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What Were the Effects on the Children of the Great Depression?

By Patti Kate
Updated May 17, 2024
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The primary effects for children of the American Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s were hard labor, malnutrition and hunger, and displacement. Many young people also developed emotional and psychological problems as a result of living in constant uncertainty and of seeing their families in hardship. The difficult working conditions of this period meant that many children were orphaned, too, and orphans were often left to fend for themselves, even at very young ages. Many of the children who survived this period grew into very frugal adults who placed a profound emphasis on saving and education, as if to keep the experiences of their growing-up years from repeating.

Child Labor

Desolate families often had no choice but to put their children to work to help earn money. Sometimes kids accompanied their parents peddling goods or tending fields, but other times they worked more or less independently, doing manual labor and working long, grueling hours. In most cases children were pulled out of school, often at the elementary level, in order to help their families get by. The United States today has rather rigorous laws preventing child labor and requiring education up to a certain point, but these laws did not exist at the time of the Depression. In many cases the young people who left school to work never went back, even after the economy stabilized.

Hunger and Malnutrition

Many children of the Great Depression were malnourished and ill. Food was sparse, and the things that were available often lacked the protein, vitamins, and minerals that growing children need to thrive. Almost all laborers in this period went to bed hungry, though the impacts were perhaps the harshest for the very young, whose growth and development in many ways depends on solid nutrition.

The infant mortality rate was also very high, due in part to poor maternal health and nutrition and in part to the lack of proper medical care. Few families could afford to see doctors or other medical professionals, which meant that they more or less cared for themselves — but with basically no resources. Lack of dental care caused many to suffer from tooth decay and periodontal disease at a young age, as well.

Displacement and Isolation

Rather than watch their children starve, many families elected to send children to various relatives or friends in other places. Sometimes this was done out of a hope of a better existence, but in many cases it was simply to have one less mouth to feed. Children who were displaced or sent away from their parents and siblings often felt profoundly isolated, and many did not understand why they could not remain at home. This was particularly true when some, but not all, children were relocated. Those forced to leave often resented those who were allowed to stay, particularly if they perceived their new circumstances to be harsher.

Special Concerns for Orphans

During the Great Depression, many children were left orphaned as their parents succumbed to illness, died of injuries sustained at the workplace, or starved. This led to what later became known as the plight of the Orphan Train children. A number of labor organizers made it a practice to essentially round up orphans who were otherwise destitute and fending for themselves, then move them to rural farm areas where they were forced to do rigorous farm work in exchange for room and board. Most of these arrangements were passed off as voluntary, but the children involved rarely had all of the information before agreeing to go and in most cases they worked essentially as indentured servants. They received no pay for their work, and many who tried to leave were told that they had to work longer to pay off the debt the landowners had incurred to pay for their shelter.

Orphaned children who endured these living circumstances for long stretches often found themselves in desperate situations as they grew into adulthood. Some went on to lead happy and prosperous lives, but many also ran away from their labor farms as they approached their teenage years only to become involved in criminal activities. Some resorted to armed robbery and prostitution, while others spent years imprisoned for committing felonies.

Emotional and Psychological Scars

Other elements that affected children of the Great Depression were fear and psychological depression. As the relentless pressure of work with little reward continued, many saw little hope at home. In many cases, these emotional tolls lasted well into adulthood. Some children who were exhausted from their daily routine of laborious work ran away and hopped aboard railroad trains and boxcars, and a number died in accidents as a result or else ended up on orphan labor farms when they hit a point of desperation along their trek.

Lasting Consequences

Most of the children who survived the Depression years carried the scars of the era well into adulthood, and many even to death. These people tend to be very frugal, and often focus intently on saving. Many have a hard time throwing almost anything away, possibly out of fear that it may one day become useful or direly needed. It is also common for many to put a big focus on education, especially when it comes to university training.

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Discussion Comments
By CelesteEric5 — On Apr 15, 2014

My friend Celeste and her husband Eric were children during the Great Depression and their story touched my heart. Celeste and Eric first met behind a dumpster in New York City. They were both looking for useful leftovers to help their families. Times were very rough back then, but falling in love with each other made their difficult lives 100 times easier. Now they're happily married and have eight kids together. The story will be passed to their kids and so on.

By bben — On Nov 14, 2013

My mother was a child during the depression and I am in the process of posting her childhood story from birth to 13 years old, when World War II began and the Great Depression began to recede on my blog. This article helps me understand some of the comments she has made:

They were happy and safe because they had their good mother and father with them. She must have seen that some children became orphaned.

That the children were "partners" with their mother in their door to door sales business. She does not view it as child labor like we would.

By anon343759 — On Aug 02, 2013

My mother was a child of the Great Depression and her final words to me were, "Don't throw anything away!" She died in 2010 and every time I start to throw something away I see her saying this. She was so right about so many things and had I listened to her I would be in much better shape to face the next depression.

By anon321138 — On Feb 21, 2013

@Bhutan: I have to agree with what you are saying. You have the best answer here. Thank you for your information.

By anon252883 — On Mar 07, 2012

They really had it hard back then I really appreciate what I have now today.

By Sunny27 — On Apr 22, 2011

@Latte31 - That is a good point. I know that a friend of mine whose parents were children during the Great Depression wanted him to go to college more than anything.

They saw the college degree as something that offered a little security and would make it easier for someone to find a job in tough times. I know that life in the Great Depression was grim, but at least it provided valuable lessons for those children of the Great Depression and allowed them to overcompensate for their future which is not a bad thing.

By latte31 — On Apr 19, 2011

@Bhutan - I think you are right. I also think that children of the Great Depression probably set aside more money as adults than the average American because they never want to have what happened to them during the Great Depression in 1929 happen again.

Extra savings are seen as security which is something that people didn’t have during the Great Depression. I also think the Great Depression affects the spending and debt level of these children from the Depression. Most probably kept their spend habits modest so that they wwould not accumulate excessive debt and make themselves vulnerable again.

By Bhutan — On Apr 18, 2011

Wow, that is so sad. I know that life in the Great Depression was difficult for children and many families that had homes were forced to rent out rooms in their homes in order to help pay the bills. So many children had to give up their rooms and live with people that they did not know.

I think that children that grew up in the Great Depression develop such an appreciation for the value of a dollar that most do not waste anything. I think the mentality where you have to eat everything off your plate probably stems from this because it was unimaginable to waste anything during the Great Depression.

The other thing that I wanted to add is that children of the Great Depression are probably more resourceful than children that have grown up in other eras because they had find ways to make money for the family. The children of the Great Depression are probably the best equipped to handle any type of economic crisis.

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