The Census Story of the Great Depression

A century of overcrowded homes: How we reported the story of the Great Depression (1929–1939)

By Matthew J. Goodwin

The American census, which took place every five years until 1970, provided a snapshot of American society in each demographic category in every state. In 1929, for example, more than 45% of Americans lived in overcrowded or crowded conditions. By 1940, the census data had changed, yet another census had taken place only four years earlier. This means that the census story of the Great Depression is quite complicated and far from understood. In this article, I offer a brief reconstruction of what happened in the census story of the Great Depression between 1929 and 1939. How did the story of American life change in order to make sense of the tragedy that was unfolding around us?

In the 1930 census, the number of people in the American population was roughly the same as it was in the 1920 census. The number of families with children living in overcrowded or crowded conditions was much larger in 1930 than it had been in 1920. The 1930 census also included a question on the existence of overcrowded and crowded conditions, with a large number of respondents indicating that overcrowding had existed in the household at some point during the previous five years. In 1930, the number of overcrowded houses in the United States was estimated to be as high as 8.85% among American families and 7.84% among American households.1

The 1930 census revealed another striking statistic, which indicated that more than three quarters of the households in the United States had one or more members who worked outside the home for pay. A large proportion of these households (67.4%) had more people living in the household than anyone living in the family. In many families, the extra member worked not for wages, but for free in exchange for room and board. This fact is of particular interest given the recent revelations that many of these people worked as domestics and nannies without the legal right to work. (See here and here.)

The number of children living in overcrowded conditions was also much higher in 1930 than it had been in 1920. The 1930 census showed that the number of children living in overcrowded conditions rose from 2

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