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The Great Depression, Relief Efforts

Reconstruction Finance Corporation, President Hoover, General Douglas MacArthur, Bonus Army, popular vote

Modest local welfare resources and charities barely made a dent in the misery. In African American communities, unemployment was disproportionately severe. In Chicago in 1931, 43.5 percent of black men and 58.5 percent of black women were out of work, compared with 29.7 percent of white men and 19.1 percent of white women. As jobs vanished in the Southwest, the federal government urged Mexican Americans to return to Mexico; some 300,000 left or were deported.

On some occasions, the depression called up a spirit of unity and cooperation. Families shared their resources with relatives, and voluntary agencies offered what aid they could. Invariably, the experience of living through the depression changed attitudes for life. “There was one major goal in my life,” one woman recalled, “and that was never to be poor again.”

President Hoover, known as a progressive and humanitarian, responded to the calamity with modest remedies. At first, he proposed voluntary agreements by businesses to maintain production and employment; he also started small public works programs. Hoover feared that if the government handed out welfare to people in need, it would weaken the moral fiber of America.

Hoover finally sponsored a measure to help businesses in the hope that benefits would “trickle down” to others. With his support, Congress created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in 1932 that gave generous loans to banks, insurance companies, and railroads. But the downward spiral of price decline and job loss continued. Hoover’s measures were too few, too limited, and too late.

Hoover’s reputation suffered further when war veterans marched on Washington to demand that Congress pay the bonuses it owed them. When legislators refused, much of the Bonus Army dispersed, but a segment camped out near the Capitol and refused to leave. Hoover ordered the army under General Douglas MacArthur to evict the marchers and burn their settlement. This harsh response to veterans injured Hoover in the landmark election of 1932, where he faced Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt was New York’s governor and a consummate politician. He defeated Hoover, winning 57 percent of the popular vote; the Democrats also took control of both houses of Congress. Voters gave Roosevelt a mandate for action.

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