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The Great Depression

   The trauma created by the depression produced a new kind of government and a new way of thinking about poverty. The depression, with its high unemployment rates among willing workers, shattered the dominant view that poverty was the result of personal failure.

   Before the depression, most people thought of welfare as something poor people received from mostly private charities. After the depression, welfare became a widely recognized responsibility of the federal government, and poverty was better understood as a situation caused by forces beyond individual control. Before the depression, relief programs were relatively simple arrangements. After the depression, welfare programs became a complex array of services, benefits, and taxes that effect virtually everyone.

Social Work and the Depression

   The Great Depression left important marks on the social work profession. Largely due to the leadership of individuals who began their careers in settlements and moved into public service in the twenties, social work took its place on the national stage.


   Protégés of such early settlement leaders as Florence Kelly, Jane Addams, and Lillian Wald were major architects of what is now recognized as watershed public welfare policies. Harry Hopkins, Frances Perkins, Molly Dewson and Aubrey Williams not only led social work's advance into public welfare but became public figures who greatly enhanced the public’s previously low opinion of welfare and the social work profession.

   While the social work profession had made substantial gains in status during the twenties, it still needed more prestige. Many social work leaders felt that new advances in social casework and clinical social work had catapulted social work into full professional status. However, the general public continued to view social work as a vocation rather than a profession. Low salaries were a symptom of the problem. A 1930 survey of practicing social workers found that average salaries were 30 percent below that of high school teachers.


The Depression Begins

The seeds of the depression were sown in World War I. Following the war, artificially high prices for farm products encouraged many farmers to expand. When Western Europe recovered from the war in the mid-twenties, farm prices plummeted. Many farmers plunged into debt.

   Economic catastrophe was followed by a decade long drought. The dust bowl and the depression that has been largely associated with the thirties began in rural America several years before the 1929 stock market crash.

   Even though the 1920s was a relatively prosperous time for many Americans, poverty was still rampant. A Brookings Institute study in the late 1920s estimated that a majority of Americans, 60 percent, were living below what was required to supply the basic necessities. Almost a quarter of all Americans were living on less than $1,000 a year. Consequently, most Americans found it very difficult to save money and were financially unprepared for a lengthy hardship.


   President Herbert Hoover along with most American leaders, assumed that the depression would be of short duration. Hoover refused to do anything until unemployment rates were inordinately high. By the early 1930s the nation was in very serious straits.
Unemployment in some cities was over 40 percent and bankruptcy was a common occurrence.
Thousands of unemployed males, called hobos or simply "Bo's", roamed the country in a fruitless search for work. Farmers from all over the heartland were losing their land. Farm prices were so low that farmers were selling their produce for less than it cost them to transport the goods to market.

   Meanwhile, New York's Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) was not afraid to act. FDR had a number of very gifted social workers on his staff, largely refugees from the settlement movement. Some, such as Frances Perkins ,his state secretary of labor, he had inherited from previous governor Al Smith. Others, such as Harry Hopkins, he had recruited from private charities. Governor Roosevelt, with the help and encouragement of his social workers, crafted both unemployment and public works programs that were quickly imitated in other states.

A young migrant mother worries about her future

Farms for sale

Unemployed men

Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt

Adapted from

Special thanks to the late Professor Dan Huff and Boise State University School of Social Work

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