The Great Depression challenged American families in many ways with great psychological, financial, and social strain and demands on the members of those families. Families responded differently to these stressors depending on their class, race, ethnic, and regional backgrounds. At the start of the Great Depression the average family income dropped 40% from $2,300 to $1,500 and millions of American families lost all of their life savings. Working-class and middle-class where the most affected by the Great Depression and many families found themselves kicked out of their homes because they could not pay mortgage or rent.
The Great Depression caused financial turmoil all over the United States. The stress was too much for some families to handle however many families were living in a single-family house with three to four other families just to be able to make rent or mortgage payments. This allowed families to band together to bring in enough resources for their families and especially for their children. People had to work together in order to survive the Great Depression and one of the only ways to do this was to crowd into a home designed for one family of four. People helped each other out by trading food and clothing for other necessities and Americans realized that instead of submitting to the stress of the Great Depression, the only way they were going to survive was if they altered their lifestyle and lived more simply.
While Americans came together to help each other, many conflicts arose within a single family unit. Even though divorce rates declined during the Great Depression, it has been speculated that this was due to a family’s inability to pay fees for a lawyer. Men were seen as the breadwinners of the family although those that were unemployed or underemployed felt like a failure. Men could not provide for their families and in turn used their savings to manage the finances. Once their savings ran out, men were forced to apply for financial relief just to put clothes on their family’s back and food on the table. They began spending more time around the house, getting in the way of the wife’s household duties, and irritating their wives. Arguments were frequent and men began withdrawing from friends and family. Some men began drinking heavily, left for long trips looking for work in other cities, or abandoned their families all together. Relationships were destroyed and some got so bad to the point where they could not be rectified even after the Great Depression ended.
In addition to husband and wife conflict, many children went out to find penny jobs. More than 250,000 children hitchhiked or rode freight trains to find these jobs to help their families or to just seek out more favorable conditions for themselves. Between 1929 and 1931 the number of children taken out of their homes and put into custodial institutions showed a 50% increase due to malnutrition and not having appropriate clothing. When children were unsuccessful in finding refuge from financial deprivation, this is the route that typically resulted for these young men and women.
While families showed compassion for each other during the Great Depression through the sharing of shelter and resources, family discord within a single family unit spun out of control. Divorces could not occur due to not having money, husbands and wives could not resolve conflict, and many men escaped their problems and feelings of failure by withdrawing from their family, engaging in heavy drinking, or abandoning their families. Children were forced out of the home on their own recognizance to find work to help their families. Because they were suffering from malnutrition and poor clothing needs, children were forced into institutions. The Great Depression brought families together but broke immediate families apart and the memories of this time are still very present on the minds of those that went through this period of despair.