Known as the decade of the Great Depression, the 1930s have come to represent the worst economic time in the history of the United States. Not only was the employment rate very high throughout the course of the decade but even those who were employed were paid relatively low wages, though prices were also low enough at the time to keep these working from absolute poverty.
Wages were very different depending on professions during the 1930s. Cooks were some of the lowest paid wage earners and could expect to make wages of about $0.35 an hour. Skilled workers like bricklayers, electricians, or ironworkers, on the other hand, could make as much as $1.30 an hour, while doctors might make $1.50 an hour or more.
Throughout most of the 1930s, there was no such thing as a minimum wage: employers could pay laborers as much as they were willing. However, under President Roosevelt, who championed workers and sought desperately to get the country out of depression, a minimum wage eventually arrived. In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act introduced the nation's first minimum wage of $0.25 an hour.
Cost of Living
While the wages during the Great Depression might seem quite low by today's standards, the cost of living at the time was much different at the time and the decade's low wages were relatively manageable for those lucky enough to work. For example, New York City tenement apartments costed about $18 a month, which was the average weekly wage for many marginally skilled workers.
Food was much cheaper, though scarcer, than it is today, and other household items were also a lot cheaper. Sweaters cost only about $1, gas stoves cost about $20, and mechanical toys were less than $1 each. So, as long as you were working, chances are you were scraping by during the 1930s.
The biggest problem of the Great Depression was not low wages but the complete lack of any wage-earning opportunities, which caused many struggling families to slip into poverty. Throughout virtually all the 1930s, America's unemployment rate stayed in the double digits, peaking at about 25 percent in 1933. President Roosevelt tried to create public programs to give this massive unemployed group some way of earning a living, though it was perhaps World War II that most effectively pulled the nation out of its worst economic crisis.
- U.S. Department of Labor; Compensation from Before World War I Through The Great Depression; Robert VanGiezen, et al.; January 2003
- Lower East Side Tenement Museum: Rent, Wages and Cost of Living in the 1930s; 2005
- Michigan Department of Natural Resources: Compare Prices During the Great Depression to Prices Today
- Photo Credit George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images
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