A Series of (Un)fortunate Events

Header Photograph: Rothstein, Arthur. "Dust Bowl Farmer Raising Fence to keep it from being Buried under Drifting Sand, Cimarron County, Oklahoma, USA." Farm Security Administration, April 1936.

In order to understand the extent of the damage caused by the Dust Bowl, it is imperative to contextualize this disaster in the broader context of the Great Depression, which created an atmosphere of crisis. With World War I occurring from 1914-1918, feeding troops overseas required substantial quantities of wheat leading to the overplowing of land (Dust Bowl, Britannica).  Since Russia cut its wheat supply off, the United States government paid farmers a premium of $2 a bushel to convert more and more grassland into wheat farms (Burns, 16:52).

The Roaring Twenties were a time of overspeculation, overstimulation, and overuse, which added to the non-natural causes of the Dust Bowl. The Great Gatsby stereotypically, but accurately, portrays the speculative, gambling, risk-taking culture of the wealthy elite, both on Wall Street and in their over-the-top country homes. Those who hosted gatherings with contraband alcohol risked being caught by authorities during the Prohibition Era, yet they took the risk anyway for personal enjoyment and gain. This underground, bootlegging, fun-loving, and money-making atmosphere introduced and ignored the consequences of overleveraging oneself, one’s country, and one’s environment. To supply copious amounts of gin and whiskey, bootleggers demanded large amounts of grain. Again, farmers, gracious for the opportunity to increase profits, produced more grain and barley.

Generating revenue for the first time in generations blinded poor, family-run farmers into learning that the Panhandle of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado and Texas gained the reputation of “No Man’s Land” by Native Americans for good reason (Burns, 12). What they did not know or care to learn was that for thousands of years, the grass in the area contained roots submerging the surface by up to 5 inches, not only to facilitate nutrient distribution but more importantly, to hold the dirt in place (Burns, 17:10). As the weather cooperated and provided ample irrigation, farmers, the ultimate gamblers themselves, continued turning formerly buffalo grasslands into arable land; this compounded the risk for an upcoming dry-weather year. Despite the Great Depression inflicting worries in the cities, farmers in 1931 were “reaping record-breaking crop” (Surviving the Dust Bowl, 2:50). However, when the drought occurred, the upended roots no longer held the soil together, and the “ever present wind pushed the withering crops and topsoil and moved it” (Burns, 12:50).

As the economy expanded in the 1920s, the Federal Reserve Bank System, the central bank of the United States, worried about an inflating asset bubble. They responded by selling securities into the market and raising the discount rate from 3.5% to 5% (Bernanke, 7). At the same time, the global economy had been using the gold standard to fix exchange rates, so other countries also implemented these contractionary policies to keep interest rates level (Bernanke, 9). However, these actions were ill-timed because the bubble burst in the 1929 stock market crash, and instead of countering the burst, the Fed exacerbated the shock by continuing to use contractionary monetary policy (Bernanke, vii).  Instead of increasing the money supply and abandoning the gold standard immediately and cohesively, the Federal Reserve (Fed) lacked the understanding that interest rates and monetary policies were linked under a fixed exchange system and waited years to take corrective action, causing banking panics and scaring consumers and investors.

Not only were the environmental issues of drought and wind erosion devastating to the people who lived there, but the Dust Bowl intensified the economic recession that urban-dwelling people felt.  The dust storms created unlivable and unfruitful land and decreased the supply of wheat and grain for the rest of the United States.

Even before Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the election and entered office in 1932 and 1933, he promised the American people relief from the Great Depression (“President Franklin Delano Roosevelt”). Coined the “New Deal Roosevelt,” the administration passed two rounds of numerous laws and programs, through Congress and executive orders. First, Roosevelt announced a banking holiday, where Congress pieced together the Emergency Banking Act of 1933, granting the federal government more authority over the banking system in an attempt to calm consumer and investor fears. Roosevelt went on to pass several more banking reform laws including the Frazier-Lemke Farm Bankruptcy Act to protect farmers from government eviction of farmland.

To lower the increasing unemployment rate, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) employed over 3 million men total at soil erosion camps where they worked on various environmental contributions such as “forest management, flood control, conservation projects, and the development of state and national parks, forests, and historic sites” (“Theodore Roosevelt”). Using part of the $525 million allocated for drought relief through the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) employed 8.5 million people to complete public works projects as well.

Since an excess supply of a good decreases its price, the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation and Drought Relief Service bought cattle at a premium, killed cattle that could not be eaten, and distributed the excess supply of meat, flour, beans, and apples to charity organizations in an effort to increase their prices and feed hungry Americans (“Timeline: The Dust Bowl”). To remedy overplowed land, Roosevelt organized a highly monitored grazing initiative on 140 million acres of land through the Taylor Grazing Act. These soil erosion efforts, including windbreaks, continued through the Shelterbelt Project, where the CCC planted native trees in the Great Plains, and they “resulted in a 65% reduction in the amount of soil blowing” (“Timeline: The Dust Bowl”) (“Windbreaker”).

While the Dust Bowl’s eventual recovery can be attributed to rainfall in 1939, the broader disaster recovery of the Dust Bowl in the context of the Great Depression has the New Deal programs to thank. These examples of expansionary fiscal policy combined with new laws and practices such as the Banking Act of 1935, which remedied a decentralized Federal Reserve, as well as the military Keynesian theory, which boosted economy growth by increasing military spending for World War II, brought the United States back to full employment by 1941 (“Timeline: The Dust Bowl”).