The Middle-Class American Families

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In August 1929, the American economy began to contract. The Great Depression, which began on October 29, 1929, was the world’s worst economic downturn. It was marked by the lack of land by farmers who were homeless, as well as the collapse of financial markets. Banking processes deteriorated, and factories overproduced (Saint-Etienne, 2013).
One of the main direct effects of the crisis was a high unemployment rate. Long lines were seen outside banks as people attempted to retrieve their life savings. The financial crisis that we are seeing did not only affect the United States, but also other countries in Europe. President Franklin won the elections during this time and sought to make the situation better. He introduced the New deal an initiative to lift the United States (Saint-Etienne, 2013).

The Depression was felt by the American citizens from the urban to the rural areas and from the upper, middle to lower income classes. The impacts of the depression on the lives of middle-class income families included high unemployment and job loss especially among men. The period featured how middle-class women had to step up and work in order to meet the perceived standards of living which never posed a challenge to traditional gender role concepts. There were certain advantages for example families spending more time together and the lesson of valuing family. Economical use of resources especially money influenced a sense of responsibility and children also followed suit in helping their parents (Saint-Etienne, 2013).

Middle-Class American Families

The worst downturn of the economy lasted approximately ten years from 1929 to 1939 known as the Great Depression. The world of industrialization witnessed the economic downfall that began with the crash of the October stock market in 1929 that sent investors packing and Wall Street into fright. The following years were characterized by a decrease in consumer investment and expenditure that resulted in the drastic decline of employment as companies that were failing laid off workers and also industrial output. By the year 1933, around 15 million Americans had no jobs, and nearly half of the banks in the country closed. Those individuals who were lucky enough to remain employed received low wages and purchasing power reduced. Industrial production decreased, and the numbers of people who were homeless began rising. Farmers couldn’t afford the cost of harvesting thus left their crops to rot in the fields. Investors lost confidence in their banks and demanded cash deposits. In response, banks were forced to liquidate loans to supplement cash reserves (Nardo, 2000).

Hoover’s effort to sustain institutions and banks that were failing with government loans went down the drain. Hoover, formerly served as the Commerce U.S secretary, believed that the government was not supposed to be directly involved with the economy and that it did not have the duty to avail economic relief and create employment for the citizens. Despite the country’s trying time, Franklin D. Roosevelt won the elections and the first 100 days of his tenure were dedicated to addressing the country’s economic grievances. Later, middle-class individuals protested against him after the 1937 to 1938 recession that undermined the president’s promises to make the situation better (Nardo, 2000). In his aim to stimulate recovery by stabilizing production in the industrial and agricultural sectors, he also was determined to repair the financial systems by forming the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to protect the accounts of those depositing and regulation of the stock market respectively. The memory of the Great Depression has shaped theories of modern economics and has influenced ways in which the government deals with economic crisis (Hansen, 2015). Although there had been other crisis in the economy, the Great Depression hit hard encompassing regions both in the rural and urban, causing devastation among middle-class and working people alike. This research will focus on the impact of the Great Depression on middle-class families in America, highlighting the challenges in their financial status and unemployment rates.

The economic crisis transformed the political and social institutions, the individual way of thinking about themselves, their country’s relationship and the world’s. It challenged people’s perspectives and also the experience that caused a lot of changes (Silverstein & Saunders, 2013). Three years after the start of the crash, a lot of Americans had lost their income source due to breadwinner loss or unemployment and schedules for those who had consistent work were slashed to part-time. From 1933, government intervention was seen to take charge of creating employment opportunities, giving aid and also the provision of social insurance in new forms. Formation of unions and labor strikes paved the way for new thinking about the power of the public. Innovations in the media for example radios and movements, for example, art movements allowed expression forms that were multifaceted. The response to the crisis involved searching for new political, social and economic organizations. People across the country developed new practices at work, in their household and did an exploration of the different social protest avenues (Silverstein & Saunders, 2013). The citizens also circumnavigated social welfare systems that were emerging and re-evaluated their understanding of their community roles and responsibilities both in the world and in the nation.

Middle-class American families believed that they were better than others as they had witnessed prosperity and ostentation during the twentieth century (Koos, 1948). They were paid double the poor’s salary and this hard times hit them the most. Accumulation of debts through marginalized loans forced immediate repayment. The closure of small banks led to the loss of individuals’ life savings. The comfort of living in 6-8 roomed homes was outlived, and they had to sell them to keep them afloat to cover taxes and rising debts. Two or more households crowded in houses meant to be for single residents. Furthermore, those that held on to their homes could not afford the electric bills. Dismissal of servants who worked for the middle-class Americans increased unemployment rates. Being a middle-income family never meant surplus income but a comfortable living standard.

The Great depression diminished the usual living standards of the middle-income families significantly (Reardon, 2013). The means to achieve the high standards of living expectations declined and the most logical approach to deal with the economic crisis was to reduce expenditure. Families began to plan their expenses to respond to employment changes and reduction of wages from mostly middle to upper-income classes. Articles and magazines for women were published to help them in budgeting. To maintain living standards that were acceptable, many families opted to increase income by recruiting more labor force in the workplaces (Jacobs, 2016). Despite, the traditional values of the American women to have a single wage earner in the family, there is despicable evidence that linearly relates the amount of income to the number of earners in the family.

Middle-income families found solace in the efforts of several if not all family members and also earned their middle-class statuses in the same way. However, most of the other earners in the family were mostly men and not women, usually other family heads and not mothers or wives. Even so, evidence shows that the men were less likely to bring home an extra paycheck as compared to married women. By 1940, it was registered that paying employment through homemakers that were married made more economic contributions than the female and male children below the age of eighteen. In the twentieth century, women workforce resulted in the decline of child labor (Bolin, 1978). More women joined the workforce because of their values rather than the economic need. However, the conclusion was not a representative of all women population as there was no question in the relationship between low-income and women in the labor force. Where values came before need, deciding to work was a complicated decision as it was related to the circumstance of a family inclusive of the age and number of children and the standards of living desired. A study showed that 55.8% of all the working women were married to men who had jobs in the categories considered the middle class for example managers and officials. The evidence vividly showed that the working wife occurrence was fairly widespread in the society (Bolin, 1978).

Women married to men in the middle class were less likely to join the labor force. Sometimes, the wages of a working wife could uplift a family, but in most instances, the salaries were lower consequently because unemployment was part-time. Even though a working wife in the household partly alleviated the economic crisis during the depression, a large population never adopted the idea. Cultural values held by the Americans was partly to blame. Women in the workforce from black families were more than those in the white families (Bolin, 1978). White women in the labor force were presumed to stigmatize her children and husband, justified by the economic necessity. A large population of housewives also found it challenging to balance housework and a paying job. The lifestyle adopted by a working woman discovered its basis on the values of the culture. The fact that, the number of women working increased during the depression up to 1940 showed that traditional values were gradually declining (Bolin, 1978). Black women especially found employment faster than their male counterparts working as textile workers, domestic servants and other occupations such as being a clerk. The home life of this working woman changed. The employment rates for men drastically decreased. Most men did not take the loss of power as the breadwinner and the primary maker of decisions lightly. Devastated, men stopped searching for jobs due to paralysis by their vague chances and no self-respect. A survey indicates that husbands had left approximately 1.5 million married women, they had walked out on their families. The feelings of being inadequate caused emotional withdrawal. Men stayed in their homes bugging their wives leading to increased quarrels. Unemployment was too much of a burden to other men who resorted to drinking and children recalled their fathers being distant emotionally (Eichengreen & Temin, 2000).

Creation of Congress of Industrial Organizations that was a culture family oriented union is another example of how families coped with the economic depression crisis. The union was meant to emphasize on recreational activities that were social and family oriented. When the realization that women played a significant role in decision making dawned, unions tried to enlist them in campaigns that aimed at breaking ethnic and racial barriers that existed between families that were working class. Despite the effort to help the family adapt to the economic adversity the ordinary women gender roles were not challenged (Bowen, 1988). Children born after the Second World War did not see women employment to be positive. To these children, they considered mothers being employed as necessary due to the circumstances then but not as a revelation that women should pursue their careers and not just be housewives. The CIO gave women morale by enlisting wives who had jobs as guides for the union, demanding their equal pay and encouraging them to join industries’ unions. However, they still regarded men as the sole family breadwinners (Bowen, 1988). The family union discouraged women in positions of leadership and neglected the organization of the service and clerical sectors that were women dominated. The intervention of the New Deal also assumed the supremacy of male breadwinners thus elevating the traditional gender roles. Relief work programs saw to it that women were not catered for in the retirement pension and the insurance programs for the unemployed. Maternal commonwealth that was initiated by female reformers formed the basis of the New Deal welfare state. Women administrators played a significant role in the implementation of the New Deal, but little concern about improvements in the specific rights and interests of women in the 1930s was minimal (Bowen, 1988).

The depression cut through the whole population impartially, smiting open the hopes and lives of the poor as well as the rich. The unique characteristic of the middle-class individuals is their future orientation. The depression disoriented and destroyed plans for investments in the future for example residence in the high-end neighborhood and most importantly college education for the children (Schwarz, 2009). Youths traveled to find work in circumstances that were a little favorable, and more children entered custodial institutions with an increment of 50%. Children from families that were deprived economically suffered from malnutrition and lack of basic needs such as clothing. All strategies remained crippled as the families’ rhythm of life is dependent on the investments. The physical burden of the new normal fell entirely on women to sustain high standards of living, material-wise. As the household servants were dismissed for example gardeners or nannies, they were left to do all the work. Home-baked ones replaced bread from the stores. Items in the house and clothes were mended and not replaced. More adults bagged their brown lunches meaning that they were prepared at home.

In spite of the disadvantages of the depression as explained above, ironically it brought members of the family together. Families used the backyard more and gardened (Schwarz, 2009). They played cards, solved jigsaw puzzles and gathered around the radio. Because budgeting restricted activities that involved spending money, they engaged in free homebody activities such as reading. The recession witnessed an increase in the use of libraries and circulation of books. Girls and boys took on more responsibilities and chores around the house. Whether the children worked outside or within the home, they viewed the Depression as a problem that they should help their families face and this brought them further close to the inner family circle. The children’s perspective of life changed as it broadened their minds to comprehend what mattered in life (Schwarz, 2009). The Great Recession was followed by a chilled sexual atmosphere as the boys in the depression era feared impregnating girls. The males within marriage feared inadequacy thus sex declined. Middle-class women saw pregnancy as a disaster due to the accompanying economic challenges. Divorce rates dwindled as the legal fees and having to support two households was expensive. Families were forced to have few children because of the financial insecurity. This period witnessed the smallest population of individuals of 19 years and below. The depression period left mixed legacies in the families of the American people. Conceivably the positive and the most significant facet of the bequest was that welfare plus the economic security of the family is an essential national goal (Schwarz, 2009).


Middle-class families believe that crisis helps one to work out solutions for oneself independent of how your parents would have solved it. Also, these families feel that crisis enables operation as a unit and lastly they also believe in that being a family member is a business in that family is a responsibility. These beliefs are what got the middle-class families through the hardships of the Great Depression. These also ensured that when the middle-class American families would be given generous aid, they would be able to gain from the crisis that is inevitable even in the life today.


Bolin, W. D. W. (1978). The Economics of Middle-Income Family Life: Working Women during the Great Depression. The Journal of American History, 60-74.

Bowen, G. L. (1988). Corporate supports for the family lives of employees: A conceptual model for program planning and evaluation. Family Relations, 183-188.

Eichengreen, B., & Temin, P. (2000). The gold standard and the great depression. Contemporary European History, 9(2), 183-207.

Hansen, P. H. (2015). Hall of mirrors: the great depression, the great recession, and the uses—and Misuses—of History. Business History Review, 89(3), 557-569.

Jacobs, J. (2016). The death and life of great American cities. Vintage.

Koos, E. L. (1948). Middle-Class Family Crises. Marriage and Family Living, 10(2), 25-40.

Nardo, D. (2000). The Great Depression. Greenhaven Press.

Reardon, S. F. (2013). The widening income achievement gap. Educational Leadership, 70(8), 10-16.

Saint-Etienne, C. (2013). The Great Depression, 1929-1938: Lessons for the 1980’s. Hoover Press.

Silverstein, N., & Saunders, M. (2013). The Great Depression. Social Studies.

Schwarz, B. (2009). Life in (and after) our great recession. The Atlantic, 96.

Temin, P. (2016). Great Depression. In Banking Crises (pp. 144-153). Palgrave Macmillan UK.

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