The Great Depression was the worst economic slump ever in U.S. history and one which spread to virtually all of the industrialized world. The depression began in late 1929 and lasted for about a decade. Many factors played a role in bringing about the depression; however, the main cause for the Great Depression was the combination of the greatly unequal distribution of wealth throughout the 1920s, and the extensive stock market speculation that took place during the latter part of that same decade.
The maldistribution of wealth in the 1920s existed on many levels. Money was distributed disparately between the rich and the middle-class, between industry and agriculture within the United States, and between the U.S. and Europe. This imbalance of wealth created an unstable economy. The excessive speculation in the late 1920’s kept the stock market artificially high, but eventually, lead to large market crashes. These market crashes, combined with the maldistribution of wealth, caused the American economy to capsize.
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The “roaring twenties” was an era when our country prospered tremendously. The nation’s total realized income rose from $74.3 billion in 1923 to $89 billion in 19291. However, the rewards of the “Coolidge Prosperity” of the 1920’s were not shared evenly among all Americans. According to a study done by the Brookings Institute, in 1929 the top 0.1% of Americans had a combined income equal to the bottom 42%2. That same top 0.1% of Americans in 1929 controlled 34% of all savings, while 80% of Americans had no savings at all3.
Automotive industry mogul Henry Ford provides a striking example of the unequal distribution of wealth between the rich and the middle-class. Henry Ford reported a personal income of $14 million4 in the same year that the average personal income was $7505. By present-day standards, where the average yearly income in the U.S. is around $18,5006, Mr. Ford would be earning over $345 million a year! This maldistribution of income between the rich and the middle class grew throughout the 1920’s. While the disposable income per capita rose 9% from 1920 to 1929, those with income within the top 1% enjoyed a stupendous 75% increase in per capita disposable income.
A major reason for this large and growing gap between the rich and the working-class people was the increased manufacturing output throughout this period. From 1923-1929 the average output per worker increased 32% in manufacturing8. During that same period of time, average wages for manufacturing jobs increased only 8%9. Thus wages increased at a rate one-fourth as fast as productivity increased. As production costs fell quickly, wages rose slowly, and prices remained constant, the bulk benefit of the increased productivity went into corporate profits. In fact, from 1923-1929 corporate profits rose 62% and dividends rose 65%.
The federal government also contributed to the growing gap between the rich and the middle-class. Calvin Coolidge’s administration (and the Conservative-controlled government) favoured business and as a result, the wealthy who invested in these businesses. An example of legislation to this purpose is the Revenue Act of 1926, signed by President Coolidge on February 26, 1926, which reduced federal income and inheritance taxes dramatically11. Andrew Mellon, Coolidge’s Secretary of the Treasury, was the main force behind these and other tax cuts throughout the 1920s. In effect, he was able to lower federal taxes such that a man with a million-dollar annual income had his federal taxes reduced from $600,000 to $200,00012. Even the Supreme Court played a role in expanding the gap between the socioeconomic classes. In the 1923 case Adkins v. Children’s Hospital, the Supreme Court ruled minimum-wage legislation unconstitutional13.
The large and growing disparity of wealth between the well-to-do and the middle-income citizens made the U.S. economy unstable. For an economy to function properly, total demand must equal total supply. In an economy with such disparate distribution of income, it is not assured that demand will always equal supply.
Essentially what happened in the 1920’s was that there was an oversupply of goods. It was not that the surplus products of industrialized society were not wanted, but rather that those whose needs were not satiated could not afford more, whereas the wealthy were satiated by spending only a small portion of their income. A 1932 article in Current History articulates the problems of this maldistribution of wealth:
We still pray to be given each day our daily bread. Yet there is too much bread, too much wheat and corn, meat and oil and almost every other commodity required by man for his subsistence and material happiness. We are not able to purchase the abundance that modern methods of agriculture, mining and manufacturing make available in such bountiful quantities.
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