Today’s soaring unemployment, small business failures, and uncertainty about the future are like nothing most of us have seen in our lifetimes. If there’s any useful historical parallel, it might be the Great Depression.
Like the coronavirus-driven economic crash, the Depression devastated a nation where things were already awful for a lot of people. In the 1920s, business owners pretty much did whatever they wanted. The rich got obscenely richer. Progressive, pro-worker policies had little place in national politics. The crisis changed everything. By the end of the 1930s, the country’s unions were stronger than they’d ever been and Congress had passed huge, unprecedented economic policies. The notion that the federal government didn’t have a central place in securing middle-class wellbeing was relegated to the political fringes. But how, exactly did that transformation happen? How did the economic suffering of the 1930s birth a new political and economic era?
“People often look at the Great Depression [and think], ‘Oh, it’s obvious that shattered everything and something new had to happen,’” Elisabeth Clemens, a sociologist at the University of Chicago who studies social movements, told me over the phone. “That overlooks all the work that had to be done to convince people that there actually was a crisis.”
In a 2015 paper for Social Science History, Clemens noted that many regular people were suffering depression-like conditions well before the stock market crash of 1929. Drought devastated small farmers. Urban workers faced frequent bouts of unemployment with inadequate help from municipal relief agencies and private charity. After the crash, it wasn’t at all obvious how much worse things would get—or how much the wealthy and powerful should care. Unemployment didn’t hit its high point, 24.9 percent, until 1933. Clemens writes that President Herbert Hoover responded to the crisis with the tools at his disposal—largely rallying private and local response efforts—and that it was not immediately clear that it wouldn’t be enough.
This spring’s plunge in employment has been a different story. Unlike the long stretch of droughts that gradually led to the ruined farms of the Dust Bowl, the coronavirus hit fast and hard. By mid-April, the official unemployment rate was already over 14 percent—and that’s probably an underestimate. Rather than a financial crash, the job losses today reflect deliberate choices by individuals, business, and governments to dial down commercial activity. But the results look remarkably similar: shuttered businesses, families too worried about the future to make big purchases, long lines at food banks. Clemens said that there are also parallel questions now about whether the situation demands a version of conventional political responses or something genuinely new.
“There’s going to be an ongoing struggle over how to just describe what we’re going through,” she said. “The stakes in the characterization of the crisis are really high.”