An AP reporter, Robert Geiger, coined the Dust Bowl in 1935 to describe the drought-affected south-central United States after horrific dust storms. Due to severe dust storms, American and Canadian prairies suffered great damage from the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. People and livestock died as high winds and choking dust swept across the region from Texas to Nebraska. Dryland farming methods were not used to prevent wind erosion due to a severe drought. Three waves of drought hit the High Plains in 1934, 1936, and 1939–1940, but some regions were hit for up to eight years. Due to the Dust Bowl, many farming families were forced to migrate in search of work and better living conditions during the Great Depression.
Dorothea Lange’s photography reflects the Depression-era struggle faced by American farmers in the face of drought and dust. Thirteen million Americans were unemployed in 1933, during the depths of the worldwide Depression; many were homeless, drifting aimlessly, and lacking food. Droughts and dust storms contributed to economic hardships in the Midwest and Southwest. In the 1930s, some 300,000 men, women, and children migrated west to California in search of work. No matter where they came from, these migrant families were called “Okies” (as from Oklahoma). They traveled from place to place in dilapidated cars and trucks, following the crops. Leaving her studio, Lange began documenting these poor folks in the streets and on the highways of California. Lange photographed the economic and social upheaval of the Depression. She developed techniques of putting her subjects at ease and documenting pertinent remarks to accompany the photographs. She often revealed personal information about her subjects in her titles and annotations.
Approximately 3.5 million people left the Plains states between 1930 and 1940. Over 86,000 people migrated to California in just over a year. The migrant population abandoned farms in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico, but they were generally referred to as “Okies,” “Arkies,” or “Texies.” People who had lost all and struggled the most during the Great Depression became known as “Okies” and “Arkies” in the 1930s. Some migrants traveled long distances, but most moved from counties highly affected by the Dust Bowl to counties less affected. Families left their farms and moved to the Great Plains in such large numbers that migrants and residents were nearly equal. It is estimated that only 43 percent of Southwesterners worked on farms before they migrated, based on Census Bureau statistics and other records and a 1939 survey of occupations by the Bureau of Agricultural Economics of about 116,000 families that arrived in California during the 1930s. The majority of migrants were professionals or white-collar workers. While some farmers had to hire unskilled labor when they moved, leaving the farming sector typically led to greater social mobility in the future because there were greater chances that migrant farmers would eventually move into semi-skilled or high-skilled jobs that paid better. There were more downward occupational moves among non-farmers than farmers. Still, in most cases, they were not significant enough to bring them into poverty since high-skilled migrants were most likely to shift into semi-skilled work. Even though semi-skilled work did not pay as well as high-skilled labor, most of these workers were not impoverished. According to their occupational changes, migrants generally fared better than those who stayed behind by the end of the Dust Bowl.
Many migrants returned to their original states after the Great Depression ended. Others remained in their new homes. One-eighth of California’s residents are of Okie descent. To document the crisis, the Farm Security Administration hired several photographers. The federal government hired photographers, musicians, and authors during the Great Depression to document the crisis. The Dust Bowl and Depression also influenced the work of independent artists. Author John Steinbeck wrote about the Dust Bowl displaced migrant workers and farm families in The Grapes of Wrath (1939), based partly on field notes taken by FSA worker and author Sanora Babb. In response to Steinbeck’s success, Babb’s novel about the lives of migrant workers, Whose Names Are Unknown, was eclipsed, shelved, and eventually published in 2004. Several Woody Guthrie’s songs, including those on Dust Bowl Ballads, depict his experiences during the Dust Bowl era of the Great Depression when he traveled with displaced farmers from Oklahoma to California and learned their traditional folk and blues songs, earning him the nickname “Dust Bowl Troubadour.”
Housing for rapidly growing fringe of lettuce workers on edge of town. There houses are built by the occupants, most of them recent migrants from the Southwest. (Subject of BAE) Frequently tents and trailers are on the same lots where houses are under construction. Salinas, California.