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Rural America

Between 1931 and 1940, the nonfarm jobless rate never fell below 21%. In no year in the 1930s would the unemployment rate fall below 14% and the average for the decade as a whole was 17.1 %. A study commissioned by Harry Hopkins, who administered the Works Progress Administration, found that unemployment affected most heavily the young, elderly, least educated and rural Americans. Workers under the age of 20 or over 60 were twice as likely to be out of a job.

The time period from 1900 to 1910 is known as golden age of American agriculture. But farm mortgages doubled from 1910 to 1920 from $3.3 billion to $6.7 billion. In the 1920’s per capita farm income was one third the national average. After the Armistice in 1918, farm prices plummeted and for farmers the depression started with the end of the wartime boom in 1919.There was a steep decline in agricultural prices. For example, the price of cotton went from a war time high of 35 cents per pound to 16 cents in 1920. The agricultural depression was not a result of the 1929 crash, for on the farm the Great Depression was well into its second decade. In addition to declining crop prices, the causes of the farm problem also included:

  • Overproduction
  • Extremely high debt
  • Disappearing foreign markets
  • Changing domestic markets
  • Drought and floods

Rural poverty had been spreading and intensifying the entire decade of the 1920s. Many farmers had to sell their land. Sharecropping increased throughout the country, especially in the South. Over-farming led to erosion.

In 1930, 49% of all Americans lived in communities of less than 8,000 and 45% in rural areas of less than 2,500. Forty-seven percent or nearly 3 million farmers lived in poverty. Only one in ten farms had electricity.

In 1932, the annual net farm income dropped from $56.1 billion in 1929 to $2 billion. Wheat dropped to 23 cents a bushel, the lowest in 200 years. There were 533,000 more migrations to the countryside from urban areas than vice versa.

In 1933, the value of farm goods dropped 62% since the stock market crash to its lowest point in February. The value of farm property dropped from $57.7 million in 1929 to $36.3 million. Farm income was less than one third of the already depressed 1929 figure. Nearly 45% of farms were behind in their mortgages and faced foreclosure.

Poverty was more visible in cites, and the rural poor were often overlooked in the rustic beauty of the countryside. The most pressing problem was the plunge in living conditions among many farm families. Historically, rural poverty was a private matter. No programs existed for social welfare in rural areas. The need for relief and rehabilitation programs was looked upon with ambivalence and embarrassment.

Franklin Roosevelt had a strong affinity for farmers. While Governor of New York, he gave a speech in Indianapolis in June 1931 at the Annual Governors’ Conference entitled “Acres Fit and Unfit: State Planning of Land Use for Industry and Agriculture.” He believed that industrial recovery would depend on the revival of agricultural purchasing power and the nation’s prosperity rested on an agricultural base. He felt that what was good for the farmer was good for the country and that poor land created poor people. Roosevelt also believed that the quality of farm life was a key indicator of American character and crucial to recovery. He cherished the old agrarian conviction that rural life sustained both individual character and community.

In 1932 while campaigning for the presidency, Roosevelt reminded voters that New York was not just tall buildings but a farm state, first in the nation in income from dairy cows and hay, second in production of apples and grapes, and sixth in overall farm income. He even listed himself in Who’s Who as a tree farmer. He considered himself a sort of a gentleman farmer, harvesting trees and selling some at Christmas time. He started conservation efforts at Springwood, his home at Hyde Park, in 1910 and by his death in 1945 had overseen the planting of half a million trees on 556 acres.

In a 1936 campaign speech President Roosevelt praised “the American farmer, living on his own land” as “our ideal of self-reliance and of spiritual balance - the source from which the reservoirs of the Nation’s strength are constantly renewed.”

Last updated by mmwalter on 04/02/2013