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The Great Depression

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The Great Depression was the worst economic decline ever in U.S. history. It began in late 1929 and lasted about a decade. Throughout the 1920's, many factors played a role in bringing about the depression; the main causes were the unequal distribution of wealth and extensive stock market speculation. Money was distributed unequally between the rich and the middle-class, between industry and agriculture within the United States, and between the U.S. and Europe. This disproportion of wealth created an unstable economy. Before the Great Depression, the "roaring twenties" was an era during which the United States prospered

tremendously. The nation's total income rose from $74.3 billion in 1923 to $89 billion in 1929. However, the rewards of the "Coolidge Prosperity" of the 1920's were not shared evenly among all Americans. In 1929, the top 0.1 percentage of Americans had a combined income

equal to the bottom 42%. That same top 0.1 percentage of Americans in 1929 controlled 34% of all savings, while 80% of Americans had no savings at all. Automotive industry tycoon Henry Ford provides an example of the unequal distribution of wealth between the rich and the

middle-class. Henry Ford reported a personal income of $14 million in the same year that the average personal income was $750. This poor distribution of income between the rich and the middle class grew throughout the 1920's. While the disposable income per capita rose 9%

from 1920 to 1929, those with income within the top 1-percentage enjoyed an extraordinary 75% increase in per capita disposable income. These market crashes, combined with the poor distribution of wealth, caused the American economy to overturn. Increased manufacturing output throughout this period created this large and growing gap between the rich and the working class. From 1923-1929, the average output per worker increased 32% in manufacturing.

During that same period of time average wages for manufacturing jobs increased only 8%. Thus, wages increased at a rate one fourth as fast as productivity increased. As production costs fell quickly, wages rose slowly, and prices remained constant, the bulk benefit of the

increased productivity went into corporate profits. In fact, from 1923-1929, corporate profits rose 62% and dividends rose 65%. The federal government also contributed to the growing gap between the rich and middle-class. Calvin Coolidge's administration (and the conservative-controlled government) favored business, and consequently those that

invested in these businesses. An example of legislation to this purpose is the Revenue Act of 1926, signed by President Coolidge on February 26, 1926, which reduced federal income and inheritance taxes dramatically. Andrew Mellon, Coolidge's Secretary of the Treasury, was

the main force behind these and other tax cuts throughout the 1920's. Even the Supreme Court played a role in expanding the gap between the social/economic classes. In the 1923 case Adkins v. Children's Hospital, the Supreme Court ruled minimum-wage legislation

unconstitutional. The large and growing disproportion of wealth between the well to do and the middle-income citizens made the U.S. economy unstable. For an economy to function properly, total demand must equal total supply. In an economy with such different

distribution of income, it is not assured that demand will equal supply. Essentially, what happened in the 1920's was that there was an oversupply of goods. It was not that the surplus products of industrialized society were not wanted, but rather that those whose

needs were not satisfied could not afford more, whereas the wealthy were contented by spending only a small portion of their income. Three quarters of the U.S. population would spend essentially all of their yearly incomes to purchase consumer goods such as food, clothes, radios, and cars. These were the poor and middle class: families with incomes

around, or usually less than, $2,500 a year. The bottom three quarters of the population had a collective income of less than 45% of the combined national income; the top 25% of the population took in more than 55% of the national income. Through this period, the U.S. relied upon two things in order for the economy to remain even: luxury spending, investment and credit sales. One solution to the problem of the vast majority of the population not having enough money to satisfy all their needs was to let those who wanted goods buy products on credit. The concept of buying now and paying later caught on quickly.

By the end of the 1920's, 60% of cars and 80% of radios were bought on installment credit. Between 1925 and 1929 the total amount of outstanding installment credit more than doubled from $1.38 billion to around $3 billion. Installment credit allowed one to "telescope the

future into the present", as the President's Committee on Social Trends noted. This strategy created artificial demand for products which people could not ordinarily afford. It put off the day of reckoning, but it made the downfall worse. By this telescoping, when the future

arrived, there was little to buy that had not already been bought. People could no longer use their regular wages to purchase whatever items they did not have yet, because so much of their wages went to paying back past purchases. The U.S. economy was also reliant upon

luxury spending and investment from the rich to stay afloat during the 1920's. The significant problem was based upon the wealthy's confidence in the U.S. economy. If conditions were to take a downturn (as they did when the market crashed in 1929), this spending and investment would slow to a halt. While savings and investment are

important for an economy to stay balanced, at excessive levels they are not good. Greater investment usually means greater productivity. However, since the rewards of the increased productivity were not being distributed equally, the problems of income distribution were

exacerbated. Poor distribution of wealth within our nation was not limited to only

social/economic classes, but to entire industries. In 1929, a mere 200 corporations controlled approximately half of all corporate wealth. While the automotive industry was thriving in the 1920's, some industries, agriculture in particular, were declining steadily. In 1921, the same year that Ford Motor Company reported record assets of more than $345 million, farm prices plummeted, and the price of food fell nearly 72% due to a huge surplus. While the average per capita income in 1929 was $750 a year for all Americans, the average annual income for someone working in agriculture was only $273. The prosperity of the 1920's was simply



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