The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is an economic disaster in America. Thousands of small businesses have been closed. It is estimated that 60% of them will never open again.
Unemployment jumped to 14.7% in April and has reduced very slowly. Workers, now unemployed (35 million lost their jobs) are missing rent and mortgage payments. Two families out of every five with children under 12 are in “food insecurity” – that is children are not getting enough to eat. Their families can’t afford it. Hunger in America has increased by 130% since 2018.
Hunger is nothing new in American history. The year was 1933. The country was the Great Depression: huge unemployment, soup lines, banking crisis, despair, doom and gloom.
Franklin Roosevelt had been elected president because, as he said, “lack of leadership in Washington has brought this country face to face with serious questions of unemployment and financial depression.” Many assumed he had more charm than backbone. He was inaugurated on March 4, 1933. Then he had a hot dog lunch at the White House then went to the inaugural parade and started his first 100 days on the job.
What was the Great Depression like? Here is a scene from "Hard Times, an Oral History of the Great Depression," by Studs Terkel. “This young woman had lost her husband, and, of course, he was owing to the bank. So, the auctioneers came out there, and she served lunch, and she stood weeping in the windows. There goes our last cow… and the horses. She called ‘em by names. It just pretty near broke our hearts. They didn’t give her a chance to take care of her bills. They never gave her an offer. They just came and cleared it out. She just stood there
So, if President Roosevelt ate hot dogs, what did the rest of America eat? Lewis Banks was a hobo, riding the rails. He was interviewed and said, “Black or white, it didn’t make any difference who you were, ‘cause everybody was poor. All friendly, sleeping in a jungle. We used to take a big pot and cook food, cabbage, meat, and beans all together.” They were all in the same stew it seems.
Emma Tiller said “When the hungry came to the door, and we would gather stuff out in the field, pull corn roasting ears. When they got hungry, they could stop and build a fire and roast the corn. And give them salt and stuff and we figured would last ‘em until he gets to the next place.”
Peggy Terry had read about all the cuff links President Roosevelt had. She said, “I’ll never forget, I was sitting on an old tire out on the front yard and we were poor and hungry. I was just sitting out in the hot sun and there weren’t any trees. And I was wondering why it is that one man can have all those cuff links and we can’t even have enough to eat. We lived on gravy and biscuits. That’s the first time I remember ever wondering why.”
“But if you lived in California, sometimes you could get a job on a Saturday shining shoes for 2₵ or 3₵ and after about three pairs of shoes, there was a diner in Brawley where you could get a hamburger for 7₵, but they didn’t serve Mexicans.”
Farmers couldn’t get a decent price for their produce. Corn and small grains were burned because they were cheaper than coal. But some farmers were able to live on their own production – the ones who had gardens, chickens and eggs.
Our current pandemic and recession will never reach the depths of the Great Depression although the daily news of layoffs and hunger are so depressing. But there it is, an American history of hot dogs, Mulligan’s stew with cabbage, roast corn, beans, gravy and biscuits, chickens and eggs, whatever was available.
But when the poor and hungry of the world are hungry and desperate for a place to go, they come to America if they can possibly get here. That’s why my family came. When folks in America are poor and hungry, they know there is no better place to go. They stay here and help one another out. We’ve made it through tougher times than this and will make it through this one. We are survivors.