The US started the 20th century as a country with enormous potential, and finished the century as the world's only superpower. Yet there are twoways of looking at this powerful nation in the 1920s - as a wealthy country with a high standard of living, big cars and large houses, or as a country with many people living in poverty and some enduring terrible racism.

The 1920s overview
Although the USA did not enter the First World War until April 1917, the conflict cast a shadow over American society that would take a while to pass. There was a brief economic recession at the start of the 1920s, but, as the decade moved on, the economy boomed and America began the age of consumerism - many Americans bought cars, radios, fridges etc. Major cities such as New York and Chicago grew rapidly and the building of skyscrapers like the Empire State Building, which was completed in 1931, seemed to show the self-confidence of American society. At the same time, many Americans wanted to enjoy themselves as much as they could by perhaps listening to the new jazz music, or doing the new dances such as the charleston and the black bottom. Crowds flocked to watch film stars like Charlie Chaplin and baseball stars like Babe Ruth. The emphasis on having fun and spending money has led to the 1920s being called the Roaring Twenties. However, for many Americans, the 1920s was a decade of poverty. Generally, groups such as African-Americans, women and farmers did not enjoy the prosperity of the Roaring Twenties. More than 60 per cent of Americans lived just below the poverty line. Life was particularly hard for African-Americans in theDeep South states where the majority of black people endured a combination of poverty and racism. Although some women were able to enjoy more independence and wear the latest fashions, the reality was The 1920s were prosperous for some that most women were poorly paid and were employed in roles such as cleaners or waitresses.

While many people in 1920s Amercia enjoyed new consumer goods and luxuries, some groups, such as farmers and those employed in traditional heavy industries, experienced extreme poverty. This, together with social inequality and racism, resulted in increased tensions across the nation.

Four major problems
It was not all boom for American industries. Traditional industries such as coal and textiles did not prosper. In 1929, when the average monthly income of New York bricklayers might be $320, coalminers were earning only $103 a month. Also, during the 1920s, in response to American

import tariffs on their products, many other countries put customs duties on American goods, which reduced American exports.

For many American farmers, life in the 1920s was a constant struggle against poverty. During the First World War, farmers had been encouraged to grow as much food as they could. They continued to do this in the 1920s until they had produced more cotton and wheat than they could sell. As prices dropped, many farmers lived in unhygienic conditions in tin shacks, without electricity or running water. In 1929, when the average monthly income of a skilled manufacturing worker might be $140, farm labourers were earning only $49 a month.

Social problems
People who were wealthy in America were extremely rich, but few people shared in this prosperity. Only 5 per cent of the American population owned a third of the wealth, while 42 per cent of the population were living below the poverty line.

Before the First World War, many Americans saw their country as a melting pot in which people of different nationalities, races and religions could live in harmony. The Statue of Liberty symbolised the welcome offered to the huddled masses as they entered America. Yet, there were signs that this mood of tolerance was under attack. The revival of the Ku Klux Klan was a frightening development. The Klan believed in the superiority of the white race. Its members wore white gowns and pointed hats, and burned large crosses as a symbol of their presence. The revival of the Klan started in the Deep South, but spread to other parts of America.

In 1928 the new Republican president Herbert Hoover confidently stated, 'We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land.' Within a year, all the confidence had ended and America was plunged into the Depression.

Wall Street Crash
When the Wall Street stock market crashed in October 1929, the world economy was plunged into the Great Depression. By the winter of 1932, America was in the depths of the greatest economic depression in its history. The number of unemployed people reached upwards of 13 million. Many people lived in primitive conditions close to famine. One New York family moved into a cave in Central Park. In St Louis, more than 1,000 people lived in shacks made from scrap metal and boxes. There were many similar Hoovervilles all over America. Between 1 and 2 million people travelled the country desperately looking for work. Signs saying 'No Men Wanted' were displayed all over the country.

Many children were deserted and left homeless during the Depression

By the time of the election in November 1932, Hoover's popularity had reached rock bottom. It was not even safe for him to go onto the streets to campaign. After his heavy defeat, Hoover told his friends, "we are at the end of our string... there is nothing more we can do". The American economy did not fully recover until the USA entered the Second World War in December 1941.

Causes of the Depression
1.As early as 1926, there were signs that the boom was under threat - this was seen in
the collapse of land prices in Florida. 2.Eventually, there were too many goods being made and not enough people to buy them. 3.Farmers had produced too much food in the 1920s, so prices for their produce became steadily lower. 4.There were too many small banks - these banks did not have enough funds to cope with the sudden rush to take out savings, which happened in the autumn of 1929. 5.Too much speculation on the stock market - the middle class had a lot to lose and they had spent a lot on what amounted to pieces of paper. 6.The Wall Street Crash of October 1929 was a massive psychological blow. 7.America had lent huge sums of money to European countries. When the stock market collapsed, they suddenly recalled those loans. This had a devastating impact on the European economy. 8.The collapse of European banks caused a general world financial crisis.

People outside a closed bank during the Depression

Effects of the Depression
1.Unemployment - 13 million people were out of work. 2.Industrial production dropped by 45 per cent between 1929 and 1932. 3.House-building fell by 80 per cent between 1929 and 1932. 4.The entire American banking system reached the brink of collapse. 5.From 1929 to 1932, 5,000 banks went out of business. 6.Although many people went hungry, the number of recorded deaths from starvation during the Depression was 110, although many other illnesses and deaths were probably related to a lack of nutrition.

'In Hoover we trusted, now we are busted!' Needless to say, Hoover lost the 1932 election due to widespread poverty and was replaced by the Democratic leader, Franklin D Roosevelt, who aimed to tackle the Depression.

The Presidential election campaign of November 1932 took place against the backdrop of the most severe economic depression in American history. While Republican President Herbert Hoover was personally blamed for failing to deal with the consequences of the Wall Street Crash of October 1929, the Democratic candidate, Franklin D Roosevelt promised, "A new deal for the American people." Following a landslide election victory, Roosevelt faced the enormous task of restoring confidence in a shattered economy. At first glance, Roosevelt's privileged background might have made it difficult for him to understand the problems faced by those who were unemployed or poverty stricken. However, in 1921 an attack of polio had left

Roosevelt promised Americans a New Deal

Roosevelt permanently crippled, and his ongoing battle against this terrible illness enhanced his ability to relate to ordinary Americans. As he entered the White House, the scale of the problem he faced was immense. By the winter of 1932-1933, the country seemed to have reached rock bottom. Roosevelt's personal solution, the New Deal was the largest, most expensive government programme in the history of the American presidency. However, historians do not necessarily agree as to whether the New Deal was a success or a failure.

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