I get a little perturbed when I hear on television the comparison of today’s economic hardships in relation to the Great Depression that started with the stock market crash of 1929.
As restaurants and other places opened up this past Friday, long lines of people stood with masks on to get into places like the China Fortune restaurant and the Nu-era Bakery in Logan. That’s a far cry from the soup lines we’ve all seen in pictures and film of destitute people during the time period of 1929 thru about 1941.
In many counties of West Virginia during the Great Depression, the unemployment rate reached 80 percent. That’s difficult to imagine when millions of Americans are today filing for unemployment benefits, yet the nationwide rate is said to be at only about 15 percent, still the worst since the Depression era. Twenty and one-half million workers lost their jobs in April, according to a Labor Department report. Perhaps that is why people are being allowed to go back to work, possibly risking their lives in so doing. It’s all about the economy, be it state or federal. Frankly, it is states that cannot afford continuously to pay out unemployment benefits.
Imagine this. You lose your job — be it in the coal industry or as a cashier at a local restaurant — and there is no such thing as unemployment benefits. Imagine, too, that you were recently injured while on the job and there is no such thing as disability benefits. What about if you were 65 years of age or older, and there was no such thing as Social Security income?
One can now easily see why there is no comparison to today’s hard times and the Great Depression era. As most people should know, unemployment, disability benefits and Social Security did not exist in those terrible days of yesteryear, and, in fact, were the direct result of the Depression. Add to this list the fact that there were no welfare programs to help the needy until 1932 when the Dept. of Public Welfare was formed, and one can surely feel the pain and hardships of that historical time period.
In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act, which contained plans encouraging states to form their own unemployment insurance laws. By 1937, all states and the District of Columbia had enacted unemployment insurance laws. Since unemployment insurance was to be funded by employers, it was not all that popular with businesses, including the coal industry. The program actually is federally funded but distributed by the states.
Most West Virginians have been remarkably fortunate in regard to the horrific pandemic that is plaguing our nation and world. However, between 1929 and 1931, West Virginians were suffering terribly and there simply was no such thing as a state or federal bailout. And, there was no pandemic.
When a coal mine shutdown or a worker became injured and could no longer work, entire families who had been renting and living in coal company-owned homes were evicted, most of them with nowhere to go.
Few Logan Countians know this, but during those difficult times, there was an area on the right side of what is State Route 10 just below McDonald’s restaurant and all along the roadside near the Four Seasons restaurant and beyond that became known as “Tent City.” Although most of us were not around during those oppressive years, the late businessman and a friend, Earl Queen, recalled the area very well in a conversation we shared a year or two prior to his sudden passing.
“There were people living in tents all the way up Route 10,” Queen said. “I remember riding by there with my father and seeing all of those people. Many of them had in the past shopped at my father’s grocery store in town.” Earl’s father, Sam Queen, operated a grocery story on Dingess Street during the 1930s.
With all sectors of the economy suffering and the coal industry virtually collapsing, the 1932 election in West Virginia saw the end of the Republican Party’s reign, first started in 1924 with the conservative causes of President Calvin Coolidge. President Herbert Hoover would later be blamed for the economic collapse, and he paid dearly by losing his reelection bid. The 1932 general election saw every county in West Virginia go Democratic, and nearly every state in the union, as well.
On the local level, it ended an eight-year dominance of two of Devil “Anse” Hatfield’s sons, Tennis and Joe. The notorious Tennis won a disputed 1924 term as sheriff, while Joe won in 1928 when his brother could not seek re-election because of the one-term rule, which, ironically, was designed to keep a sheriff from gaining complete political control of a county. It came during a period in time when the sheriff was usually the most powerful elected person in the county.
The Hatfields, who had been well trained as deputies by their predecessor, legendary sheriff Don Chafin, lost all political control in the 1932 defeat of Tennis in his attempt to become sheriff again. Many of the Hatfields, including Justice of the Peace Elba Hatfield (Cap’s son), as well as Cap himself, would quickly fade into the background. The story of Chafin and the Hatfield brothers is a basically untold and amazing account of local history that has been buried in the annals of time but must in due time be resurrected, if not just for history’s sake alone.
Money was difficult to come by and the sale of illegal alcohol had helped many Appalachian men feed their families during those times of strife. However, when Prohibition was repealed in 1933, even those mountaineers suffered, but they continued their mountain tradition for many decades that followed.
While Roosevelt and his daily radio fireside chats, which cannot fairly be compared to today’s televised federal and state leadership updates, did change the country’s direction, the fact is that the advent of World War II was what turned America’s economy around, especially for coal and the steel industries.
I do not know what will become of this nation as people return to jobs that some health experts are warning will create another round of the coronavirus. Perhaps everything will be OK and things can get back to normal.
For the record, though, the year of 2020 is going to go down in history with tremendous significance, just like the Great Depression. I can see it now. Someday, some of you will be bedside with your child or grandchild, and he or she will be saying, “Grandpa, can you tell me the story again about how years ago people had to wear masks all the time?”
As for now, “Hey, ‘Big Brother,’ how about sending us another one of them there stimulus checks. I need a new television and cellphone.
“So what, if it’s made in China. Isn’t everything, including the coronavirus?”