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Disaster and Government Response

The Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the New Deal


Following the stock market crash in October 1929, the United States was thrown into an economic depression. During the more than 12 years that followed, many plans were developed to assist the economy as well as the plights of the people. President Herbert Hoover believed that minimal government intervention would allow for the country to overcome this “passing incident in our national lives.” His message of patience and self-determination did not bring relief to the economic crisis: about 25 percent of wage-earning workers (more than 15 million Americans) were unemployed in the early 1930s. In 1932, Americans elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt as president, and he pledged a different approach than Hoover. FDR intended to have the federal government intervene in unprecedented ways with a series of stimulus strategies heralded as “the New Deal.” For the rest of the decade, the Roosevelt Administration developed programs under the First New Deal (1933–34) and the Second New Deal (1935–38) and created a new role for government in American life. Today, the success of the programs started as part of the New Deal is still a hotly debated topic. It is not often credited with ending the Depression, but it did provide economic relief for millions of Americans. Today, many New Deal programs are still in place, such as:

  • Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC)
  • Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC)
  • Federal Housing Administration (FHA)
  • Social Security System
  • Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)

This period in American history provides an opportunity to compare the challenges facing the rural west with the challenges facing the urban east.

In 1936, the U.S. Department of Agriculture oversaw the newly formed Resettlement Administration and the beginning of the “Greenbelt Towns” project. New towns were seen as a solution to the urban blight brought on by the extensive unemployment in larger cities. Greenbelt towns were conceptualized to be constructed outside urban areas, but surrounded by parks and preserved land tracts. Some historians suggest that as many as 3,000 towns were envisioned. This was trimmed to studying 100 cities, and eventually narrowing to 25, and then to spaces near three urban centers: Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Washington, DC. The towns of Greendale, Wisconsin; Greenhills, Ohio; and Greenbelt, Maryland; were literally created out of nothing to provide affordable housing near schools and business. The intention was to relocate urban workers who were struggling during the Depression into these towns.

Also during the 1930s, at the same time as the Depression, the Great Plains region of the United States experienced an extended and destructive drought. The drought had a significant and destructive effect because of policies that reached back for decades. In 1862, the United States Congress passed the Homestead Act, and many Americans from the East moved into the plains to become farmers and ranchers. The farmers replaced the prairie grass with dry land wheat, and the ranchers had their cattle graze on the grass that was not replaced. Over time, with increasing demands for wheat, more farming occurred and damage to the prairie lands began to be long-term and significant. In 1930, a decade-long drought began, and the winds began to create dust storms on the farmed and overgrazed prairies. They literally began to be blown away. Some accounts and photographs record giant clouds of dust that would cover the sky and sun. This dust covered everything and reshaped the terrain. The “Dust Bowl” was a term referring to 19 states in the central and south-central United States that felt the brunt of the drought upon land that was mismanaged. Farm families had little choice other than to head west and try to find work. The same Resettlement Administration that was coordinating the Greenbelt Project and attempting to address rural poverty was also overseeing the farm workers and displaced sharecroppers who were forced to leave the stricken prairies of the Dust Bowl in search of work.

This historical era is commonly taught in high school social studies and history courses. The National Center for History in the Schools identifies this period in U.S. History as Era 8, Standard 1 (The causes of the Great Depression and how it affected American society) and Standard 2 (How the New Deal addressed the Great Depression, transformed American federalism, and initiated the welfare state). Related works of literature, such as The Grapes of Wrath and other texts, are sometimes used either in a social studies/U.S. history course, or in English language arts or American literature classes.

The photography of the Dust Bowl and Depression era is vast and rich, with images that were often commissioned by the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration (FSA). FSA Director Roy Stryker approved the commissioning and collecting of more than 270,000 photographs. It was a very specific and focused part of the FSA. FSA photographs “exploited the convention of the documentary style—such as black-and-white prints and uncontrolled lighting—that signified topicality, social concern and social truth” (Stange, 1992, p. 130). These photographs were commissioned from a large group of photographers who worked in rural and urban areas across the country, and were intended to provide the urban and suburban population of America with images that would evoke humanitarian responses to the plight of those facing adversity from the economic and environmental crises of the 1930s.

This photo collection is not intended to be comprehensive. Rather, it provides several specific photographs and ways to use them in the study of particular topics. This is meant to serve as a model for creating collections of photographs to use with your curriculum. Resources listed in the bibliography at the end of this collection will help you do this.

Grade Level

High School

Classroom Connections

Earth and Space Science
English Language Arts
U.S. History

Curriculum Snapshot

  • 1930s Dust Bowl and the Greenbelt Plan of Roosevelt’s New Deal

Video Connection



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