This article is a continuation of a series on FSA photographs by Marion Post Wolcott documenting the lives of Americans during the Great Depression and New Deal policies established to provide relief to the country’s most impoverished farmers. Discussion questions for educators relating to agricultural migrant workers during this time and also today follow at the end.
Imagine millions of Americans losing their jobs, wages, homes, or farms almost simultaneously, including hundreds of thousands forced by desperation to pack up their cars or jump on a train, abandon their homes and community roots, and steer hopefully toward a better life elsewhere. This massive human migration is one of the hallmarks of the Great Depression.
A multitude of worldwide pressures contributed to the country’s economic disaster. Both a global and national recession triggered the stock market crash of 1929, bank closures, plummeting wages, and nearly 25 percent unemployment of the nation’s workforce. By 1933, almost 45 percent of farms faced foreclosure. Many Americans lost their life savings and were left destitute. Farmers in the Great Plains squeezed their soil dry, already depleted from decades of intensive farming, to compensate for market price drops in crops through mechanization, cultivation of more land, and overextended investments. On the brink of survival, they were struck by a long drought which generated dust storms across the parched plains, destroying farms, leaving over half a million Americans homeless, and causing a migration of nearly three million people out of the American Midwest.
Joining the farmers escaping the Dust Bowl and unemployed workers from the city were millions of tenant farmers and sharecroppers in the largely rural South where more than 80 percent of Black Americans lived and faced deep poverty, Jim Crow laws, and slavery’s legacy. Americans of diverse races and classes, many accustomed to modern conveniences such as electricity and indoor plumbing and others stuck in impoverished cycles, headed toward the milder climates of states such as California and Florida to seek farm work, long growing seasons, a variety of crops, and staggered harvests. As they converged on relatively productive land, often they still were faced with a struggle to find opportunities amid overburdened infrastructure. Labor exceeded jobs, which further reduced wages. Traveling from crop to crop, they lived in shantytowns, squalid camps, and primitive shelters—conditions that exacerbated discriminatory attitudes toward migrant workers, and added to social frictions and the trauma of dislocation.
A New Deal for the American People
Inaugurated into this national upheaval in 1933, President Roosevelt swiftly put his New Deal into action—a comprehensive and innovative program of economic recovery. The “Three R’s” focused on relief for the unemployed and impoverished, recovery of the economy, and reform of the financial system to prevent a repeat depression. The government launched numerous federal agencies and programs to provide critical relief to the displaced American workforce and agricultural communities.
The Farm Security Administration, in particular, resettled poor migrants on productive land, building entire communities, cooperatives, schools, and residential camps with running water and sanitary conditions. Agricultural workers were helped to buy equipment, sell crops, manage debt, and purchase farms. It also provided safe spaces away from discrimination where migrants could engage in cultural and recreational activities and rekindle a sense of stability.
The New Deal signified a new relationship between the American people and their government by taking on a larger role and many new responsibilities for the welfare of the American people. The government’s involvement in such affairs was unprecedented. Agencies such as the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation), SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission), and Social Security Administration were established in this era. Critics complained that the programs went too far, or not far enough, to protect the wellbeing of American citizens. As New Deal programs changed the political, social, and economic landscape of the United States, the government attempted to provide relief in ways that didn’t compromise the values, pride, and work ethic of the American people. Many of these themes remain a common thread in domestic political discourse today.
Farm Security Administration (FSA) Photography
To defend and promote the resettlement projects, the FSA hired photographers to document rural poverty, publicize governmental efforts to alleviate it, and galvanize political support for Congressional funding. The FSA photographers recorded the human toll and ecological plight of the Great Depression and its aftermath. Between 1935 and 1944, they took over 175,000 images of life during this time of despair, relocation, and recovery, enabling Americans not only to imagine but also clearly visualize this profound period of American history.
The scourge of the Depression continued until 1941 when the United States entered World War II, the national economy ramped up with the defense industry, and Americans enlisted in the military. As a result of New Deal programs, many of the migrant workers put down roots in their new communities.
- Look at the two FSA photos included in this article. What details do you notice? What conclusions can be drawn? What do you think prompted the photographer to take these particular pictures? How do you think images such as these helped stir public support for New Deal programs?
- How do you distinguish between impartial documentation and political propaganda? How do a photographer’s biases and assumptions influence a photograph? Can you think of a current example of a press image that could be used to influence the public’s view on an event or issue?
- What do you think might happen if federal agencies such as the Social Security Administration and the FDIC didn’t exist today? What role does the government have in protecting the basic welfare and safety of its citizens?
- How have the living conditions of agricultural migrant workers in the United States improved since the 1930s? Starting in the early 1960s, farm workers and their leaders organized a series of marches, national consumer boycotts, and fasts that attracted national headlines publicizing the working conditions of farm workers. They ultimately established the United Farm Workers of America, the nation’s first enduring and largest farm workers’ union. What are some of the issues on which the UFW continues to focus its activism today?
- Created by executive order following the United States’ entrance into World War II, the Bracero Program (1942–1964) brought millions of Mexican guest workers to the United States. Braceros were contracted to fill labor shortages in low-paying agricultural jobs needing to be filled as American farm laborers enlisted in the military and factory jobs and those of Japanese descent were forced into war “relocation camps.” Farm workers already living in the United States were concerned that braceros would compete for jobs and lower wages as, desperate for work, braceros were willing to endure working conditions increasingly scorned by American workers. What do you think are the pros and cons of this program, and how do you think its legacy influences the United States today? How important is immigration to the U.S. economy and national security? How have the rich and diverse cultures of immigrant farm workers influenced American life?
- The mechanization of farm work contributed toward both the consolidation of small farms and displacement of agricultural jobs. Today, a discussion around the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on the workforce continues to raise similar concerns in agriculture as well as other sectors. What do you think are some pros and cons of this technological development?
- According to national reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Labor, an estimated 2 to 3 million migratory and seasonal agricultural workers live in the United States. Why do you think the majority of these agricultural laborers are from other countries? Do you think discrimination continues to plague these communities, and, if so, why?
- Consider investigating where the fruits and vegetables you eat are harvested and the general background of the farm workers who pick and pack them for sale. The National Center for Farm Workers Health provides a dashboard for research. Can you find additional resources?
I would like to acknowledge and thank educators Litza Griffin-Johnson (Mercer Island) and Wendy Ewbank (Seattle) for their discussion of these photographs and the New Deal. Their comments were invaluable and helped to inform the focus of this article.