The Great Depression: What Happened, What Caused It, and How It Ended

Why There Was Only One Great Depression

Image by Hugo Lin © The Balance 2019 

The Great Depression was a worldwide economic depression that lasted 10 years. It began on “Black Tuesday," October 29, 1929. Over the next two days, stock prices fell 25%. That crash initially cost investors $20 billion, the equivalent of $326 billion in 2022. Moreover, from 1929 to 1932 the U.S. GDP saw a dramatic decrease, going from $103.1 billion to $58.0 billion. In comparison, World War I cost the U.S. nearly $22 billion in financing and loans. That may have been a terrifying number to those living through the crash to face.

Key Takeaways

  • The Great Depression was a worldwide economic depression that lasted 10 years.
  • The depression was caused by the stock market crash of 1929 and the Fed’s reluctance to increase the money supply.
  • GDP during the Great Depression fell by half, limiting economic movement.
  • A combination of the New Deal and World War II lifted the U.S. out of the Depression.

Unemployment Reached 25%

The Great Depression affected all aspects of society. By its height in 1933, unemployment had risen from about 3% to nearly 25% of the nation’s workforce. Some workers that kept their jobs saw their wages fall, many others had to work lower paying jobs that they were often overqualified for. From 1929 to 1932 the U.S. gross domestic product was nearly cut in half, dramatically decreasing from $104.6 billion to $57.2 billion, partly to deflation. The Consumer Price Index fell 27% between November 1929 to March 1933, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Panicked government leaders passed the Smoot-Hawley tariff in 1930 to protect domestic industries and jobs, but it actually worsened the issue. World trade plummeted 66% as measured in U.S. dollars between 1929 and 1934.

The Depression’s pain was felt worldwide, leading to World War II. Germans were already burdened with financial reparations from World War I. That caused hyperinflation. This added to the pressures that ultimately led the German people to elect Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party to a majority in 1933.

Life During the Depression

The Depression caused many farmers to lose their farms. At the same time, years of over-cultivation and drought created the “Dust Bowl” in the Midwest, destroying agricultural production in a previously fertile region. Thousands of these farmers and other unemployed workers migrated to California in search of work.

Many ended up living as homeless “hobos.” Others moved to shantytowns called “Hoovervilles," named after then-President Herbert Hoover.

What Caused It

According to Ben Bernanke, a past chairman of the Federal Reserve, the central bank helped create the Depression. It used tight monetary policies when it should have done the opposite. According to Bernanke in 2004, these were the Fed's five critical mistakes:

  1. The Fed began raising the fed funds rate in the spring of 1928. It kept increasing it through a recession that started in August 1929. 
  2. When the stock market crashed, investors turned to the currency markets. At that time, the gold standard supported the value of the dollars held by the U.S. government. Speculators began trading in their dollars for gold in September 1931. That created a run on the dollar. 
  3. The Fed raised interest rates again to preserve the dollar's value. That further restricted the availability of money for businesses. More bankruptcies followed.
  4. The Fed did not increase the supply of money to combat deflation.
  5. Investors withdrew all their deposits from banks. The failure of the banks created more panic. The Fed ignored the banks' plight. This situation destroyed any of consumers’ remaining confidence in financial institutions. Most people withdrew their cash and put it under their mattresses. That further decreased the money supply.

The Fed did not put enough money in circulation to get the economy going again. Instead, the Fed allowed the total supply of U.S. dollars to fall by a third. Later research has supported parts of Bernanke's assessment.

What Ended the Great Depression

In 1932, the country elected Franklin D. Roosevelt as president. He promised to create federal government programs to end the Great Depression. Within 100 days, he signed the New Deal into law, creating 42 new agencies throughout its lifetime. They were designed to create jobs, allow unionization, and provide unemployment insurance. Many of these programs still exist. They aim to help safeguard the economy and prevent another depression.

New Deal programs include Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

Many argue that World War II, not the New Deal, ended the Depression. Still, others contend that if FDR had spent as much on the New Deal as he did during the War, it would have ended the Depression. In the nine years between the launch of the New Deal and the attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR increased the debt by $3 billion. In 1942, defense spending added $23 billion to the debt. In 1943, it added another $64 billion.

Reasons a Great Depression Could Not Happen Again

While anything is possible, it's unlikely to happen again. Central banks around the world, including the Federal Reserve, have learned from the past. There are better safeguards in place to protect against catastrophe, and developments in monetary policy help manage the economy. The Great Recession, for instance, had a significantly smaller impact.

But monetary policy can't offset fiscal policy. Some argue that the sizes of the U.S. national debt and the current account deficit could trigger an economic crisis. Experts also predict that climate change could cause profound losses.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

When did the Great Depression end?

Although the lowest economic point of the Depression came in 1933, the sluggish economy continued for much longer. The U.S. didn't fully recover from the Depression until World War II.

How many people died during the Great Depression?

It's difficult to analyze how many people died as a result of the Great Depression. According to a 2009 study, during the course of the crisis, life expectancy actually rose by 6.2 years. This is consistent with findings that economic expansion actually tends to have more adverse health effects on the population than a recession does. However, deaths from suicide increased by 22.8% between 1929 and 1932—an all-time high.

How did the Great Depression change the role of government in America?

The Great Depression and the subsequent New Deal had a significant impact on Americans' views of the role of the government, particularly at the federal level. Polls taken in the 1930s showed strong support for the New Deal and its major government programs, interventions, and regulations. This level of broad approval for federal interventions has not stayed as high since the Depression era, however.