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Derisively named after President Herbert Hoover, “Hoovervilles” were makeshift camps that sprang up in the early years of the Great Depression. Often located near the edges of cities and towns, Hoovervilles—temporary gathering places where the newly homeless congregated—poignantly illustrated the economic and social effects of the stock market crash in October 1929.
The Great Depression affected more than America’s economic system. Although the stock market crash caused the widespread panic that forced many banks and businesses to close, the 1920s had not been as prosperous as optimistic investors and politicians such as Hoover thought. Farmers and the rural poor were especially affected; overproduction in the 1910s had led to low prices for agricultural produce in the 1920s. However, most middle-class Americans enjoyed a real advance in the material standard of living in the 1920s; mass production and successful advertising led to the rise of a modern consumer culture. Consequently, the middle class began to expect a high standard of living, and people were very optimistic about the economy. In the 1920s many Americans began investing in the stock market, artificially stimulating both stock prices and optimism about the economy.
However, Americans’ faith was unfounded. In late October 1929 it became clear that the stock market was artificially high, and a correction—a sharp fall in prices—was imminent. Because so few middle-class Americans, banks, and businesses were prepared for the sudden drop of the stock market, the correction—a normal occurrence that did not have to set off a decade-long depression—created widespread panic. In the last months of 1929 and through the early 1930s, many businesses went bankrupt or laid off substantial numbers of workers, leading to mass unemployment. Losing one’s job often led to the loss of one’s home, and homelessness sharply increased. The newly homeless had nowhere to go and no jobs, so they congregated in shantytowns, which they termed “Hoovervilles” after the President.
The Great Depression destroyed Herbert Hoover’s reputation. A self-made businessman and engineer born in small-town Iowa, Hoover epitomized the American Dream. Prior to the Depression, Hoover’s optimism was an asset. But his faith that the economy would correct itself and his belief that the government should remain aloof—except for moderate programs such as the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) to help businesses get back to normal—alienated those Americans who lost their jobs and homes. Consequently, they blamed Hoover for their plight, even though he was not personally to blame.
The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president in 1932 significantly changed the nation’s attitude. Roosevelt’s engaging personality and willingness to involve the federal government directly in work relief convinced many Americans that the government cared. Real changes were few, however, despite Roosevelt’s New Deal. Although programs such as the Works Project Administration (WPA) provided work and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) provided low-cost housing loans, homelessness remained a serious problem throughout the 1930s, declining only with the end of the Great Depression in the early 1940s, when World War II began.
- Link, Arthur S., and William B. Catton, American Epoch: A History of the United States since 1900, Volume II 1921-1945, 4th ed. (New York: Alfred E. Knopf, 1973);
- Patterson, James T., America’s Struggle against Poverty in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).
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