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In 1929, the average unemployment rate in the U.S. hovered around 3.2%. In 1930, after an unprecedented stock market crash devastated the U.S. economy, the average unemployment was 8.9%. By 1932, when Bing Crosby's version of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" was released, the unemployment had soared well past double digits to 24.1%.
The height of the Great Depression had arrived, and unfortunately, it was still just the beginning.
"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" was composed for a 1931 Broadway musical called New Americana, and originally performed by a man playing the part of a sort of American "everyman." According to lyricist E.Y. "Yip" Harburg (who later penned "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"), the song was meant to capture the confused feeling of the times. "He's bewildered. Here is a man who had built his faith and hope in this country," he says of the character. "Then came the crash. Now he can't accept the fact that the bubble has burst. He still believes. He still has faith. He just doesn't understand what could have happened to make everything go so wrong." (Source)
While it certainly doesn't represent all the diverse experiences of Americans during the Great Depression, it makes sense that the character in "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" hit home for a lot of people. The economy of 1932 was in the midst of a downward spiral, and the costs came not just in numbers, but in real human suffering: joblessness, homelessness, starvation, and a loss of morale nationwide. People like the song's narrator who had put their whole lives into building a nation they truly believed in were left out in the cold, standing in bread lines or begging for relief. Those who had been well off before the economy fell apart felt shock, disillusionment, confusion, and sometimes anger.
The U.S. tended toward extremes during this period: fringe political movements like communism and socialism as well as fascism were viewed more sympathetically by a lot of Americans. Still, according to a Pew Center report released in 2010, the general public still had a relatively positive outlook during the Depression. In a 1936–1937 poll, "about half [of Americans] (50%) expected general business conditions to improve over the next six months, while only 29% expected a worsening. And fully 60% thought that opportunities for getting ahead were better (45%) or at least as good (15%) as in their father's day." (Source)
The American outlook seems to have changed quite drastically since then.
As we all know, in 2008 the U.S. was swept into an economic downturn that is widely viewed as the worst such crisis since the Great Depression. In late 2008, the collapse of the subprime mortgage market and subsequent bankruptcy of several of the country's biggest banks caused huge problems. Money stopped funneling into businesses and new projects as investors pulled out or froze their assets; people and businesses stopped borrowing money.
As a result, jobs disappeared overnight, sometimes in massive numbers. Naturally, the jobless stopped or slowed spending, causing the economy to choke up further. And hundreds of thousands of people lost homes as banks—who had given out faulty loans in the first place, due at least in part to the government encouraging lending to lower income people—foreclosed on them, sometimes doing so in violation of laws protecting homeowners.
In 2010, the Pew Center reported an overwhelmingly pessimistic view of the federal government and of the future from the majority of Americans. Pew found that "only 35% expected better economic conditions by October 2011, while 16% expected a still weaker economy." The U.S. in the new recession became a nation of pessimists. (Source)
Comparing the optimism of the 1930s with the pessimism of 2010 is somewhat shocking, given that even at the height of the more recent recession, unemployment never surpassed ten percent. In 1933, it was one in four, and at the time of the survey cited, it was still hovering around 17%. A full recovery didn't occur until after World War II, going on fifteen years after "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" came out.
The people who were pessimistic in 1932 or even 1936 were not exactly wrong in looking at it that way. But it appears that "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" is not so much a work of pessimism as an expression of disillusionment. The basic format is This is what I gave, and now this is what I get? But I deserve better! Help me out, man? A lot of people also seemed to think that, if they weren't doing so well, it was their own fault, not that of the system.
What made people feel so—relatively—fine about the future in the 1930s when the future was, in fact, so bleak for so many? The Pew Center report seems to offer one simple answer: faith in the federal government.
In 2010 midterm exit poll data, Pew said, "74% said they were either angry or dissatisfied with the federal government, and 73% disapproved of the job Congress is doing." (Source)
Contrast that with the mid-1930s, when despite the fact that FDR's New Deal did not actually end the Depression, 54% of Americans "expressed the opinion that if there were another depression (and fears of one were mounting), the government should follow the same spending pattern as FDR's administration had followed before." (Source)
The depression wasn't even over and the majority of people thought FDR had done a pretty good job ending it. That sort of support for a president is difficult to imagine these days. To be fair, though, the man was popular enough to be elected four times.
The point is, whether or not they should have had faith, they did. Like the narrator in "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?", it seems a majority of Americans felt confident that they could appeal to the federal government for assistance of some kind. In a way, this makes sense, because a vast majority of Americans polled also favored federal assistance for working people.
Surveys in 1936 and 1937 found broad support for programs like free medical care for the poor (76%), covering the costs of medical care for mothers at childbirth (74%), and giving out long-term, low-interest loans to poor farmers (73%). People also wanted the feds to be in charge of things: "a 46%-plurality favored concentration of power in the federal, rather than state government (34% favored the latter)." (Source)
New Deal programs in general, which included unprecedented increases in federal regulation and unprecedented spending for social welfare programs, enjoyed very broad support.
So, America was made up of a bunch of socialist liberals in the 1930s, right? Not exactly.
Survey results do show that Americans supported increased government regulation in many areas, and more than half thought that "wages paid to workers in industry are too low" and "big business profits are too high." A large minority (42%) supported the idea of government caps on private fortunes, a sort of "share the wealth" outlook that would be very unlikely to garner so much support today. On the other hand, though, a full 60% thought that sit-down strikes by unions should be illegal, and 52% thought that the militia should be called in on unruly strikers. There was also majority support for causes like deporting immigrants on relief, fingerprinting all Americans, limiting prisoner paroles, and the death penalty. (Source)
This was not an America full of socialists or of libertarians, but an America of contradictory political views and sometimes-extreme polarization.
Well, when you look at it that way, it sounds a whole lot like today's America.
The real difference between then and now? Well, Shmoopers, it seems like there are many, and we're still learning ourselves. The beauty of historical study is that we can keep on analyzing the data, and as history unfolds, the data keeps changing. One day we'll be able to look back at the recession of the late 2000s with a much clearer analytical lens and the results of exit polls and surveys like the ones the Pew Center looked at from the mid-1930s. We don't yet have the advantage of hindsight when we try to understand the more recent economic crisis.
For the moment, though, one theory we came up with is that today's unemployed and dispossessed don't have a Bing Crosby to sing their woes with mild-mannered optimism. What a hunk.