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Children and the Youth in the Great Depression
The Great Depression was a period when Canada recorded very high numbers of unemployment reaching about 800,000 in the winter of 1932-1933. People suffered from unprecedented levels of poverty. People could no longer afford the things they used to. Families fell apart during this period. Others managed to stick together and because of the difficulty, they became stronger and more united. There is no category of people that did not suffer. Factory workers were worried by their over production. Farmers saw prices of their commodities plummet some below the cost of seeds. “The agricultural disaster that gripped the Canadian Prairies in the 1930s was a consequence of a dramatic fall in the global price of staple commodities such as wheat in the early years of the Great Depression. The situation in the country was dire. In every five people, one fully relied on the government’s relief to survive. With everyone worried about what the future would bring, children and the youth who are thought to be the future were affected tremendously. They were denied the joy and freedom of being children. There were little if any resources to buy gifts or pamper children. Due to the unprofitability in the farms, many employees quit and left for towns and cities. The farmers were left in need of cheap labor with many children finding themselves working in the farms. Funding schools also became a challenge with children in schools under deplorable condition. Due to the difficulties experienced during this time, children and the youth were taught to be responsible from an early age. This paper focuses on the plight and boon of the Great Depression among children and the youth.
It is believed that education holds the key to a bright future. As a result, parents want to not only take their children to school, but to the best school possible. During the Depression, schools were extensively affected. School budgets were cut nationally. With a reduced budget, many schools lacked basic necessities such as electricity and running water. The use of outdoor pumps to provide water to schools became common in this period. Schools suffered and new ways of surviving had to be improvised. This led to districts consolidating with nearby schools. Plans for new constructions were halted and class sizes increased. The condition in schools was not what many parents would wish their children to be subjected to but parents were helpless. The quality of education was low. Many students dropped out of schools as the conditions continued being deplorable. Some dropped out of school from embarrassment as their clothes became extremely worn out with others being over stitched. According to Axelrod, however, university students were able to persevere the harsh conditions of the Great Depression era unlike those in lower education levels.
The economy in the country hit its lowest during The Great Depression. “In Ontario, between 1929 and 1932, overall employment fell by 32 percent.” Very few companies were hiring as many others closed down. In majority of companies, salaries plummeted to worrying levels for the employees. The low salaries discouraged people from finding employment. At home, it was rare to find both parents employed. This made families increasingly become poor. When putting food on the table for some families became a challenge, children started being involved. They were encouraged to go line up in restaurants. Breadlines became popular during the Depression with many children subjected to the struggle of waiting in the queue for relief food. A family with more kids were luckier seeing that each children would bring their portion back home. Queuing for food was dangerous for children especially when a stampede occurred as people rushed to be served fearing that the food could be finished. Children had to persevere this because going home without having eaten themselves would mean no food that day. They would also meet angry parents thus they did everything possible to avoid such a situation.
Families during the Depression increasingly relied on relief. Without this this intervention, many would have starved to death. The government strained in catering for the people. To this end, it came up with policies that would help it cope with the menace. One of the ways used by the government was to cut to the relief a family got once a child reached 16 years. Because of the hardships that the family went through due to the reduced relief, many young men left home. They felt they were burdening their families. Young men at an early age of 16 started to feel the need to control their environment. Many were forced to start selling newspapers. Other became shoe shiners just to feed themselves and when possible, help their families. Some of the youth who left home did so with the blessings of their parents. Others, however, ran away at night after getting tired with the boring life back at home. Those who did not vend newspapers nor shine shoes for others, went to new cities using boxcars and sections of trains. Life was tough because if they were caught during the ride to in the boxcars or train sections, some would be punished through community service. Boys were found it tougher seeing that people were more lenient on the girls.
A life of poverty that was extremely boring for the youth was a new thing never witnessed before. It is this life that made them escape home in search of adventure. During the Depression, the youths suffered both physically and mentally. They suffered from malnutrition. Finding food was extremely difficult especially for those who ran away from home. To eat, they had to work something they were not used to. Many would suffer from mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. Life had changed dramatically. From a state of plenty to languishing in abject poverty. This change was too much for many. The youths lived in fear not knowing what to expect next. They knew that life would change in a split of a second just as it had done. The problem was that they did not know whether to be hopeful or expect the worst. This state of confusion made filled many with anxiety while many others were depressed.
The Great Depression was a bad time for young people. Youth and children lookup to their elders for guidance. During the Depression, few people knew what was going on thus no one could explain to the young people exactly what was going on. Many adults suffered from depression and anxiety for failing to provide for their children. At their mental state, they could not give advice to the youth nor the children. The youth lacked mentors. Their goals in life plummeted from very ambitious ones to the ability to provide a better life than their parents. Dreams were crushed with many of them having left school to earn some money to supplement what the family was making.
Many people died. Children were orphaned at a very young age. Such children experienced very difficult time. Because the city was difficult for such children, they were taken to the prairies where they would help farmers. Child labor was in high demand seeing that they would not demand a lot of money. At the farm, children were overworked with extremely low pay. The conditions were also extreme and hard to bear with. The farms saw poor harvest due to drought that had rocked the prairies. According to Marchildon, “Without rain, southern Prairie farmers faced continuous crop failures. Governments distributed relief vouchers for food, fuel, and seed to desperate farm families.” The wind also contributed to low harvest. Because of this, some children were paid with food and shelter.
Not everything about the Great Depression was negative. Youth and children of this era benefitted from the hard times. The pre and post-Depression children were brought up in an environment that had plenty. There were plenty of resources and many jobs. They went to good schools with had the needed infrastructure and enough teachers. The available jobs for the youth were easy and paid well. Families had enough so youth and children did not need to work to sustain themselves nor their families. As a result, pre and post-Depression youth and children were less industrious. The Depression youth and children leant to depend on themselves at a very young age. Their families dependent on them as if they were adults. Young children grew without the joy of being children. “Because so many people, particularly in the working class, faced extreme financial restrictions in the 1930s, the games were caught in a time warp.” There was no enough money to spend on toys. Children learnt to make their own toys from waste materials such as cans, bottles, and cartons. This experience made the children super creative. Youths became hardened such that they could do anything to anything to make ends meet. This attitude later helped them in later stages of life. After the Depression, some of the youths were adults already. Having dropped out of school, it is the never quit and never choose attitude that helped them survive.
The children and youth of the Depression also learnt a very important lesson. They learnt the importance of family. People survived because families came together. People helped in all ways humanly possible. This included children having to drop out of school help raise funds for the family upkeep. The over 70,000 young men who travelled like hoboes to seek adventure and a better life learnt the importance of family the hard way. They went through difficult times and had no one to help them when things got extremely challenging. Seeing some of their friends dying from malnutrition or other forms of diseases made them appreciate the importance of family. As a result, the way the Depression youth and children brought up their families was unique from other generations. Their families were more cohesive working together for the good of the entire family. They never wanted their children to go through what they had gone through. As a result, they ensured that nothing came between their children and education.
As adults, youth and children of the Great Depression era developed a habit of saving money and other resources from the fear that a similar phenomenon may occur in the future. The saving would cushion them from such calamities and ensure that their children do not suffer as they had. The youth and children of the Depression era grew up seeing hot tempered parents with a hostile nature who spent most of the day rioting. This character portrayed by the parents were the results of depression and anxiety caused by the challenges of the time. Having gone through this, they would not want their children to remember them in that manner. As a result, they did everything possible as parents to portray an even temper and a pleasant nature to their children and everyone else around them.
The Great Depression was a terrible phenomenon that changed the perspective many had about life. It came as a surprise and left many devastating effects in the country and globally. While almost every section of the society was affected, some groups were affected more than others. Farmers in the prairies, immigrants, single men, and children and youth in the country. Children and youth considering their age and interpretation of things were most affected. Their education was interrupted with many opting to drop out so as to help their family raise enough funds to support paying the bills. Many children and youth died from malnutrition and other diseases. Orphans and other children were taken to the prairies to help farmers. They were the best option seeing that farmers were experiencing huge losses and, therefore, did not have enough revenue to pay the standard salaries that existed before the Depression. Despite The Great Depression having devastating effects, there were some positives that were derived from it by children and youth of the day. Children and youth learnt to be responsible very early in their life. This helped them in their adult life. Due to lack of enough money to spend on toys, children learnt to invent their own toys and this helped them become very creative. As adults, the Great Depression children kept their family close knowing what it means not to have people to call family.
- Axelrod, Paul. Making a Middle Class: Student Life in English Canada During the Thirties. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press – MQUP, 1990.
- Berton, Pierre. The Great Depression: 1929-1939. Anchor Canada, 2012.
- Brown, Lorne. When freedom was lost: the unemployed, the agitator, and the state. Black Rose Books, 1987.
- Christou, Theodore Michael. 2013. “‘Schools Are No Longer Merely Educational Institutions’: The Rhetoric of Social Efficiency in Ontario Education, 1931–1935.” History of Education 42 (5): 566–77.
- Jamieson, Marion. 2000. “Feeding the Depression Poor.” Maclean’s 112 (52): 133
- Leyshon, Glynn A. 1999. “The Art of Play.” Beaver 79 (4): 32.
- MacDowell, Laurel Sefton. 1995. “Relief Camp Workers in Ontario during the Great Depression of the 1930s.” Canadian Historical Review 76 (2): 205.
- Manley, John. 1998. “`Starve, Be Damned!’ Communists and Canada’s Urban Employment, 1929-39.” Canadian Historical Review 79 (3): 466
- Marchildon, Gregory P. 2009. “The Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration: Climate Crisis and Federal–Provincial Relations during the Great Depression.” Canadian Historical Review 90 (2): 275–301.
- Struthers, James. No fault of their own: unemployment and the Canadian welfare state, 1914-1941. 1983.
John, Manley. 1998. “`Starve, Be Damned!’ Communists and Canada’s Urban Employment, 1929-39.” Canadian Historical Review 79 (3): 466
Gregory, Marchildon P. 2009. “The Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration: Climate Crisis and Federal–Provincial Relations during the Great Depression.” Canadian Historical Review 90 (2): 282
 Michael Theodore Christou. 2013. “‘Schools Are No Longer Merely Educational Institutions’: The Rhetoric of Social Efficiency in Ontario Education, 1931–1935.” History of Education 42 (5): 568.
Axelrod, Paul Making a Middle Class: Student Life in English Canada During the Thirties (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press – MQUP, 1990),16
 Sefton, Laurel MacDowell. 1995. “Relief Camp Workers in Ontario during the Great Depression of the 1930s.” Canadian Historical Review 76 (2): 205.
 Ibid, 209
Axelrod Paul, Making a Middle Class, 17.
Sefton, Laurel MacDowell. 1995. “Relief Camp Workers in Ontario during the Great Depression of the 1930s.” 209.
 Sefton, Laurel MacDowell. 1995. “Relief Camp Workers in Ontario during the Great Depression of the 1930s.” Canadian Historical Review 76 (2): 209
Gregory, Marchildon P. 2009. “The Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, 281.
 Glynn Leyshon, A. 1999. “The Art of Play.” Beaver 79 (4): 32.
 Lorne Brown, When freedom was lost: the unemployed, the agitator, and the state (Black Rose Books, 1987)
 Pierre Berton, The Great Depression: 1929-1939 (Anchor Canada, 2012)
 James Struthers, No fault of their own: unemployment and the Canadian welfare state, 1914-1941 (1983)
 Marchildon, Gregory P. 2009. “The Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration: 300.
 Glynn, Leyshon A. 1999. “The Art of Play.” Beaver 79 (4): 32.
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