Infographic: Life and Times During the Great Depression
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Life and Times During the Great Depression

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Life and Times During the Great Depression

Life and Times During the Great Depression

The Money Project is an ongoing collaboration between Visual Capitalist and Texas Precious Metals that seeks to use intuitive visualizations to explore the origins, nature, and use of money.

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.

The Effects

Here’s how “real value” is affected in a deflationary environment:

Money
Real value increases: cash is king and gains in real value.

Assets (stocks, real estate)
Real value decreases as prices fall.

Debt
Debtors owe more in real terms

Interest Rates
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

Conclusion

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.

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Household Income Distribution in the U.S. Visualized as 100 Homes

This visual breaks down U.S. household income categories as 100 homes, based on the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

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Household Income Distribution in the U.S. Visualized as 100 Homes

Income inequality and wealth disparity have been frequent topics of conversation, even before the pandemic upended the economy.

Now, rising inflation and interest rates, and a possible recession on the horizon are bringing these societal divides into sharp focus.

In the above visualization, U.S. households are parsed out into a neighborhood of 100 homes and then grouped by income brackets, using recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Neighborhood Breakdown

American households vary widely on their respective incomes. The largest cluster of homes, representing nearly 20% of all American households, are in the $25-$49.9k income bracket.

Here’s a look at the share of households in each income bracket and the number of homes they represent.

Household IncomeShare of TotalNumber of Homes
Under $25K18.1%18
$25K-$49.9K19.7%20
$50K-$74.9K16.5%17
$75K-99.9K12.2%12
$100K-$149.9K15.3%15
$150k-$199.9K8.0%8
Over $200K10.3%10

In our hypothetical neighborhood, 18 of the households are in the lowest income bracket. People in this category have a wide variety of jobs, but personal care aides, cashiers, food and beverage positions are some of the most common. As a point of reference, the poverty line for a family of four currently sits at $26,496.

On the flip side, in this small community of 100 houses, 33 earn six figures and typically have at least one family member in a corporate or medical role.

The American Middle Class

The middle class in America has shrunk significantly in the past 50 years, going from 61% of adults being middle income in 1971 to 50% in 2021.

Here’s a look at the economic class breakdowns by annual household income, based on households with three people (Note: the average U.S. household has 2.6 people):

  • Upper class: >$156,000
  • Middle class:  $52,000-$156,000
  • Lower class: <$52,000

Although these definitions and conditions don’t align exactly with the buckets we use in the main houses visualization, they come pretty close.

In the neighborhood of 100 homes, 38 homes could be considered low income, while 18 are high income. Meanwhile, sitting in the $50-149.9k middle range of household income are 44 homes.

The Larger Trends

The pandemic had an extremely adverse impact on earnings and income worldwide, and the U.S. was no exception.

Median household income decreased 2.9% to $67.5k between 2019 and 2020, the first decrease since 2014. Additionally, the number of people who worked full-time jobs, year-round decreased by around 13.7 million.

That said, when looking at the longer-term trend, the median income for those considered middle class has jumped by 50% over the last five decades. Here’s a look at the median incomes in each economic class in 1970 vs. 2020:

 1970 Median Household Income (in 2020 $)2020 Median Household Income% Change
Low Income$20,604$29,96345%
Middle Income$59,934$90,13150%
Upper Income$130,008$219,57269%

With a recession⁠ highly likely to occur in the U.S., and rising inflation causing increases in the cost of basic, everyday goods, budgets may get tighter for many households in America, and incomes are likely to be impacted as well.

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Interest Rate Hikes vs. Inflation Rate, by Country

Inflation rates are reaching multi-decade highs in some countries. How aggressive have central banks been with interest rate hikes?

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Interest Rate Hikes vs. Inflation Rate, by Country

Imagine today’s high inflation like a car speeding down a hill. In order to slow it down, you need to hit the brakes. In this case, the “brakes” are interest rate hikes intended to slow spending. However, some central banks are hitting the brakes faster than others.

This graphic uses data from central banks and government websites to show how policy interest rates and inflation rates have changed since the start of the year. It was inspired by a chart created by Macrobond.

How Do Interest Rate Hikes Combat Inflation?

To understand how interest rates influence inflation, we need to understand how inflation works. Inflation is the result of too much money chasing too few goods. Over the last several months, this has occurred amid a surge in demand and supply chain disruptions worsened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In an effort to combat inflation, central banks will raise their policy rate. This is the rate they charge commercial banks for loans or pay commercial banks for deposits. Commercial banks pass on a portion of these higher rates to their customers, which reduces the purchasing power of businesses and consumers. For example, it becomes more expensive to borrow money for a house or car.

Ultimately, interest rate hikes act to slow spending and encourage saving. This motivates companies to increase prices at a slower rate, or lower prices, to stimulate demand.

Rising Interest Rates and Inflation

With inflation rates hitting multi-decade highs in some countries, many central banks have announced interest rate hikes. Below, we show how the inflation rate and policy interest rate have changed for select countries and regions since January 2022. The jurisdictions are ordered from highest to lowest current inflation rate.

JurisdictionJan 2022 InflationMay 2022 InflationJan 2022 Policy RateJun 2022 Policy Rate
UK5.50%9.10%0.25%1.25%
U.S.7.50%8.60%0.00%-0.25%1.50%-1.75%
Euro Area5.10%8.10%0.00%0.00%
Canada5.10%7.70%0.25%1.50%
Sweden3.90%7.20%0.00%0.25%
New Zealand5.90%6.90%0.75%2.00%
Norway3.20%5.70%0.50%1.25%
Australia3.50%5.10%0.10%0.85%
Switzerland1.60%2.90%-0.75%-0.25%
Japan0.50%2.50%-0.10%-0.10%

The Euro area has 3 policy rates; the data above represents the main refinancing operations rate. Inflation data is as of May 2022 except for New Zealand and Australia, where the latest quarterly data is as of March 2022.

The U.S. Federal Reserve has been the most aggressive with its interest rate hikes. It has raised its policy rate by 1.5% since January, with half of that increase occurring at the June 2022 meeting. Jerome Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, said the committee would like to “do a little more front-end loading” to bring policy rates to normal levels. The action comes as the U.S. faces its highest inflation rate in 40 years.

On the other hand, the European Union is experiencing inflation of 8.1% but has not yet raised its policy rate. The European Central Bank has, however, provided clear forward guidance. It intends to raise rates by 0.25% in July, by a possibly larger increment in September, and with gradual but sustained increases thereafter. Clear forward guidance is intended to help people make spending and investment decisions, and avoid surprises that could disrupt markets.

Pacing Interest Rate Hikes

Raising interest rates is a fine balancing act. If central banks raise rates too quickly, it’s like slamming the brakes on that car speeding downhill: the economy could come to a standstill. This occurred in the U.S. in the 1980’s when the Federal Reserve, led by Chair Paul Volcker, raised the policy rate to 20%. The economy went into a recession, though the aggressive monetary policy did eventually tame double digit inflation.

However, if rates are raised too slowly, inflation could gather enough momentum that it becomes difficult to stop. The longer high price increases linger, the more future inflation expectations build. This can result in people buying more in anticipation of prices rising further, perpetuating high demand.

“There’s always a risk of going too far or not going far enough, and it’s going to be a very difficult judgment to make.” — Jerome Powell, U.S. Federal Reserve Chair

It’s worth noting that while central banks can influence demand through policy rates, this is only one side of the equation. Inflation is also being caused by supply chain issues, a problem that is more or less outside of the control of central banks.

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