, and this historiographical literature reflects a rich and complex body of work. Early historians focused on the relationship between African Americans and the New Deal, especially as it related to region. Raymond Wolters’s essay—“The New Deal and the Negro,” in the edited volume, The New Deal: The National Level —and Harvard Sitkoff’s important essay—“The Impact of the New Deal on Black Southerners,” in another edited volume, The New Deal and the South —both offer an excellent overview about each New Deal program and the precise ways that African Americans did and did not benefit from these government initiatives. 85 Nancy Grant’s TVA and Black Americans: Planning for the Status Quo and Owen Cole’s The African-American Experience in the Civilian Conservation Corps , both followed in this vein by centering on specific government programs. 86 In several important works—such as Harvard Sitkoff’s A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue ; John Kirby’s Black Americans in the Roosevelt Era: Liberalism and Race ; and Nancy Weiss’s Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR —historians have debated the reasons for black political realignment in the 1930s, with some pointing to the New Deal’s economic benefits and others emphasizing the Democratic Party’s (slow) embrace of civil rights. 87 Scholars in this period also highlighted the white allies in the New Deal who spoke out for racial equality, including Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, FSA administrator Will Alexander, and especially, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Patricia Sullivan’s Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era added complexities and nuance to this literature. 88 Finally, in the 1980s and 1990s, historians explored the black alliance with the CP, with Mark Naison’s Communists in Harlem during the Depression and Robin D. G. Kelley’s brilliant Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Depression . 89

In the early 21st century , historians have focused less on electoral realignment and interracial alliances, and more on the ways that African Americans worked at the grassroots level to wage an early civil rights movement in the United States. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s seminal article, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” credits leftist black protest during the Depression and the New Deal with the success of the postwar black freedom struggle even as it struggled to survive during the Cold War and rise of the New Right. 90 In Death Blow to Jim Crow: The National Negro Congress and the Rise of Militant Civil Rights , Erik Gellman builds on Robin Kelley’s work to chronicle the grassroots organizing of the NNC and SYNC in cities such as Richmond, Virginia, Washington, DC, and Chicago. 91

In this turn toward the flourishing of black activism in this period, historians have particularly emphasized women’s participation, stretching from their leadership in organizations and government programs to their grassroots advocacy for social change. In Black Politics in New Deal Atlanta , Karen Ferguson puts gender at the center of her analysis of the Great Depression and New Deal, while in For the Freedom of Her Race: Black Women and Electoral Politics in Illinois , Lisa G. Materson analyzes the political activism of both migrant women and clubwomen. 92 In “Running with the Reds: African American Women and the Communist Party during the Great Depression,” LaShawn Harris analyzes the complex ways that black women forged relationships with the CP. 93 Other historians have chronicled black women’s widespread participation in housewife boycotts, labor riots, and underground economies. Finally, cultural historians have analyzed black participation in New Deal arts programs. Lauren Rebecca Skarloff’s Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era analyzes the relationship between black participation in arts programs and visions of democracy. 94

Primary Sources

Government sources.

For African American experiences with the New Deal, the National Archives’ trove of records are a good place to start. The majority of these collections are housed at the National Archives II in College Park, Maryland, and many have finding aids that list the Negro division for each branch and contain a wealth of materials. Additionally, New Deal Agencies and Black Americans offers a curated set of documents that can be a helpful entry point for further research. 95 These documents are available on microfilm or on LexisNexis. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Censuses can illuminate information about the lives of ordinary Americans and whether they were the beneficiary of government programs. These census records are available at any branch of the National Archives or through ancestry.com.

Manuscript Collections

Organizational records from the NAACP, the NCNW, the NUL, the NNC, and the BSCP, all offer information about black activities in this era and all are available in the manuscript reading room at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. The George Meany Memorial Archive at the University of Maryland, College Park, has collections related to the American Federation of Labor-CIO unions. The Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, has the papers of the Housewives’ League of Detroit. Additionally, many of the leaders of this era—including Nannie Helen Burroughs, Charles Hamilton Houston, Irvin and Elizabeth McDuffie, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Robert Weaver—have personal papers that are rich with information. The Houston papers are at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University in Washington, DC; the Burroughs papers at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC; the Bethune papers at the Amistad Research Center at Tulane in New Orleans; the Irvin and Elizabeth McDuffie papers at Robert W. Woodruff Library at Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia; and the Robert Weaver papers at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library in New York City. Finally, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York, has an immense amount of materials related to African American participation in New Deal programs, as well Eleanor Roosevelt’s correspondence with a range of black individuals and organizations.

Newspapers & Periodicals

The 1920s and 1930s were a golden age in the black press. To chronicle some of the political activities as well as everyday experiences, newspapers such as the Baltimore Afro-American , the Chicago Defender , the New York Amsterdam News , the Norfolk Journal and Guide , and the Pittsburgh Courier are all excellent resources, and they are digitized through ProQuest. Additionally, the Crisis and Opportunity were two periodicals that offered updates about black life and activism in the 1930s.


The FSA photographs are outstanding sources for gathering information on African Americans. The Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress have all of the FSA photographs, and the digital website Photogrammar from Yale has digitized the photographs in an excellent database that is searchable by region, photographer, and subject. Finally, the WPA Slave Narratives at the Library of Congress offer an important assessment of some of the material circumstances of African Americans in this era.

Further Reading

  • Kirby, John B. Black Americans in the Roosevelt Era: Liberalism and Race . Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1980.
  • Ferguson, Karen . Black Politics in New Deal Atlanta . Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
  • Gellman, Erik S. Death Blow to Jim Crow: The National Negro Congress and the Rise of Militant Civil Rights . Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
  • Grant, Nancy . TVA and Black Americans: Planning for the Status Quo . Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.
  • Greenberg, Cheryl . “Or Does It Explode?” Black Harlem in the Great Depression . New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Kelley, Robin D. G. Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression . Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
  • Materson, Lisa G. For the Freedom of Her Race: African American Women and Electoral Politics in Illinois . Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
  • McMahon, Kevin . Reconsidering Roosevelt on Race: How the Presidency Paved the Road to Brown . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
  • Murphy, Mary-Elizabeth B. Jim Crow Capital: Women and Black Freedom Struggles in Washington, D.C., 1920-1945 . Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018.
  • Naison, Mark . Communists in Harlem during the Depression . Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.
  • Sitkoff, Harvard . A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue . New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
  • Skarloff, Lauren Rebecca . Black Culture in the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era . Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
  • Sullivan, Patricia . Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era . Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
  • Watts, Jill . The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics during the Age of Roosevelt . New York: Grove Atlantic, 2020.
  • Weiss, Nancy . Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.
  • Wolcott, Victoria . Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit . Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

1. Major historiographical works on African Americans in the Great Depression and New Deal include: Raymond Wolters, Negroes and the Great Depression: The Problem of Economic Recovery (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1970); Harvard Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978) ; John B. Kirby, Black Americans in the Roosevelt Era: Liberalism and Race (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1980) ; Nancy J. Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983) ; Nancy Grant, TVA and Black Americans: Planning for the Status Quo (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990) ; Robin D. G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists in the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990); Cheryl Greenberg, “Or Does It Explode?” Black Harlem in the Great Depression (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991) ; Patricia Sullivan, Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996) ; Karen Ferguson, Black Politics in New Deal Atlanta (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002) ; Lauren Rebecca Skarloff, Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); and Jill Watts, The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics during the Age of Roosevelt (New York: Grove Atlantic, 2020) .

2. US Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Fifteenth Census of the United States: 1930, Population , Vol. IV, Occupations by States (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1933), 25–34.

3. Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks , 35; Kelley, Hammer and Hoe , 35–36; and Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (New York: Liverlight, 2013), 163.

4. Greta de Jong, A Different Day: African American Struggles for Justice in Rural Louisiana, 1900–1970 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 90–91; Joe William Trotter Jr., “From a Raw Deal to a New Deal?, 1929–1945,” in To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans , eds. Robin D. G. Kelley and Earl Lewis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 417.

5. Irma Watkins-Owens, Blood Relations: Caribbean Immigrants and the Harlem Community, 1900–1930 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996).

6. Definitive works on the first Great Migration include James Grossman, Land of Hope: Black Southerners and the Great Migration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989); Joe William Trotter Jr., ed., The Great Migration in Historical Perspective: New Dimensions of Race, Class, and Gender (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991); Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo, Abiding Courage: African American Migrant Women and the East Bay Community (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Milton C. Sernett, Bound for the Promised Land: African American Religion and the Great Migration (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997); Kimberly L. Philips, Alabama North: African-American Migrants, Community, and Working-Class Activism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999); Victoria Wolcott, Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001); James N. Gregory, The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); Douglas Flaming, Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America (Berkeley, CA: University Press of California, 2005); Davarian L. Baldwin, Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration, and Black Urban Life (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007); and Beth Tompkins Bates, The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

7. Grossman, Land of Hope ; Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, “Discontented Black Feminists: Prelude and Postscript to the Passage of the Nineteenth Amendment,” in We Specialize in the Wholly Impossible: A Reader in Black Women’s History , eds. Darlene Clark Hine, Wilma King, and Linda Reed (Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishing, 1995), 487–504; Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, “In Politics to Stay: Black Women Leaders and Party Politics in the 1920s,” in Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U.S. Women’s History , eds. Vicki L. Ruiz and Ellen Carol Dubois (New York: Routledge, 2000), 292–306; Nikki J. Brown, Private Politics and Public Voices: Black Women’s Activism from World War I to the New Deal (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007); and Lisa G. Materson, For the Freedom of Her Race: Black Women and Electoral Politics in Illinois, 1877–1932 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 60–184.

8. Trotter, “From a Raw Deal to a New Deal?,” 409.

9. Wolcott, Remaking Respectability , 170; Greenberg, “Or Does It Explode?,” 65–66; and Cheryl Lynn Greenberg, To Ask for an Equal Chance: African Americans in the Great Depression (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009), 27; and Shawn Leigh Alexander, W. E. B. DuBois: An American Intellectual and Activist (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015), 93.

10. Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks , 34–39.

11. Ferguson, Black Politics in New Deal Atlanta , 51; and Greenberg, “Or Does It Explode?,” 47–56.

12. Trotter, “From a Raw Deal to a New Deal?,” 412.

13. Sernett, Bound for the Promised Land ; Ferguson, Black Politics in New Deal Atlanta , 48–54; and Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy, Jim Crow Capital: Women and Black Freedom Struggles in Washington, DC, 1920–1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 113–117 .

14. Darlene Clark Hine, “The Housewives’ League of Detroit: Black Women and Economic Nationalism,” in Visible Women: New Essays on American Activism , eds. Nancy A. Hewitt and Suzanne Lebsock (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 223–241; Annelise Orleck, “‘We Are That Mythical Thing Called Public’: Militant Housewives during the Great Depression,” Feminist Studies 19, no. 1 (Spring 1993): 147–172; Wolcott, Remaking Respectability , 181–183; and Bettye Collier-Thomas, Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: African American Women and Religion (New York: Knopf Press, 2000), 303–305; and Keona Ervin, Gateway to Equality: Black Women and the Struggle for Economic Justice in St. Louis (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2017), 39–42.

15. Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983) ; Kelley, Hammer and Hoe ; LaShawn Harris, “Running with the Reds: African American Women in the Communist Party during the Great Depression,” Journal of African American History 94, no. 1 (Winter 2009): 21–43; Erik S. McDuffie, Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); Gellman, Death Blow to Jim Crow: The National Negro Congress and the Rise of Militant Civil Rights (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012) ; and Murphy, Jim Crow Capital , 75–109.

16. Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks , 19–30; and Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln , 22–25.

17. Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln , 16–17.

18. Kenneth J. Goings, “ The NAACP Comes of Age”: The Defeat of Judge John J. Parker (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990); Patricia Sullivan, Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Free Press, 2009), 138–142; and Murphy, Jim Crow Capital , 37–38.

19. Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks , 19–30; and Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln , 22–25.

20. For information on Woodrow Wilson’s segregation of the federal government, see Eric S. Yellin, Racism in the Nation’s Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson’s America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

21. Kaye Lannings Minchew, A President in Our Midst: Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Georgia (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2016).

22. Kirby, Black Americans in the Roosevelt Era , 16–18; Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks , 19–30; and Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln , 22–25.

23. Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln , 38, 104; Adrian Miller, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 133–136; and Mary-Elizabeth Murphy, “‘The Servant Campaigns’: African American Women and the Politics of Economic Justice in Washington, D.C. in the 1930s,” Journal of Urban History 44, no. 2 (March 2018): 189–190.

24. Raymond Wolters, “The New Deal and the Negro,” in The New Deal: The National Level , eds. John Braeman, Robert H. Bremmer, and David Brody (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1975), 170–178; Harvard Sitkoff, “The Impact of the New Deal on Black Southerners,” in The New Deal and the South , eds. James C. Cobb and Michael Namorato (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984), 117–124; Grant, TVA and Black Americans ; Owen Cole, The African-American Experience in the Civilian Conservation Corps (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999); Trotter, “From a Raw Deal to a New Deal?,” 411–416; and Neil M. Maher, Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 109–110.

25. Sitkoff, “Impact of the New Deal on Black Southerners,” 120–121; and Wolters, “The New Deal and the Negro,” 180–185.

26. Tiffany Gill, Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women’s Activism in the Beauty Industry (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 70; and Murphy, Jim Crow Capital , 119–121.

27. Mary Poole, The Segregated Origins of Social Security: African Americans and the Welfare State (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Katznelson, Fear Itself , 163–174; Murphy, Jim Crow Capital , 122–123.

28. Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln , 166–168.

29. US Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Fifteenth Census of the United States , 25–34.

30. Murphy, “The Servant Campaigns,” 190–191.

31. Wolters, “The New Deal and the Negro,” 186–187; and Kirby, Black Americans in the Roosevelt Era , 17–18.

32. Sullivan, Days of Hope , 24–40.

33. Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln , 67–68.

34. For a discussion of the PWA housing projects, see Gail Radford, Modern Housing for America: Policy Struggles in the New Deal Era (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 85–110, 147–176; Ferguson, Black Politics in New Deal Atlanta , 186–220; and Richard Rothenstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (New York: Liverlight, 2017), 20–23.

35. Marc W. Kruman, “Quotas for Blacks: The Public Works Administration and the Black Construction Worker,” Labor History 16 (Winter 1975): 37–51; Paul D. Moreno, From Direct Action to Affirmative Action: Fair Employment Law and Policy in America, 1937–1997 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997); Sigmund Shipp, “Building Bricks without Straw: Robert C. Weaver and Negro Industrial Employment, 1934–1944,” in Historical Roots of the Urban Crisis: African Americans in the Industrial City, 1900–1950 , eds. Henry Louis Taylor Jr. and Walter Hill (New York: Garland Publishing, 2000), 209–226; and Wendell E. Pritchett, Robert Clifton Weaver and the American City: The Life and Times of an Urban Reformer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

36. Deborah Gray White, Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894–1994 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), 148–154; and Rebecca Tuuri, Strategic Sisterhood: The National Council of Negro Women in the Black Freedom Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 15–18.

37. Wolters, “The New Deal and the Negro,” 193.

38. Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln , 143–145; Kirby, Black Americans in the Roosevelt Era , 76–105; and Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 2: The Defining Years, 1933–1938 (New York: Viking Penguin, 1999).

39. Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln , 136–156; Kirby, Black Americans in the Roosevelt Era , 106–151; and Watts, The Black Cabinet .

40. Sitkoff, “Impact of the New Deal on Black Southerners,” 124.

41. Trotter, “From a Raw Deal to a New Deal?,” 418–419.

42. Wolters, “The New Deal and the Negro,” 189.

43. de Jong, A Different Day , 90–91; Trotter, “From a Raw Deal to a New Deal?,” 417.

44. Ferguson, Black Politics in New Deal Atlanta , 121–128; and Murphy, “The Servant Campaigns,” 194–198.

45. Trotter, “From a Raw Deal to a New Deal?,” 415; and Ferguson, New Deal Politics in Black Atlanta , 165–185.

46. Sitkoff, “Impact of the New Deal on Black Southerners,” 127.

47. Sullivan, Days of Hope , 41–69; and Ferguson, Black Politics in New Deal Atlanta .

48. Wolters, “The New Deal and the Negro,” 189.

49. Trotter, “From a Raw Deal to a New Deal?,” 431; and Elizabeth Gritter, River of Hope: Black Politics and the Memphis Freedom Movement, 1865–1954 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2014).

50. Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln , 184–193.

51. Murphy, “The Servant Campaigns,” 191–193.

52. Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln , 204–208.

53. Leigh Wright Rigueur, The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 13–51.

54. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” Journal of American History 91, no. 4 (March 2005): 1233–1263.

55. Sullivan, Lift Every Voice , 145–206.

56. Mark V. Tushnet, The NAACP’s Strategy against Segregated Education, 1925–1950 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 49–81; and Sullivan, Lift Every Voice , 207–211.

57. James A. Miller, Susan D. Pennybacker, and Eve Rosenhaft, “Mother Ada Wright and the International Campaign to Free the Scottsboro Boys, 1931–1934,” American Historical Review 106, no. 2 (April 2001): 387–430.

58. Dan T. Carter, Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969); Kelley, Hammer and Hoe ; James Goodman, Stories of Scottsboro (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994); and Sullivan, Lift Every Voice , 145–151.

59. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe ; Trotter, “From a Raw Deal to a New Deal?,” 151–155; White, Too Heavy a Load , 157–165; Tuuri, Strategic Sisterhood , 16–20; and Gellman, Death Blow to Jim Crow .

60. Gellman, Death Blow to Jim Crow .

61. In Harlem, the movement was known as the “Jobs for Negroes” movement. For the historiography on the Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work campaigns, see Greenberg, “Or Does It Explode,” 114–139; Michele F. Pacifico, “‘Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work’: The New Negro Alliance of Washington,” Washington History 6, no. 1 (Spring–Summer 1994): 66–88; Ervin, Gateway to Equality , 79–96; and Traci Parker, Department Stores and the Black Freedom Movement: Workers, Consumers, and the Civil Rights Movement from the 1930s to the 1980s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019), 61–65; I fixed it to be 61-65

62. Marcia Chatelain, South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 96–129.

63. Pacifico, “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work,” 82.

64. Beth Tompkins Bates, Pullman Porters and the Rise of Protest Politics in Black America, 1925–1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 126–147.

65. Robert H. Ziegler, The CIO: 1935–1955 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); and Michael Goldfield, “Race and the CIO: The Possibilities for Racial Egalitarianism during the 1930s and 1940s,” International Labor and Working-Class History 44 (Fall 1993): 1–32.

66. Trotter, “From A Raw Deal to a New Deal?,” 422–424.

67. Robert Rodgers Korstad, Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth-Century South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); and Eric Arnesen, Brotherhoods of Color: Black Railroad Workers and the Struggle for Equality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).

68. Melinda Chateauvert, Marching Together: Women of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998).

69. Danielle Phillips, “Cleaning Race: Irish Immigrant and Southern Black Domestic Workers in the Northeast United States, 1865–1930,” in U.S. Women’s History: Untangling the Threads of Sisterhood , eds. Leslie Brown, Jacqueline Castledine, and Ann Valk (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017), 36–27; and Vanessa May, Unprotected Labor: Household Workers, Politics, and Middle-Class Reform in New York, 1870–1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 146–173.

70. Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke, “The Bronx Slave Market,” Crisis 42, November 1935.

71. Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 76–77; and LaShawn Harris, “Marvel Cooke: Investigative Journalist, Communist, and Black Radical Subject,” Journal for the Study of Radicalism 6, no. 2 (Fall 2012): 91–126.

72. Murphy, Jim Crow Capital , 133–138.

73. Wolcott, Remaking Respectability ; and LaShawn Harris, Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City’s Underground Economy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016), 123–166.

74. Simon Balto, Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019), 82; Murphy, Jim Crow Capital ; and Clarence Taylor, Fight the Power: African Americans and the Long History of Police Brutality in New York City (New York: New York University Press, 2018), 51–58.

75. Skarloff, Black Culture in the New Deal , 1–14.

76. David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue (New York: Random House, 1981); Baldwin, Chicago’s New Negroes ; and Treva B. Lindsey, Colored No More: Reinventing Black Womanhood in Washington, D.C . (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017).

77. Jacqueline Jajuma Stewart, Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005); and Baldwin, Chicago’s New Negroes , 91–154.

78. Skarloff, Black Culture in the New Deal , 33–80.

79. Trotter, “From a Raw Deal to a New Deal,” 419; and Skarloff, Black Culture in the New Deal , 81–122.

80. William F. McDonald, Federal Relief Administration and the Arts: The Origins and Administrative History of the Arts Projects of the Works Progress Administration (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1969); Stephanie J. Shaw, “Using the WPA Ex-Slave Narratives to Study the Impact of the Great Depression,” Journal of Southern History 69, no. 3 (August 2003): 623–658; and Skarloff, Black Culture in the New Deal , 81–122.

81. Ed Guerrero, Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993); and Skarloff, Black Culture in the New Deal .

82. Linda Gordon, Dorothea Lange: A Life beyond Limits (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009), 259–278.

83. Gordon Parks, A Choice of Weapons (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1965); Nicholas Natanson, The Black Image in the New Deal: The Politics of FSA Photography (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992); Deborah Willis, Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000); and Richard J. Powell, Maurice Berger, and Deborah Willis, Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work, 1940–1950 (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2018).

84. Scott Sandage, “A Marble House Divided: The Lincoln Memorial, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Politics of Memory,” Journal of American History 80, no. 1 (June 1993): 135–167; and Raymond Arsenault, The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009).

85. Wolters, “The New Deal and the Negro”; and Sitkoff, “Impact of the New Deal on Black Southerners.”

86. Grant, TVA and Black Americans ; and Cole, African-American Experience .

87. Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks ; Kirby, Black Americans in the Roosevelt Era ; and Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln .

88. Sullivan, Days of Hope .

89. Naison, Communists in Harlem .

90. Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement.”

91. Gellman, Death Blow to Jim Crow .

92. Ferguson, Black Politics in New Deal Atlanta ; and Materson, For the Freedom of Her Race .

93. LaShawn, “Running with the Reds.”

94. Skarloff, Black Culture and the New Deal .

95. John B. Kirby, ed., New Deal Agencies and Black Americans (Arlington, VA: University Publications of America, 1984).

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Great Depression Research Paper Topics

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In this comprehensive guide on Great Depression research paper topics , we delve into the fascinating world of one of the most significant economic crises in history. As students studying history and assigned to write a research paper, it is essential to explore a wide range of engaging and thought-provoking topics related to the Great Depression. This page offers a comprehensive list of Great Depression research paper topics, an article on the Great Depression and its impact, expert advice on topic selection, tips on writing an effective research paper, and information about iResearchNet’s writing services. By following this guide, you will gain valuable insights and resources to unleash your potential and excel in your Great Depression research papers.

100 Great Depression Research Paper Topics

The Great Depression was a period of immense economic turmoil that gripped the world in the 1930s. It left a profound impact on various aspects of society and shaped the course of history. As a student of history, delving into the depths of this significant era provides a multitude of research opportunities. In this section, we present a comprehensive list of Great Depression research paper topics, divided into ten categories. These topics encompass a wide range of subjects and perspectives, allowing you to explore different facets of this transformative period.

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Economic Causes and Effects:

  • The Stock Market Crash of 1929: Causes, Consequences, and Lessons Learned
  • Banking Failures and the Collapse of the Financial System during the Great Depression
  • Unemployment and its Social and Economic Implications during the Great Depression
  • The Role of Government Policies in Shaping the Economic Landscape of the Great Depression
  • The Impact of International Trade and Protectionism on the Global Economy during the Great Depression
  • Changes in Monetary and Fiscal Policy Approaches in Response to the Great Depression
  • Economic Inequality and the Great Depression: Examining the Disparities
  • The Role of Consumer Spending and Investment Patterns in Shaping the Great Depression
  • Economic Recovery Efforts and the Effectiveness of New Deal Programs
  • Comparative Analysis of the Great Depression with Other Economic Crises

Social Impact and Cultural Changes:

  • Poverty and Homelessness in the Great Depression: Causes, Experiences, and Responses
  • Gender Roles and Women’s Experiences during the Great Depression
  • African Americans and the Great Depression: Struggles, Activism, and Cultural Expression
  • Art and Literature as Responses to the Great Depression: Depictions of Hardships and Resilience
  • Social Movements and Labor Unions during the Great Depression: Strikes, Protests, and Reforms
  • The Role of Education and Intellectual Life during the Great Depression
  • Migration and Mobility during the Great Depression: Impact on Communities and Culture
  • The Influence of Music and Entertainment on Society during the Great Depression
  • Changes in Family Dynamics and Relationships during the Great Depression
  • Public Health and Social Welfare Systems during the Great Depression: Challenges and Reforms

Government Interventions and Policies:

  • Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal: Analyzing its Objectives, Implementation, and Results
  • Role of the Federal Reserve in the Great Depression: Monetary Policy and Regulation
  • Social Security Act of 1935: Origins, Implementation, and Long-Term Impact
  • Agricultural Adjustment Act and its Effects on the Farming Community
  • The National Industrial Recovery Act: Assessing its Goals, Strategies, and Legacy
  • The Works Progress Administration (WPA): Job Creation and Infrastructure Projects
  • The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC): Environmental Conservation during the Great Depression
  • The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC): Regulating Financial Markets after the Crash
  • The Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA): Providing Relief to the Needy
  • The Role of International Organizations and Agreements in Addressing the Global Effects of the Great Depression

Global Perspectives:

  • The Global Spread and Impact of the Great Depression: Comparative Analysis
  • The Great Depression in Europe: Causes, Effects, and Recovery Strategies
  • The Great Depression and the Rise of Fascism: Examining the Interconnections
  • Latin America’s Experience of the Great Depression: Economic Challenges and Political Shifts
  • The Great Depression in Asia: Exploring Economic, Social, and Political Transformations
  • The Role of International Financial Institutions in Mitigating the Global Effects of the Great Depression
  • The Impact of Colonialism and Imperialism on Economic Vulnerability during the Great Depression
  • The Great Depression and International Relations: Shifting Power Dynamics and Diplomatic Challenges
  • Lessons Learned from the Great Depression: Policy Recommendations for Future Economic Crises
  • Historical Comparisons: Assessing the Great Depression in Relation to Other Global Economic Downturns

Psychological and Social Welfare:

  • Psychological Impact of the Great Depression on Individuals and Communities
  • Mental Health Services and the Understanding of Mental Illness during the Great Depression
  • The Role of Charity and Philanthropy in Assisting those Affected by the Great Depression
  • Social Welfare Programs and Relief Efforts: Examining their Design and Effectiveness
  • The Influence of Social Work and Social Workers during the Great Depression
  • The Role of Religion and Faith-Based Organizations in Providing Support during the Great Depression
  • The Impact of Childhood Experiences during the Great Depression: Long-Term Effects
  • Social Assistance and Relief Programs: Comparing Strategies and Approaches
  • Social Movements and Grassroots Activism for Social Justice during the Great Depression
  • The Influence of Public Opinion and Mass Media on Social Welfare Policies

Impact on Specific Industries:

  • The Automobile Industry during the Great Depression: Challenges, Innovations, and Recovery
  • Impact of the Great Depression on the Banking and Financial Sector
  • Film Industry during the Great Depression: Entertainment and Escapism in Troubled Times
  • The Construction Industry during the Great Depression: Infrastructure Development and Public Works Projects
  • The Impact of the Great Depression on the Textile and Manufacturing Industries
  • Changes in the Agricultural Sector during the Great Depression: Farming Practices and Government Interventions
  • Mining and Natural Resource Industries during the Great Depression: Challenges and Adaptations
  • The Role of Labor Unions in Protecting Workers’ Rights during the Great Depression
  • Impact of the Great Depression on the Shipping and Maritime Industry
  • The Aviation Industry during the Great Depression: Technological Advances and Commercial Aviation Expansion

Political Climate and Leadership:

  • Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Leadership during the Great Depression: Policies and Legacy
  • Opposition and Criticisms of New Deal Programs: Political Debates and Alternative Proposals
  • Role of Political Parties and Electoral Shifts during the Great Depression
  • Populist Movements and Responses to Economic Hardships: The Influence of Radical Politics
  • The Role of Women in Politics during the Great Depression: Activism and Reform Efforts
  • The Impact of the Great Depression on the Presidency and the Executive Branch
  • Socialism, Communism, and the Great Depression: Ideological Shifts and Debates
  • The Role of the Supreme Court in Shaping New Deal Policies and their Constitutionality
  • The Influence of International Relations and Geopolitics on National Responses to the Great Depression
  • Political Movements and Grassroots Activism during the Great Depression: Lessons for Today

Cultural and Artistic Responses:

  • Literature of the Great Depression: Themes, Styles, and Authors
  • Visual Arts during the Great Depression: Depictions of Hardship and Social Commentary
  • Music and the Great Depression: Exploring Jazz, Blues, and Folk Music Movements
  • Theatre and Performance Arts during the Great Depression: Escapism and Social Critique
  • Photography and Documentary Projects: Capturing the Realities of the Great Depression
  • Radio and Broadcasting during the Great Depression: Entertainment and News Dissemination
  • The Influence of Hollywood Films on Popular Culture during the Great Depression
  • Dance and Dance Halls during the Great Depression: Cultural Expression and Social Gathering
  • Sports and Athletics during the Great Depression: Resilience and National Identity
  • Fashion and Popular Culture Trends during the Great Depression: Reflections of Social Change

Regional Perspectives:

  • The Great Depression in the United States: Regional Variations and Local Impacts
  • The Great Depression in Rural Communities: Challenges and Agricultural Adjustments
  • Urban Areas during the Great Depression: Impact on Cities, Migration, and Community Dynamics
  • The Great Depression in Europe: Regional Responses and Recovery Strategies
  • The Great Depression in Asia: Regional Economic Shifts and Political Unrest
  • Latin America’s Experience of the Great Depression: Economic Policies and Social Transformations
  • The Great Depression in Africa: Colonial Economies and Indigenous Responses
  • The Impact of the Great Depression on the Caribbean: Trade, Tourism, and Political Instability
  • The Great Depression in the Middle East: Oil, Colonialism, and Economic Resilience
  • The Great Depression in Oceania: Impacts on Indigenous Communities and Trade Relations

Lessons Learned and Legacy:

  • Economic Policies and Regulations Implemented Post-Great Depression: Analysis and Evaluation
  • The Great Depression’s Influence on Modern Economic Thought and Macroeconomic Theory
  • The Great Depression and the Formation of International Financial Institutions
  • Comparative Analysis of the Great Depression with Subsequent Economic Crises
  • The Long-Term Social and Economic Consequences of the Great Depression
  • Historical Reflections on the Lasting Impact of the Great Depression: Lessons for Today
  • The Great Depression’s Influence on Government Intervention and Social Welfare Programs
  • The Role of Economic Forecasting and Risk Management in Post-Great Depression Policies
  • The Great Depression and Changes in Economic Theory and Policy Approaches
  • Evaluating the Successes and Failures of Recovery Efforts during the Great Depression

This comprehensive list of Great Depression research paper topics offers a diverse array of subjects for exploration and analysis. Whether you are interested in the economic, social, cultural, political, or regional aspects of this era, there is a topic to suit your research interests. By selecting a topic from this list, you can delve into the complexities of the Great Depression, uncovering its causes, effects, and the lessons it holds for the present and future.

The Great Depression: Exploring its Impact and Historical Significance

The Great Depression stands as one of the most transformative periods in modern history, leaving an indelible mark on societies around the world. This 2000-word article aims to provide a comprehensive overview of the Great Depression, its historical context, and its profound significance. By delving into the range of Great Depression research paper topics, we can gain valuable insights into the causes and effects of the economic collapse, its social impact, and the government responses that shaped the path to recovery. Through the study of the Great Depression, we can better understand the complexities of economic systems, social inequality, and the role of government intervention in times of crisis.

  • The Historical Context : The article begins by setting the stage for the Great Depression, exploring the economic prosperity of the 1920s, the underlying factors that contributed to the collapse, and the global context in which it unfolded. It highlights the interconnectedness of economies and the far-reaching consequences of the financial downturn.
  • The Causes of the Great Depression : This section delves into the causes of the Great Depression, examining factors such as the stock market crash of 1929, the unsustainable economic practices of the time, and the impact of international events. It explores the intricate web of circumstances that led to the onset of the devastating economic downturn.
  • The Effects of the Great Depression : Here, we explore the wide-ranging effects of the Great Depression on individuals, families, businesses, and entire nations. We discuss the soaring unemployment rates, widespread poverty, loss of homes and farms, and the resulting social and psychological impact on affected communities. The section also highlights the global ramifications, including a decline in international trade, financial instability, and political shifts.
  • Social Impact and Cultural Changes : The Great Depression had a profound impact on society, reshaping social norms, cultural attitudes, and the fabric of communities. This section explores the challenges faced by various social groups, such as women, minorities, and workers. It discusses the emergence of social movements, the role of art and literature as responses to the crisis, and the cultural shifts that took place during this period.
  • Government Responses and Policies : The government responses to the Great Depression played a critical role in shaping the trajectory of recovery. This section examines the policies implemented by governments around the world, focusing on notable initiatives such as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the United States. It analyzes the effectiveness of these policies, their impact on the economy and society, and the enduring legacy of government intervention.
  • Economic Systems and Lessons Learned : The Great Depression prompted a reevaluation of economic systems and theories. This section explores the debates surrounding capitalism, socialism, and the role of government regulation. It discusses the long-term implications of the Great Depression on economic thought, policy approaches, and the establishment of social safety nets.
  • Social Inequality and Social Justice : Studying the Great Depression provides an opportunity to examine the deep-rooted issues of social inequality and the pursuit of social justice. This section explores the unequal distribution of wealth and resources during the period, the impact on marginalized communities, and the subsequent efforts to address systemic inequalities. It also examines the role of labor unions and their fight for worker rights during this tumultuous time.
  • Government Intervention and the Role of Institutions : The Great Depression led to a significant expansion of government intervention and the establishment of new institutions. This section examines the role of institutions such as the Federal Reserve, the creation of social welfare programs, and the impact of regulatory bodies. It evaluates the lasting effects of these interventions on economic stability, social welfare, and the relationship between the government and the private sector.
  • Global Impact and International Relations : The Great Depression had a profound effect on the global stage, reshaping international relations and sparking geopolitical shifts. This section explores how different countries were affected by the economic downturn and how it influenced their foreign policies. It also examines the efforts to address the global economic crisis through international cooperation and the establishment of institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
  • Lessons Learned and Legacy : In this final section, we reflect on the lessons learned from the Great Depression and its enduring legacy. It discusses the reforms and regulations implemented to prevent a similar economic catastrophe in the future, the importance of financial regulation, and the significance of social safety nets. It also examines the long-term impact on economic policies, the role of the government in managing economic crises, and the relevance of studying the Great Depression in the modern world.

The Great Depression stands as a defining moment in history, with profound implications for economic, social, and political systems. By studying the causes, effects, social impact, and government responses of this period, we gain valuable insights into the complexities of economic systems, social inequality, and the role of government intervention. Exploring the range of Great Depression research paper topics allows us to deepen our understanding of this transformative era and its relevance to contemporary society.

How to Choose Great Depression Research Paper Topics

Selecting an engaging and meaningful research topic is crucial when delving into the realm of Great Depression studies. This section provides valuable guidance on how to choose the most suitable research paper topic that aligns with your interests, academic goals, and the significance of this historical period. By following these ten tips, you can navigate through the vast array of potential Great Depression research paper topics and identify a research question that allows for a comprehensive exploration of the Great Depression.

  • Reflect on Personal Interests : Begin by considering your personal interests within the broader context of the Great Depression. Reflect on aspects such as social history, economic policies, cultural impact, or political responses. Exploring Great Depression research paper topics that resonate with your passion will ensure a deeper engagement and motivation throughout the research process.
  • Conduct Preliminary Research : Engage in preliminary research to familiarize yourself with the existing scholarship on the Great Depression. This will help you identify gaps in the literature and uncover potential avenues for further investigation. Consult academic journals, books, and reputable online sources to gain a comprehensive understanding of the current scholarly discourse.
  • Focus on Specific Regions or Time Periods : The Great Depression had a global impact, affecting different regions in unique ways. Consider narrowing your research focus to a specific country, region, or even a particular community. This allows for a more nuanced analysis and provides an opportunity to examine localized experiences and responses to the economic crisis.
  • Analyze Primary and Secondary Sources : Utilize both primary and secondary sources to gather evidence and support your research. Primary sources, such as letters, diaries, government records, and newspapers from the period, offer firsthand accounts and insights. Secondary sources, including scholarly articles and books, provide critical analysis and interpretations of the Great Depression.
  • Explore Different Aspects of the Great Depression : The Great Depression is a multi-faceted historical event that impacted various spheres of life. Consider exploring different aspects, such as the economic causes, social consequences, political responses, cultural expressions, or international relations. By delving into different dimensions, you can gain a comprehensive understanding of the era.
  • Examine the Impact on Different Social Groups : The Great Depression affected people from all walks of life differently. Explore the experiences of various social groups, such as women, racial and ethnic minorities, farmers, workers, and the urban poor. Investigate how these groups navigated through the economic crisis and the impact it had on their lives.
  • Analyze Government Policies and Programs : Government responses played a significant role in addressing the Great Depression. Choose a research topic that focuses on specific government policies, programs, or initiatives implemented during this time. Analyze their effectiveness, impact on the economy and society, and the long-term consequences of these interventions.
  • Investigate Cultural Responses and Artistic Expressions : The Great Depression fostered a wealth of cultural responses, including literature, music, photography, and visual arts. Explore the cultural expressions of the era and their reflection of the social and economic climate. Analyze the works of artists, writers, and musicians to understand how they captured the experiences and emotions of the time.
  • Consider Comparative Analysis : Comparative analysis allows for a deeper understanding of the Great Depression by examining similarities and differences between different countries, regions, or time periods. Compare the economic, social, and political responses of multiple nations or explore the impact of the Great Depression on different continents.
  • Engage with Historiographical Debates : The study of the Great Depression is dynamic, with ongoing debates and reinterpretations of historical events and their significance. Choose a research topic that engages with these historiographical debates and contributes to the scholarly discourse. By exploring conflicting interpretations, you can develop a nuanced understanding of the complexities surrounding the Great Depression.

Choosing a research topic on the Great Depression requires careful consideration and a thoughtful approach. By reflecting on personal interests, conducting preliminary research, focusing on specific regions or time periods, analyzing primary and secondary sources, and exploring various aspects and social groups, you can identify a research question that aligns with your interests and academic goals. Engaging with government policies, cultural expressions, and comparative analysis provides further avenues for exploration. Remember to contribute to historiographical debates and approach your research with critical thinking and analytical skills. By following these ten tips, you will be well-equipped to embark on a successful research journey into the depths of the Great Depression.

How to Write a Great Depression Research Paper

Writing a research paper on the Great Depression requires careful planning, thorough research, and effective communication of your findings. This section provides valuable guidance on how to structure and write a successful research paper that showcases your understanding of this significant historical period. By following these ten tips, you can craft a compelling and insightful paper on the Great Depression.

  • Formulate a Clear Thesis Statement : Start your research paper with a clear and concise thesis statement that articulates the main argument or focus of your study. The thesis statement should guide your research and provide a roadmap for your paper, ensuring coherence and direction throughout.
  • Conduct In-Depth Research : Engage in thorough research to gather relevant and reliable sources that support your thesis statement. Utilize primary and secondary sources to gain a comprehensive understanding of the Great Depression, its causes, impact, and historical context. Take notes and organize your research material for easy reference.
  • Analyze Primary and Secondary Sources : Carefully analyze the primary and secondary sources you have collected. Critically evaluate the credibility, biases, and limitations of each source. Extract key information and evidence that supports your thesis and provides a robust foundation for your arguments.
  • Outline Your Paper : Create a clear and detailed outline that serves as a roadmap for your research paper. Organize your main points, arguments, and supporting evidence in a logical and coherent manner. The outline will help you maintain focus, structure your paper, and ensure a smooth flow of ideas.
  • Develop a Strong Introduction : Craft an engaging introduction that captures the reader’s attention and provides context for your research. Clearly state your thesis statement and provide a brief overview of the main points you will discuss in your paper. Set the tone for your research and highlight the significance of studying the Great Depression.
  • Present a Coherent Argument : Structure your paper around a well-developed argument that supports your thesis statement. Present your main points in a logical sequence, providing evidence and analysis to support each claim. Ensure that your arguments flow smoothly and are interconnected, building a coherent narrative throughout your paper.
  • Analyze Primary and Secondary Sources : Integrate your analysis of primary and secondary sources into your research paper. Use direct quotes, paraphrasing, and summarization techniques to incorporate evidence from your sources. Analyze the sources critically, demonstrating your ability to interpret and evaluate historical material.
  • Provide Historical Context : Situate your research within the historical context of the Great Depression. Provide background information, discuss relevant events, policies, and social conditions that influenced the period. Help your readers understand the broader significance of your research and its relationship to the historical context.
  • Use Clear and Concise Language : Write in a clear and concise manner, avoiding unnecessary jargon or complex language. Ensure that your ideas are easily understandable and your arguments are well-articulated. Use proper grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure to enhance the clarity and readability of your paper.
  • Conclude with a Strong Summary : End your research paper with a strong and concise summary that restates your thesis statement and highlights the key findings of your study. Emphasize the significance of your research and its contribution to the understanding of the Great Depression. Reflect on the implications and broader lessons that can be drawn from your analysis.

Writing a research paper on the Great Depression requires careful planning, thorough research, and effective communication of your findings. By formulating a clear thesis statement, conducting in-depth research, and analyzing primary and secondary sources, you can develop a strong foundation for your paper. Organizing your thoughts with a well-structured outline, crafting an engaging introduction, and presenting a coherent argument will ensure a compelling and insightful research paper. Remember to provide historical context, use clear and concise language, and conclude with a strong summary that highlights the significance of your research. By following these ten tips, you will be well-prepared to write a comprehensive and impactful research paper on the Great Depression.

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Essays on the Great Depression

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Ben Bernanke

Essays on the Great Depression Paperback – January 25, 2004

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From the Nobel Prize–winning economist and former chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, a landmark book that provides vital lessons for understanding financial crises and their sometimes-catastrophic economic effects As chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve during the Global Financial Crisis, Ben Bernanke helped avert a greater financial disaster than the Great Depression. And he did so by drawing directly on what he had learned from years of studying the causes of the economic catastrophe of the 1930s―work for which he was later awarded the Nobel Prize. This influential work is collected in Essays on the Great Depression , an important account of the origins of the Depression and the economic lessons it teaches.

  • Print length 320 pages
  • Language English
  • Publisher Princeton University Press
  • Publication date January 25, 2004
  • Dimensions 5.5 x 0.75 x 9 inches
  • ISBN-10 0691118205
  • ISBN-13 978-0691118208
  • See all details

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Editorial Reviews

From the inside flap.

"Collecting these essays together will provide a single source for students to find Bernanke's substantial contributions.... His papers demonstrate conclusively that the international view of the great depression has impressive explanatory power."--Peter Temin, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

From the Back Cover

"This influential body of work is a significant contribution to our understanding the depth and persistence of the Great Depression.... This book will become a standard reference in the field of business cycle research." --Randall Kroszner, University of Chicago

"Bernanke's work has had a powerful impact on the economics profession, alerting macroeconomists to the advantages of historical analysis, and a number of important figures (James Hamilton, Steve Cecchetti, for example), inspired by his work, have followed him into the field. The nine essays form a remarkably coherent whole." --Barry Eichengreen, University of California, Berkeley, and author of Globalizing Capital: A History of the International Monetary System

"Collecting these essays together will provide a single source for students to find Bernanke's substantial contributions.... His papers demonstrate conclusively that the international view of the great depression has impressive explanatory power." --Peter Temin, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

About the Author

Product details.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Princeton University Press (January 25, 2004)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 320 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0691118205
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0691118208
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 2.31 pounds
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 5.5 x 0.75 x 9 inches
  • #354 in Microeconomics (Books)
  • #2,487 in Economic History (Books)
  • #43,599 in United States History (Books)

About the author

Ben bernanke.

Ben S. Bernanke is a Distinguished Fellow in Residence with the Economic Studies Program at the Brookings Institution. From February 2006 through January 2014, he was Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. Dr. Bernanke also served as Chairman of the Federal Open Market Committee, the System's principal monetary policymaking body.

Before his appointment as Chairman, Dr. Bernanke was Chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, from June 2005 to January 2006. He had already served the Federal Reserve System in several roles. He was a member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System from 2002 to 2005; a visiting scholar at the Federal Reserve Banks of Philadelphia (1987-89), Boston (1989-90), and New York (1990-91, 1994-96); and a member of the Academic Advisory Panel at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (1990-2002).

From 1994 to 1996, Dr. Bernanke was the Class of 1926 Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University. He was the Howard Harrison and Gabrielle Snyder Beck Professor of Economics and Public Affairs and Chair of the Economics Department at the university from 1996 to 2002. Dr. Bernanke had been a Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton since 1985.

Before arriving at Princeton, Dr. Bernanke was an Associate Professor of Economics (1983-85) and an Assistant Professor of Economics (1979-83) at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. His teaching career also included serving as a Visiting Professor of Economics at New York University (1993) and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1989-90).

Dr. Bernanke has published many articles on a wide variety of economic issues, including monetary policy and macroeconomics, and he is the author of several scholarly books and two textbooks. He has held a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Sloan Fellowship, and he is a Fellow of the Econometric Society and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Bernanke served as the Director of the Monetary Economics Program of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) and as a member of the NBER's Business Cycle Dating Committee. In July 2001, he was appointed Editor of the American Economic Review. Dr. Bernanke's work with civic and professional groups includes having served two terms as a member of the Montgomery Township (N.J.) Board of Education.

Dr. Bernanke was born in December 1953 in Augusta, Georgia, and grew up in Dillon, South Carolina. He received a B.A. in economics in 1975 from Harvard University (summa cum laude) and a Ph.D. in economics in 1979 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dr. Bernanke is married and has two children.

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Home — Essay Samples — History — History of the United States — Great Depression

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Essays on Great Depression

Great depression essay topic examples, argumentative essays.

Argumentative essays on the Great Depression require you to take a stance on a specific aspect of this historical event and provide evidence to support your viewpoint. Consider these topic examples:

  • 1. Argue for the primary causes of the Great Depression, emphasizing the role of economic policies, banking practices, and global factors in triggering the crisis.
  • 2. Debate the effectiveness of New Deal programs in alleviating the suffering of Americans during the Great Depression, discussing their long-term impact on the nation's economy and social fabric.

Example Introduction Paragraph for an Argumentative Great Depression Essay: The Great Depression remains a defining moment in American history, marked by economic turmoil and widespread suffering. In this argumentative essay, we will examine the primary causes of the Great Depression, focusing on economic policies, banking practices, and global factors that contributed to this devastating crisis.

Example Conclusion Paragraph for an Argumentative Great Depression Essay: In conclusion, the analysis of the Great Depression's causes underscores the complexity of this historical event. As we reflect on the lessons learned from this era, we are reminded of the importance of sound economic policies and vigilant oversight in preventing future economic crises.

Compare and Contrast Essays

Compare and contrast essays on the Great Depression involve analyzing the similarities and differences between various aspects of the era, such as its impact on different countries or the approaches taken to address the crisis. Consider these topics:

  • 1. Compare and contrast the effects of the Great Depression on the United States and Germany, examining the economic, social, and political consequences in both nations.
  • 2. Analyze and contrast the approaches taken by Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and Adolf Hitler's economic policies in response to the Great Depression, exploring their divergent ideologies and outcomes.

Example Introduction Paragraph for a Compare and Contrast Great Depression Essay: The Great Depression had a global impact, affecting nations differently and prompting diverse responses. In this compare and contrast essay, we will explore the effects of the Great Depression on the United States and Germany, examining the economic, social, and political consequences in both countries.

Example Conclusion Paragraph for a Compare and Contrast Great Depression Essay: In conclusion, the comparison and contrast of the Great Depression's effects on the United States and Germany reveal the profound and lasting consequences of economic crises. As we study these different experiences, we gain insights into the resilience of nations facing adversity.

Descriptive Essays

Descriptive essays on the Great Depression allow you to provide detailed accounts and analysis of specific aspects, events, or individuals during this period. Here are some topic ideas:

  • 1. Describe the everyday life of a typical American family during the Great Depression, detailing their struggles, coping mechanisms, and aspirations for a better future.
  • 2. Paint a vivid picture of a significant event from the Great Depression era, such as the Dust Bowl or a famous protest, discussing its impact on society and the lessons learned.

Example Introduction Paragraph for a Descriptive Great Depression Essay: The Great Depression left an indelible mark on the lives of ordinary Americans, shaping their daily experiences and aspirations. In this descriptive essay, we will delve into the everyday life of a typical American family during this challenging period, exploring their struggles and hopes for a brighter future.

Example Conclusion Paragraph for a Descriptive Great Depression Essay: In conclusion, the descriptive exploration of a typical American family's life during the Great Depression reminds us of the resilience and determination of individuals in the face of adversity. As we reflect on their experiences, we are inspired by their unwavering spirit.

Persuasive Essays

Persuasive essays on the Great Depression involve advocating for specific actions, policies, or changes related to economic recovery, social welfare, or preventing future economic crises. Consider these persuasive topics:

  • 1. Persuade your audience of the importance of implementing social safety net programs to prevent another Great Depression-like economic catastrophe, highlighting the potential benefits and challenges of such initiatives.
  • 2. Advocate for increased financial literacy education in schools as a means to empower individuals with the knowledge and skills to make informed financial decisions, potentially preventing future economic crises.

Example Introduction Paragraph for a Persuasive Great Depression Essay: The lessons of the Great Depression continue to shape economic and social policies today. In this persuasive essay, I will make a compelling case for the implementation of social safety net programs aimed at preventing future economic catastrophes like the Great Depression, emphasizing the potential benefits and challenges of such initiatives.

Example Conclusion Paragraph for a Persuasive Great Depression Essay: In conclusion, the persuasive argument for social safety net programs underscores the importance of proactive measures to safeguard against economic crises. As we advocate for change, we contribute to a more resilient and equitable society.

Narrative Essays

Narrative essays on the Great Depression allow you to share personal stories, experiences, or observations related to this historical period, your family's history during the era, or the impact of the Great Depression on your community. Explore these narrative essay topics:

  • 1. Narrate a family story or anecdote passed down through generations about how your family coped with the challenges of the Great Depression, highlighting the resilience and resourcefulness of your ancestors.
  • 2. Share a personal narrative of how the Great Depression era shaped the values and principles of your community, discussing the lasting impact on your town or neighborhood.

Example Introduction Paragraph for a Narrative Great Depression Essay: The Great Depression was not just a historical event; it was a period that defined the experiences and values of countless individuals and communities. In this narrative essay, I will share a family story that has been passed down through generations, illustrating how my family coped with the challenges of this era and the lasting impact on our values.

Example Conclusion Paragraph for a Narrative Great Depression Essay: In conclusion, the narrative of my family's experience during the Great Depression serves as a reminder of the resilience and resourcefulness that emerged during this challenging period. As we reflect on our history, we find inspiration in the strength of those who came before us.

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New Deal Programs During The Great Depression

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The Great Depression in The USA

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1929 - c. 1939

Europe, United States

Franklin D. Roosevelt: As the President of the United States from 1933 to 1945, Roosevelt implemented the New Deal, a series of economic and social programs aimed at alleviating the effects of the Great Depression. John Steinbeck: An influential American author, Steinbeck wrote novels such as "The Grapes of Wrath" (1939), which depicted the plight of migrant workers during the Great Depression. His work shed light on the social and economic injustices faced by many Americans during that time. Dorothea Lange: A renowned documentary photographer, Lange captured powerful images of individuals and families affected by the Great Depression. Her iconic photograph "Migrant Mother" became a symbol of the hardships faced by ordinary Americans. Eleanor Roosevelt: The wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt was a prominent advocate for social and economic reform. She played an active role in promoting the New Deal policies and was a strong voice for marginalized communities during the Great Depression.

The Great Depression, one of the most severe economic crises in history, occurred during the 1930s. It started in the United States with the stock market crash of 1929, often referred to as "Black Tuesday." This event led to a chain reaction of economic downturns worldwide, resulting in high unemployment rates, widespread poverty, and a significant decline in industrial production. The effects of the Great Depression were felt across various sectors, including agriculture, manufacturing, and banking.

The Great Depression was preceded by a series of factors that set the stage for its occurrence. In the aftermath of World War I, the global economy experienced a period of instability and rapid growth known as the Roaring Twenties. However, beneath the surface of apparent prosperity, there were underlying vulnerabilities. One of the key factors contributing to the Great Depression was the rampant speculation in the stock market, fueled by easy credit and speculative investments. This speculative bubble eventually burst in October 1929, triggering the stock market crash and initiating a chain reaction of economic collapse. Additionally, international economic imbalances played a role in exacerbating the crisis. Protectionist trade policies, war reparations, and a decline in global trade contributed to a decline in industrial production and widespread unemployment. The collapse of the banking system further deepened the crisis, as bank failures wiped out people's savings and caused a severe liquidity crisis.

Stock Market Crash: On October 29, 1929, known as Black Tuesday, the stock market experienced a catastrophic crash, signaling the start of the Great Depression. This event led to a massive loss of wealth and investor confidence. Dust Bowl: In the early 1930s, severe drought and poor farming practices led to the Dust Bowl in the Great Plains region of the United States. Dust storms ravaged the land, causing agricultural devastation and mass migration of farmers to seek better opportunities elsewhere. New Deal: In response to the crisis, President Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented the New Deal, a series of programs and reforms aimed at providing relief, recovery, and reform. This included measures such as the creation of jobs, financial regulations, and social welfare initiatives.

Economic Collapse: The Great Depression plunged the global economy into a severe downturn. Industries faced widespread bankruptcies, trade declined, and unemployment soared. Poverty levels skyrocketed, leaving many families without basic necessities. Social Unrest: The economic hardship led to increased social unrest. Breadlines, shantytowns, and soup kitchens became common sights as people struggled to survive. Homelessness and hunger became prevalent, straining social structures. Global Impact: The Great Depression had a global reach, affecting countries around the world. International trade declined, leading to a sharp decline in exports and imports. This interconnectedness contributed to a worldwide economic slowdown. Political Shifts: The economic crisis paved the way for significant political shifts. Governments faced pressure to address the crisis, resulting in the rise of interventionist policies and increased government involvement in the economy. This gave birth to the concept of the welfare state. Cultural and Artistic Expression: The Great Depression influenced art, literature, and music, reflecting the hardships and struggles of the era. Artists and writers depicted the human suffering and the search for hope amid despair.

Literature: John Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath" (1939) is a powerful depiction of the Great Depression's impact on migrant workers in the United States. It follows the Joad family as they face poverty, displacement, and exploitation while searching for a better life. The book explores themes of resilience, social injustice, and the human spirit in the face of adversity. Photography: The Farm Security Administration (FSA) hired photographers, including Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, to document the effects of the Great Depression. Their iconic photographs, such as Lange's "Migrant Mother," captured the hardships faced by rural communities, evoking empathy and raising awareness about the human toll of the economic crisis. Films: Movies like "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940) and "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946) depicted the struggles and resilience of individuals and communities during the Great Depression. These films offered social commentary, showcased the impact of economic hardship, and explored themes of hope, perseverance, and the importance of human connections. Music: Artists like Woody Guthrie composed folk songs that reflected the experiences of those affected by the Great Depression. Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" and "Dust Bowl Blues" expressed the struggles of the working class and the desire for a more equitable society. Art: Painters such as Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton created works that captured the hardships and rural landscapes of the Great Depression. Wood's painting "American Gothic" became an iconic representation of the era, symbolizing the resilience and determination of the American people.

1. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the United States dropped by approximately 30% during the Great Depression. 2. Between 1929 and 1932, over 9,000 banks in the United States failed, causing immense financial instability. 3. The poverty rate in the United States surged during the Great Depression. By 1933, around 15 million Americans, representing approximately 30% of the population at that time, were living below the poverty line.

The topic of the Great Depression holds significant importance as it marks a critical period in global history that profoundly impacted economies, societies, and individuals worldwide. Exploring this topic in an essay provides valuable insights into the causes, consequences, and responses to one of the most severe economic downturns in modern times. Understanding the Great Depression is essential to grasp the complexities of economic cycles, financial systems, and government policies. It allows us to reflect on the vulnerabilities of economies and the potential ramifications of economic crises. Moreover, studying the Great Depression enables us to analyze the various social, political, and cultural transformations that took place during that era, including the rise of social welfare programs, labor movements, and governmental interventions. By delving into this topic, we gain valuable lessons about resilience, adaptability, and the role of leadership during challenging times. Exploring the experiences of individuals and communities during the Great Depression also helps us empathize with their struggles and appreciate the importance of collective efforts to overcome adversity.

1. Bernanke, B. S. (1983). Nonmonetary effects of the financial crisis in the propagation of the Great Depression. The American Economic Review, 73(3), 257-276. 2. Eichengreen, B. (1992). Golden fetters: The gold standard and the Great Depression, 1919-1939. Oxford University Press. 3. McElvaine, R. S. (1993). The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941. Times Books. 4. Rothbard, M. N. (2000). America's Great Depression. Ludwig von Mises Institute. 5. Badger, A. J. (2014). The Great Depression as a revolution. The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 44(2), 156-174. 6. Temin, P. (2010). The Great Depression: Lessons for macroeconomic policy today. MIT Press. 7. Kennedy, D. M. (1999). Freedom from fear: The American people in depression and war, 1929-1945. Oxford University Press. 8. Leuchtenburg, W. E. (2015). The FDR years: On Roosevelt and his legacy. Columbia University Press. 9. Roth, B. (2017). The causes and consequences of the Great Depression. OpenStax. 10. Galbraith, J. K. (1997). The Great Crash, 1929. Houghton Mifflin.

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research papers on the great depression

The Great Depression and the Great Recession: A View from Financial Markets

Similarities between the Great Depression and the Great Recession are documented with respect to the behavior of financial markets. A Great Depression regime is identified by using a Markov-switching VAR. The probability of this regime has remained close to zero for many decades, but spiked for a short period during the most recent financial crisis, the Great Recession. The Great Depression regime implies a collapse of the stock market, with small-growth stocks outperforming small-value stocks. A model with financial frictions and uncertainty about policy makers’ intervention suggests that policy intervention during the Great Recession might have avoided a second Great Depression. A multi-country analysis shows that the Great Depression and Great Recession were not like any other financial crises.

I am grateful to Chris Sims for his useful suggestions at the early stage of this work. I would like to thank Robert Barro, Markus Brunnermeier, John Campbell, Emmanuel Farhi, Andrew Foerster, Jakub Jurek, Ralph Koijen, Howard Kung, Alisdair McKay, Kristo¤er Nimark, Barbara Rossi, Motohiro Yogo, Adam Zawadowski, and seminar participants at the Annual Asset Pricing Retreat, Princeton University, Duke University, the Board of Governors of the FRS, the EEA-ESEM conference, the Bank of Italy, the University of Pisa, and the CEF Conference for helpful discussions and comments. Zhao Liu provided outstanding research assistance. A previous version of this paper circulated under the title “Rare Events, Financial Crises, and the Cross-Section of Asset Returns.” The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.


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