One image of the Great Depression was of the tramps, the hobos drifting from town to town. Folk singer Woody Guthrie sang many a lyric on the theme, such as “the highway that’s our home / It’s a never-ending highway / For a dust bowl refugee.” And: “Go to sleep you weary hobo / Let the towns drift slowly by / Can’t you hear the steel rails hummin’ / That’s the hobo’s lullaby.” Also: “By the relief office I seen my people / As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking / Is this land made for you and me?” Steinbeck’s classic Grapes of Wrath(1939; movie directed by John Ford, 1940) was, of course, about a hobo-ing family, the Joads.
But tramping was not unique to the Great Depression. It typically appeared during every major American depression and financial panic. Millions, mainly men, displaced from economically busted or drought-blasted farms, or laid off at the mills, mines, or major ports, hit the road and rails looking for work.
Now, here we are in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Where are the tramps of the Great Recession?
For most of American history, hitting the road was a normal part of life. Unless one was lucky, getting displaced was bound to happen. For farmers, the trigger could be a sudden drop in crop prices, new competition from other regions, crop-eating critters, or, as in Guthrie’s time, bad weather. Indeed, many American pioneers heading westward in covered wagons were as likely fleeing misfortune as pursuing opportunity.
For urban workers, depressions, technological displacement, competition, a boss’s mismanagement, or other misfortunes would put an end to payday and start them to tramping. As the Panic of 1893 hit, for example, about half of San Francisco’s craftsmen lost their jobs. For many factory and dock workers, relocating was a seasonal process: Work would cease for a few months and workers moved to another job or back to the family farm until the boss called them back to work. Many industries relied on armies of “floaters,” transients who could come in for the peak production season and then go away. As late as 1910, perhaps 3.5 million of America’s 10.4 million unskilled laborers floated from job to job – in the same town if they were lucky or traveling the road if they were not.
Typically, community leaders resented the burden of tramps, warned citizens not give them handouts, and directed the police to move them on. For example, in affluent Palo Alto, California, during the winter of 1894-95, the Women’s Club and local businessmen supported a “Friendly Woodyard” that employed and helped hobos for up to three days before sending them on their way. The Great Depression was harder.
The city established a shelter for transients in 1930, but the center lost local support, and in 1934 the city changed it to a community kitchen with a new sign: “Only PA men need apply.” About 50 miles away, in Antioch, the local paper expressed a view in 1919 about charity that was probably representative: “There is work practically all the time for those who desire employment and it is not right that industrious people should feed these leeches.”
For the most part, in those times and in the other times of dislocation, these “tramps were,” as one historian of labor put it, “the ordinary working people of the United States on the move between jobs and residences.” In the Great Depression, many women and young children, and even people who had fallen from the middle class, joined the migrations. It was also the first major case in which much of the tramping was – as in the case of the Joads – car tramping.
So, where are the tramps or automobile vagabonds of the Great Recession? (In a 2010 post I asked, Where is the crime wave of this recession?) There are some modern-day hobos; news stories occasionally highlight accounts of formerly stable families living out of their cars and the number of homeless people charities must handle has grown. But, these cases do not seem to sufficiently reflect the doubling of the unemployment rate between 2005 and 2009 and how much longer people stay unemployed – from a median of about 7 weeks in 2005 to over 20 weeks now (here). In fact, the rate of migration in the United States dropped notably after 2007.
Our current near-depression may have produced fewer tramps for several reasons. Even with all the current pain, its severity may not be great enough to send people on the road. Perhaps having so many more wives working has allowed families to absorb job losses in ways that were not possible a couple of generations ago. Perhaps Americans’ financial resources (or those of their close relatives) have grown enough to absorb the shock. Perhaps technology matters: With nearly universal automobile ownership and a vast highway system, jobless Americans can “tramp” around the local metropolitan area looking for work without actually moving.
Maybe this staying in place is the result of conscious national policies to make financial misfortunate less disruptive: especially, unemployment insurance (which keeps getting extended by the Congress depending on state conditions), also food stamps, disability coverage (another way to leave a job), housing assistance, and so forth.
Some observers believe that such support is precisely the nub of the problem. These “welfare state” programs, as well as others such as the minimum wage, they argue, stifle employment and growth. If the American unemployed had no such safety nets, they would have to move to where there were jobs, take whatever employment was available (even if that work, say in farm labor or in janitorial service, seemed below their stations), and the economy would reignite. I am pretty skeptical of such abstract analyses; for example, the Panic of 1893 set off five years of double-digit unemployment even though there were no safety nets. But this is one explanation for why mass unemployment today has not produced an army of hobos. Still, the mystery of the missing migrations — and the missing balladeers of those migrations — remains.
(This column was cross-posted on The Berkeley Blog on June 24, 2011.)