Sample Research Paper: The Effect of the Great Depression on Mechanized Transportation

Research Paper History
Apr 17, 2022

The purpose of a research paper is to advance a thesis using credible information from reliable scholarly sources . The aim varies. Whereas some seek to merely inform, others seek to argue a specific point. The common element is the use of facts, evidence, analysis, and logic. This sample research paper provides an overview of the impact the Great Depression had on mechanized transportation.

The 1920s are known as the Roaring Twenties for a good reason. This was a time of not only great material prosperity but also profound transformation in American culture. The United States’ participation in the First World War , in particular, had a lasting impact on the American economy and collective psyche. American industries grew and expanded, society’s norms changed, and the arts flourished in new and exciting ways. Indeed, the spirit of the time was immortalized by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his masterpiece The Great Gatsby . The abundance of wealth and excitement that characterized the 1920s, however, was not to last beyond the decade. By 1929, the United States and later on the rest of the world would go through one of the roughest periods in modern history, a period now known as the Great Depression. The loss and poverty that defined this era affected many aspects of American life. The consequences were both tangible, such as the sharp reduction of material wealth and the proliferation of hunger and deprivation, and intangible, such as the changes in outlook and policy. Like many other sectors, mechanized transportation was also severely affected, causing massive layoffs as well as loss of revenue that ultimately resulted in the suffering of common workers and their families.

Prelude to the Crash of 1929

Not many people in the 1920s were able to foresee the economic crisis that was to come, which is quite understandable given the prosperity Americans were enjoying in those years. It seemed like wealth was free-flowing, at least for the upper classes. In his speech at the Republican National Convention in 1928, then United States Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who was running for president at the time, remarked upon the incredible wealth the United States had been enjoying. He began by stating that it had always been the dream of society to end poverty. He then praised how America was on the brink of triumphing over impoverishment (Jeansonne, 2016)). Herbert won the presidency and for the next few months, it seemed that his vision was on its way to realization. People were still experiencing economic gains, and it seemed like the incoming decade was equally promising. This assumption by Americans, however, could not be further from the truth. Already there were prevailing conditions in the United States that would eventually contribute to the adverse effects of the Great Depression.

While Hoover’s speech speaks of a society on the eve of completely eradicating poverty, the truth is far from this lofty description. Indeed, the 1920s was a time of great wealth, but this wealth was not distributed equally. Instead, the gap between the rich and the poor was staggeringly wide. The majority of the American population was receiving low wages. According to statistical data at the time, the unemployed in the US numbered between 4 million and 5.8 million in 1929. Meanwhile, around 60% of Americans received an annual income of $2,000 or less. By contrast, only around 8.2% made $5,000 a year or more. Also, as many as 6 million families relied on an annual income of just $1,000 or less (Parker, 2003). Already, there was a great divide in wealth among Americans. Far too many families were earning low wages, and these were the same sectors that would bear the brunt of the economic crisis. Families that earned lower incomes had fewer safety nets. They also had less access to opportunities that could help them weather the effects of economic downturns. And worse of all, as the frontline workers in various industries including the mechanized transportation sector, they were the first to suffer once the Great Depression came.

The Mechanized Transportation Industry

When the Great Depression arrived following the Crash of 1929, the workers on the ground were the very first to endure its effects. This makes sense since officers at the top who earned far more than the workers below were also the ones who had the power to decide the fate of the said workers. Hence, as companies left and right downsized or shut down, the low-income laborers were the first to go. This pattern was the same for the mechanized transportation industry. For instance, a Willys plant in Toledo, Ohio started in 1930 with around 28,000 workers. This number was reduced to just 4,000 by the end of the same year. In Detroit, Michigan, a Ford plant that employed 128,000 workers laid off 28,000 the same year. This represented a 21% reduction in its staff and personnel (Heitmann, 2018). The downsizing, as noted earlier, affected the workers first, since they were on the frontlines of the industry and therefore the most vulnerable.

Apart from massive layoffs, revenue also went down due to the disruption of supply and demand . Between 1929 and 1932, sales of brand new cars and other vehicles shrunk by more than 75%. It was essentially a domino effect. As other industries suffered and people lost their jobs, the number of people who could afford automobiles also sharply declined. What was once considered an affordable good had become a luxury. According to estimates, the industry lost around $191 million in revenue, which is equivalent to around $2.9 billion in 2010 dollars (Rhodes & Stelter, 2010). Furthermore, the loss of revenue led to the closing of many companies. Note that in the 1920s, the automobile industry expanded rapidly, resulting in the establishment of numerous individual companies of varying sizes. There were small ones that had a limited clientele and there were big ones like General Motors and Ford Motor Company. The Great Depression affected all these companies, but the small ones suffered more than the big ones. The big companies had more resources at their disposal, and these resources helped them endure the effects of the crisis. The small ones, however, had limited resources. Thus, many were forced to close down or sell to larger competitors. By the end of the crisis, only a handful of motor companies remained including the Big Three: General Motors or GM, Ford, and Daimler Chrysler (Rhodes & Skelter, 2010). Of course, the workers of the companies that had to close down or sell to competitors suffered. Employees of companies that shut down lost their jobs. Meanwhile, not all employees of those that were acquired by bigger companies were absorbed. Hence, many of them also lost their jobs.

In sum, sales of mechanized transportation sharply declined, mainly because consumers were no longer able to afford automobiles due to the bad economic conditions. This then led to massive layoffs of employees, since production had to be scaled back to match lowered demand. Many workers were let go while smaller automobile manufacturers were forced to close down or sell to bigger companies. Ultimately, the automobile industry suffered just like other industries and sectors in the United States.

Effects on Workers and Families

The massive layoffs and shutting down of companies were just the beginning of the effects of the Great Depression on this industry. Subsequent effects were felt in the daily lives of people who lost their livelihood. One of these is the spread of malnutrition. As incomes were severely reduced or fully dried up, families could no longer afford to buy basic necessities. People simply could no longer purchase the required amount of food to sustain their nutritional needs. There emerged a steep rise in the case of malnutrition, especially among children. For example, in New York City alone, around a fifth of the public school students were found to be malnourished. In some parts, the rate of malnutrition was even higher. The situation was actually a paradox: agricultural yields were higher than ever, but people still starved for lack of income. The government eventually enacted a policy of buying surplus crops such as grains and distributing them to poor families (Hall & Ferguson, 2009). Another effect was the disruption of the education system. For one, malnutrition was preventing children from optimizing their learning experience in schools. For another, thousands of schools were forced to shut down due to the economic crisis. This meant that millions of children had to delay their education or skip school altogether (Hall & Ferguson, 2009). As these details show, children are among the hardest hit by the Great Depression. Two vital aspects of their development—nutrition and education—were severely affected by the crisis.

Apart from food insecurity and narrowed access to education among children, another effect of the Great Depression was migration. The year 1931 marked the first time that more people departed from America than entered the country. Americans migrated to countries where they can find better opportunities. Bad economic conditions hit the housing industry, forcing hundreds of thousands of American families to lose their homes. Americans defaulted on their mortgages, resulting in massive foreclosure. The number of transient people also increased. In 1933 alone, it is estimated that around one million people lived on rails. Around a fourth of them were young people below the age of 21 years (Bernstein, 1987).

Meanwhile, the general population suffered from a reduction in wages. By 1932, the number of unemployed people had reached around 13 million. With jobs so scarce, people were forced to accept vastly reduced wages. For instance, a saleslady in Chicago earned just half a dollar to $2 a day. Meanwhile, girls working in sweatshops earned just a dollar for an entire week of work (Bernstein, 1987). The economic conditions on the individual level were reflected by macroeconomic conditions. In 1929, the gross national product of the US was estimated to be at $104 billion. However, it went down to $58.5 billion in just a few years’ time. This represented a gargantuan decline that was never heard of before. Thousands of banks also failed, thus resulting in the crash of the stock market. Consumption decreased by 18%, private and public infrastructure construction declined by 78%, and investments went down by almost 98% (Hall & Ferguson, 2009). All in all, the situation was dire and low-income families, workers, and the unemployed were the ones who suffered most.

The End of the Great Depression

Although the Great Depression wreaked havoc in the American economy and upended the lives of millions, like other crises it also eventually came to an end. The national elections in 1932 ended Hoover’s term and placed Franklin Roosevelt as the new president of the United States. Franklin immediately went to work upon assuming office. Franklin’s New Deal, which was composed of policies and laws meant to steer the country away from economic disaster, helped in reining in the effects of the recession. Unemployment rates went down, and so did the number of companies that failed. Even the automobile industry was able to recover, although it took time. The partial recovery of the economy came at a crucial time since the Second World War was looming in Europe. 

Conclusion

The Great Depression was one of the darkest chapters in modern American history. What began as a crash in the stock market in 1929 escalated into a full-blown crisis in the 1930s, affecting the entire American economy and irrevocably changing the lives of millions. The mechanized transportation industry in particular was badly hit by the Great Depression. Lowered demand for automobiles due to reductions in wages resulted in many companies downsizing and shutting down the business. Thousands of workers lost their jobs and smaller manufacturers simply could no longer survive and were forced to sell or went bankrupt. The effects on the workers ranged from malnutrition and lack of access to education among children to loss of home and steep wage cuts. In the end, the Great Depression eventually ended, but not without leaving Americans an invaluable lesson: when economic crises hit, it is those on the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy who suffer the most.

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References

Bernstein, M. A. (1987). The Great Depression: Delayed recovery and economic change in America, 1929-1939. Cambridge University Press.

Hall, T. E. & Ferguson, J. D. (2009). The Great Depression: An international disaster of perverse economic policies. University of Michigan Press.

Heitmann, J. (2018). The automobile and the American life (2nd ed.). McFarland.

Parker, R. E. (2003). Reflections on the Great Depression. Edward Elgar Publishing.

Rhodes, D. & Stelter, D. (2010, February 16). How automakers accelerated out of the Great Depression . Boston Consulting Group. https://www.bcg.com/publications/2010/growth-automakers-accelerated-out-great-depression

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