Life and Times During the Great Depression
The economy of the United States was destroyed almost overnight.
More than 5,000 banks collapsed, and there were 12 million people out of work in America as factories, banks, and other shops closed.
Many reasons have been supplied by the different economic camps for the cause of the Great Depression, which we reviewed in the first part of this series.
Regardless of the causes, the combination of deflationary pressures and a collapsing economy created one of the most desperate and miserable eras of American history. The resulting aftermath was so bad, that almost every future Central Bank policy would be designed primarily to combat such deflation.
The Deflationary Spiral
After the stock crash, money and consumer confidence was hard to find. Instead of spending money on new things, people hoarded their cash.
Fewer dollars spent meant more drops in demand and prices, which led to defaults, bankruptcies, and layoffs.
As a result of this spiral, the prices for many food items in the U.S. fell by nearly 50% from their pre-WW1 levels.
The price of butter went from pre-crisis levels of $0.21 to $0.13 per pound in 1932. Wool had a drop from $0.24 to $0.10 per pound, and most other goods followed the same price trajectory.
Here’s how “real value” is affected in a deflationary environment:
Real value increases: cash is king and gains in real value.
Assets (stocks, real estate)
Real value decreases as prices fall.
Debtors owe more in real terms
Real interest rates (nominal rates minus inflation) can rise as inflation is negative, causing unwanted tightening.
From Bad to Worse
The Great Depression lasted from 1929 to 1939, which was unprecedented in length for modern history.
To this day, economists disagree on why the Depression lasted so long. Here’s some of their explanations:
The New Deal was not enough
Looking back on The Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes believed that monetary policy could only go so far.
The Central Bank could not ultimately push banks to lend, and therefore demand had to be created through fiscal policy. Keynes advocated massive deficit spending to offset markets’ failure to recover.
Keynesians such as Paul Krugman believe that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s economic policies through The New Deal were too cautious.
“You can’t push on a string.” – Keynes
The New Deal made things worse
Some economists believe the New Deal had a negative net effect on the recovery.
The National Recovery Administration (NRA) is a primary subject of this criticism. Established in 1933, the goal of the NRA was to lift wages. To do this, it got industry leaders to meet and establish minimum prices and wages for workers.
Cole and Ohanian claim that this essentially created cartels that destroyed economic competition. They calculate that this, along with the aftermath of these policies, accounted for 60% of the weak recovery.
Lastly, one other charge leveled at Roosevelt by his critics is that the sprawling policies from the New Deal ultimately created uncertainty for business leaders, leading to less investment. This lengthened the recovery.
“[The] abandonment of [Roosevelt’s] policies coincided with the strong economic recovery of the 1940s.” – Cole and Ohanian
The Federal Reserve didn’t do enough
Milton Friedman claimed that the Federal Reserve made the wrong policy decision, which extended the length of the Depression.
Between 1929 and 1933, the monetary supply dipped 27%, which decreased aggregate demand and then prices. The Fed’s failure was in not realizing what was happening and not taking corrective action.
“The contraction is…a tragic testimonial to the importance of monetary forces…[D]ifferent and feasible actions by the monetary authorities could have prevented the decline in the stock of money… [This] would have reduced the contraction’s severity and almost as certainly its duration.” – Milton Friedman (and co-author Anna Schwartz)
The Federal Reserve shouldn’t have done anything
Austrian economists believe that the Fed and government both made policy choices that slowed the recovery.
For starters, most agree with Friedman that the Fed’s policy choices at the start of the Depression led to deflation.
They also point to the premature tightening that occurred in 1936 and 1937 as a policy failure. During those two years, the Fed not only hiked interest rates, but it also doubled bank-reserve requirements. These policies coincided with Roosevelt’s tax hikes, and a recession occurred within the Depression from 1937 to 1938.
Critics of these policies say that this delayed the recovery by years.
“I agree with Milton Friedman that once the Crash had occurred, the Federal Reserve System pursued a silly deflationary policy. I am not only against inflation but I am also against deflation. So, once again, a badly programmed monetary policy prolonged the depression.” – Friedrich Hayek
Personal Stories from The Great Depression
“One evening when we went down to check on the bank, there were hundreds of people out front yelling and crying and fighting and beating on the locked doors and windows. They had fires built in the street to keep warm and there were people milling around all over the downtown.” – Vane Scott, Ohio
“A friend I worked with said in the Depression he rode the rails and stopped to eat vegetables out of a garden. The owner said he would shoot him if he didn’t stop. My friend said ‘go ahead,’ as he was that hungry. ” – James Randolph, Ohio
“When neighbors couldn’t get a loan from the bank, they’d come to Dad. He sold farm machinery. He never put his money in a bank. He stored it in a strongbox in the fruit cellar, under the apples. He’d loan the neighbors what they needed and they paid him back when they could. If there was a month—especially the winter months—when they couldn’t pay, they’d slaughter a cow or a pig and give him a portion. In the summer it was vegetables: corn, peas, whatever they had growing.” – Gladys Hoffman, New York
“I thought the Depression was going to go on forever. For six or seven years, it didn’t look as though things were getting better. The people in Washington DC said they were, but ask the man on the road? He was hungry and his clothes were ragged and he didn’t have a job. He didn’t think things were picking up.” – Arvel “Sunshine” Pearson, Arkansas
After the 1937-38 Recession, the United States economy began to recover.
The focus of the American public would eventually shift away from the Great Depression, as events in Europe unfolded after Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939.
About the Money Project
The Money Project aims to use intuitive visualizations to explore ideas around the very concept of money itself. Founded in 2015 by Visual Capitalist and Texas Precious Metals, the Money Project will look at the evolving nature of money, and will try to answer the difficult questions that prevent us from truly understanding the role that money plays in finance, investments, and accumulating wealth.
This Simple Chart Reveals the Distribution Of Global Wealth
Global wealth at the end of 2020 was about $418 trillion. Here’s a breakdown of the global wealth distribution among the adult population.
The Global Wealth Distribution in One Chart
The pandemic resulted in global wealth taking a significant dip in the first part of 2020. By the end of March, global household wealth had already declined by around 4.4%.
Interestingly, after much monetary and fiscal stimulus from governments around the world, global household wealth was more than able to recover, finishing up the year at $418.3 trillion, a 7.4% gain from the previous year.
Using data from Credit Suisse, this graphic looks at how global wealth is distributed among the adult population.
How is Global Wealth Distributed?
While individuals worth more than $1 million constitute just 1.1% of the world’s population, they hold 45.8% of global wealth.
|Wealth Range||Wealth||Global Share (%)||Adult Population|
|Over $1M||$191.6 trillion||45.8%||Held by 1.1%|
|$100k-$1M||$163.9 trillion||39.1%||Held by 11.1%|
|$10k-$100k||$57.3 trillion||13.7%||Held by 32.8%|
|Less than $10k||$5.5 trillion||1.3%||Held by 55.0%|
|Total||$418.3 trillion||100.0%||Held by 100.0%|
On the other end of the spectrum, 55% of the population owns only 1.3% of global wealth.
And between these two extreme wealth distribution cases, the rest of the world’s population has a combined 52.8% of the wealth.
Global Wealth Distribution by Region
While wealth inequality is especially evident within the wealth ranges mentioned above, these differences can also be seen on a more regional basis between countries.
In 2020, total wealth rose by $12.4 trillion in North America and $9.2 trillion in Europe. These two regions accounted for the bulk of the wealth gains, with China adding another $4.2 trillion and the Asia-Pacific region (excluding China and India) another $4.7 trillion.
Here is a breakdown of global wealth distribution by region:
|Change in Total Wealth |
|Change %||Wealth Per Adult |
India and Latin America both recorded losses in 2020.
Total wealth fell in India by $594 billion, or 4.4%. Meanwhile, Latin America appears to have been the worst-performing region, with total wealth dropping by 11.4% or $1.2 trillion.
Post-COVID Global Outlook 2020-2025
Despite the burden of COVID-19 on the global economy, the world can expect robust GDP growth in the coming years, especially in 2021. The latest estimates by the International Monetary Fund in April 2021 suggest that global GDP in 2021 will total $100.1 trillion in nominal terms, up by 4.1% compared to last year.
The link in normal times between GDP growth and household wealth growth, combined with the expected rapid return of economic activity to its pre-pandemic levels, suggests that global wealth could grow again at a fast pace. According to Credit Suisse estimates, global wealth may rise by 39% over the next five years.
Low and middle-income countries will also play an essential role in the coming year. They are responsible for 42% of the growth, even though they account for just 33% of current wealth.
Mapped: GDP per Capita Worldwide
GDP per capita is one of the best measures of a country’s standard of living. This map showcases the GDP per capita in every country globally.
Mapped: Visualizing GDP per Capita Worldwide
View the high-resolution of the infographic by clicking here.
GDP per capita has steadily risen globally over time, and in tandem, the standard of living worldwide has increased immensely.
This map using data from the IMF shows the GDP per capita (nominal) of nearly every country and territory in the world.
GDP per capita is one of the best measures of a country’s wealth as it provides an understanding of how each country’s citizens live on average, showing a representation of the quantity of goods and services created per person.
The Standard of Living Over Time
Looking at history, our standard of living has increased drastically. According to Our World in Data, from 1820 to 2018, the average global GDP per capita increased by almost 15x.
Literacy rates, access to vaccines, and basic education have also improved our quality of life, while things like child mortality rates and poverty have all decreased.
For example, in 1990, 1.9 billion people lived in extreme poverty, which was 36% of the world’s population at the time. Over the last 30 years, the number has been steadily decreasing — by 2030, an estimated 479 million people will be living in extreme poverty, which according to UN population estimates, will represent only 6% of the population.
That said, economic inequality between different regions is still prevalent. In fact, the richest country today (in terms of nominal GDP per capita), Luxembourg, is over 471x more wealthy than the poorest, Burundi.
Here’s a look at the 10 countries with the highest GDP per capita in 2021:
However, not all citizens in Luxembourg are extremely wealthy. In fact:
- 29% of people spend over 40% of their income on housing costs
- 31% would be at risk of falling into poverty if they had to forgo 3 months of income
The cost of living is expensive in Luxembourg — but the standard of living in terms of goods and services produced is the highest in the world. Additionally, only 4% of the population reports low life satisfaction.
Emerging Economies and Developing Countries
Although we have never lived in a more prosperous period, and poverty rates have been declining overall, this year global extreme poverty rose for the first time in over two decades.
About 120 million additional people are living in poverty as a result of the pandemic, with the total expected to rise to about 150 million by the end of 2021.
Many of the poorest countries in the world are also considered Least Developed Countries (LDCs) by the UN. In these countries, more than 75% of the population live below the poverty line.
Here’s a look at the 10 countries with the lowest GDP per capita:
Life in these countries offers a stark contrast compared to the top 10. Here’s a glance at the quality of life in the poorest country, Burundi:
- 80% of the population works in agriculture
- 1 in 3 Burundians are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance
- Average households spend up to two-thirds of their income on food
However, many of the world’s poorest countries can also be classified as emerging markets with immense economic potential in the future.
In fact, China has seen the opportunity in emerging economies. Their confidence in these regions is best exemplified in the Belt and Road initiative which has funneled massive investments into infrastructure projects across multiple African countries.
Continually Raising the Bar
Prosperity is a very recent reality only characterizing the last couple hundred years. In pre-modern societies, the average person was living in conditions that would be considered extreme poverty by today’s standards.
Overall, the standard of living for everyone today is immensely improved compared to even recent history, and some countries will be experiencing rapid economic growth in the future.
GDP per Capita in 2021: Full Dataset
|Country||GDP per Capita (Nominal, 2021, USD)|
|🇺🇸 United States||$66,144|
|Hong Kong SAR||$47,990|
|United Arab Emirates||$32,686|
|Trinidad and Tobago||$16,622|
|Saint Kitts and Nevis||$16,491|
|Antigua and Barbuda||$14,748|
|Saint Vincent and the Grenadines||$7,401|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||$6,536|
|West Bank and Gaza||$3,060|
|Papua New Guinea||$2,596|
|Republic of Congo||$2,271|
|São Tomé and Príncipe||$2,133|
|Central African Republic||$522|
|Democratic Republic of the Congo||$478|
Editor’s note: Readers have rightly pointed out that Monaco is one of the world’s richest countries in GDP per capita (nominal) terms. This is true, but the IMF dataset excludes Monaco and lists it as “No data” each year. As a result, it is excluded from the visualization(s) above.
Green3 weeks ago
The World’s 25 Largest Lakes, Side by Side
Economy2 weeks ago
The 20 Fastest Growing Jobs in the Next Decade
Misc2 weeks ago
All World Languages in One Visualization
Markets2 weeks ago
Mapping The Biggest Companies By Market Cap in 60 Countries
Misc3 weeks ago
Razor Thin: A New Perspective on Earth’s Atmosphere
Healthcare1 week ago
Visualizing the World’s Biggest Pharmaceutical Companies
Misc3 weeks ago
9/11 Timeline: Three Hours That Changed Everything
Datastream4 weeks ago
Ranked: The World’s Fastest Growing Brands in 2021