The Great Recession: A Hidden Depression?

The story of the Great Depression is often told in pictures: while few people recognize the names "Smoot-Hawley" or "Schechter Poultry," photographs of bank runs and bread lines continue to pack a punch, almost 80 years after they were first snapped. But the Great Depression's position as our absolute standard for economic disaster carries an unintended consequence: The power of its images seem to overwhelm -- and minimize -- the economic troubles of our own time. After all, if it doesn't look like a Depression, how tough could things be?The problem is that Walker Evans' and Dorothea Lange's famous images of the Great Depression don't just document an economic meltdown but they also chronicle a whole world that no longer exists. In 1929, the first credit card was still 21 years in the future, and computers were largely theoretical. When people wanted money, they stood in line at the bank, and when they wanted to apply for a job, they stood in line at an employment agency. Online job applications, debit-card food stamp programs and wasted suburban neighborhoods were the stuff of science fiction.

With millions of Americans losing homes, searching for jobs and making do with less, it seems that our visual language of need is due for a major update. As the photo gallery below demonstrates, the face of 21st century economic suffering is every bit as powerful and eloquent as images of the Great Depression. Perhaps more important, it is familiar -- and growing more so by the day.


The gap between historical and contemporary images is particularly obvious when it comes to foreclosure. In 1930, when almost one in four Americans worked on a farm, the loss of property was largely a rural problem. As the Depression sent food prices plummeting, agricultural profits went into a tailspin. Many farmers had taken out loans in the freewheeling 1920's, so dropping revenues meant that they were unable to pay their mortgages. Between 1930 and 1935, an estimated 750,000 farmers lost their homes. Combined with the dust bowl environment of the early 1930's, this led to a mass migration out of the South and Midwest. Today, this history survives in iconic images of migrant worker camps, rural auctions, and caravans of pickup trucks.

Today, only about 2% of Americans work on farms and about half of the population goes home to the suburbs every night. The contemporary image of housing misery is not a crowded farm auction, but rather a trickle of moving vans, a cluster of "for sale" signs, and a smattering of plywood-clad windows. While these images tell a story, they lack an obvious connection to specific human suffering.

While Depression-era foreclosure pictures are generally full of people either moving out or buying their neighbors' possessions, today's pictures often lack any impression of human impact. Yet the recession has had a huge toll on homeowners: in the third quarter of 2009, one in 136 homes was in foreclosure; according to analysts, this was the worst such quarter in American history, and it followed on the heels of 1.5 million foreclosures in the first six months of 2009. Admittedly, a larger percentage of homes were in foreclosure during the Great Depression, but in terms of overall numbers, the Great Recession has long since dwarfed its predecessor. By the end of 2009, foreclosures had topped 4 million and 14% of homeowners with mortgages were either in foreclosure or behind on payments.


The visual record of the 1930's is peppered with long caravans of Okies, migrant camps, and sprawling Hoovervilles, but today's economic casualties are a lot harder to identify. While small tent cities and shantytowns have sprung up around the country, for many of the dispossessed, the recession has meant moving from a foreclosure to a rental or from a rental to a shelter. Although devastating, a photo of a few tents clustered together near an overpass or a station wagon packed with all of someone's worldly possessions lack the emotional impact of a homeless city or a sprawling migrant camp.

Still, America's current homeless problem rivals that of the 1930's. Historians have estimated that 2 million Americans -- roughly 1.6% of the total population -- were homeless during the Great Depression. Today, an estimated 3.5 million -- 1.2% of the total population -- spend some time on the streets in a given year. While today's homeless population is a slightly smaller percentage than that of the 1930's, the similarity of the numbers is shocking.

Another factor in the hidden face of homelessness may be its increasing youth: according to one study, roughly 2% of all children are homeless in a given year; another study estimated that roughly 39% of all homeless people are children. In Oregon, for example, an estimated 18,000 schoolchildren are homeless. Worse yet, these numbers might be conservative: for homeless children, identification can mean placement in a foster home or return to an abusive household, so many kids desperately avoid detection.

The Search for Bread and Jobs

Many of the most powerful Great Depression images feature lines. Between lines for bread, lines for food, and lines for jobs, historical photographs often make it look like the entire country spent the decade between 1930 and 1940 waiting on line. While visually brutal, these images suggest a society in which hunger, poverty, and need were hard to ignore.

Eighty years later, it is often harder to tell who is treading water and who is drowning. With social security checks direct deposited into bank accounts, job hunts moved to the virtual precincts of Craigslist, and food stamps offered on convenient, debit-style cards, it is possible to remain completely ignorant of the Great Recession's victims. As suburban streets fill with foreclosure signs and we watch our own worst-case scenarios come closer, it can be easy to forget about the neighbors who have moved away. And, in other areas, the influx of strangers means that concern for one's new neighbors becomes a rarity.

While the tentative economic growth of the last quarter offers some the hope of light at the end of the recessionary tunnel, the 10% unemployment rate and growing foreclosures suggest that the economic miseries of the last two years are far from over. With the economic outlook forecasting more dark days ahead, particularly for the unemployed, it may be time to radically reconsider our idea of what poverty looks like. Although economic disaster in 2009 has become harder to identify than it was in 1935, it is every bit as devastating -- and almost as common.
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