A Memory from New York State: One Family’s Struggle During the Great Depression
My grandmother died a few days after giving birth to my mother in 1926. She was their seventh child, but only five children, including my mother, had survived. My grandfather carried on as best he could, but in 1928 an accident with a conveyor belt at his job nearly severed his arm. Unable to work because of his injury, he lost his job.
The Crash of 1929 and ensuing Great Depression put millions of people out of work. There were no jobs for the able-bodied, let alone someone with a useless arm. What little money he had left disappeared when the banks collapsed. No longer able to feed my mother and her brothers and sisters, and with no prospects of work in sight, he put them in the care of an orphanage in upstate New York.
My grandfather became one of the hundreds of thousands of homeless men wandering the country looking for work. The children remained in the orphanage for several years, and he visited them when he could. My mother remembered her father coming to see them one Christmas when she was about six. He brought them the only Christmas present he could afford, a single five-stick pack of gum for the children to share: one stick of gum for each child.
It took several years, but my grandfather eventually regained some use of his arm and was able to find work through the WPA (Works Progress Administration). He brought the children home and remarried.
Many families were forced to surrender children to orphanages during the Great Depression because they were not able to care for them. At that time there was no unemployment, Social Security or disability.
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