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I was trying to look this up earlier and could not easily find reliable information on the internet, mostly due to a new popular claim that 7 million people starved to death in the Great Depression! Otherwise, for the most part, what I could find were claims that no one starved to death, which are mostly predicated on the idea that all the deaths that seem like starvation are really severe malnutrition. According to the UN, malnutrition is still the leading cause of death in the world today. In the US, tens of thousands were dying during the years of the Depression from pellegra, which was cured in 1938 through niacin supplementation. This is known because there were Pellegra hospitals and it was believed to be an infectious disease so there are good records.

New York, which was 10% of the US population, was experiencing death by starvation and would keep track much better than most places, such as Appalachia or Oklahoma, where I would think it would be much, much worse before the New Deal programs started. There is evidence that many government agencies conducted studies on malnutrition levels, but at the time they did not have an established definition or complete understanding of the symptoms of malnutrition would be or even what foods a person must eat to not die. Source: this and this

So, I would be very interested to know how many people died of malnutrition or lack of calories, if any estimate is possible.

Since it is already demonstrable false to me, it isn't necessary to disprove the claims in the Pravda article.

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    Just goes to show you shouldn't believe what a paper called "Truth" says! – andy256 Apr 1 '14 at 7:31
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    so the USSR state newspaper is still posting anti-American propaganda? The more things seem to change the more they stay the same it seems. – jwenting Apr 1 '14 at 10:44
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    I have some family experience with this. My great-grandfather was a doctor in rural Oklahoma during the depression. My grandmother used to help him in the office, and told me stories of parents bringing in "sick" kids, and being given "prescriptions" for food, fillable at the drugstore downstairs. This was in SE Oklahoma, which was not even the part hardest-hit by the dust-bowl. – T.E.D. Apr 1 '14 at 14:32
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    Sounds like a diversionary claim to try and offset the Ukraninan Famines in the 30s when Stalin intentionally starved about 10 million. – Oldcat Apr 1 '14 at 20:51
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    I wouldn't believe that Russian source. They have an axe to grind. – Tom Au Jun 29 '14 at 14:35
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According to my quick reading of the Life and death during the Great Depression by José A. Tapia Granadosa and Ana V. Diez Roux, the only noticeable increase of mortality was suicide, with a noticeable decline of mortality in every other category.

It's interesting that this paper was written in 2009, before the (shall we say) sensationalist Russian claim of 7 million deaths.

According also to Michael Mosley, life expectancy actually rose through the Great Depression. In his Horizon programme Eat, Fast and Live Longer he claims

From 1929 to 1933, in the darkest years of the great depression when people were eating far less, life expectancy increased by 6 years.

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    This is the result of an amazing decline in TB (the Red Death). You can see it on their data table figures. The main vector of TB is milk... Looking at this, there could still be hundreds of thousands of famine deaths even though the mortality rate improved. – Razie Mah Apr 1 '14 at 8:03
  • There is lot of discussion in other places (sorry, no refs yet) about whether deaths could have been attributed to malnutrition and related illnesses instead of starvation. There are also discussions accepting the argument put by Mosley (he didn't invent it) that life expectancy rose due to restricted food intake. I'll update my answer if I can find any refs. But overall, I don't see a strong case for large numbers of deaths. – andy256 Apr 1 '14 at 9:37
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    seeing as the US diet was far higher than starvation standards before the GD, even a serious reduction would have been unlikely to induce starvation level conditions in the majority of the population. And with enough food available overall, and the US always having had a very active local charity network, it's quite likely there would have been help for at least the majority of those who could not afford to feed themselves. In fact for quite a few people a somewhat leaner diet may well have contributed to the increased life expectancy. – jwenting Apr 1 '14 at 10:47
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    <ctd> of course that doesn't take into account the dustbowl in the mid west which devestated harvest for a few years, and may well have caused severe local hardship. But the transportation network (especially the railways) would have seen to both supply of aid and the evacuation of the afflicted (the number of hobos rose massively during that period). – jwenting Apr 1 '14 at 10:49
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    @RazieMah if famines really increased life expectancy there would be a plethora of data to support that and there is none - there is a now steady stream of studies that show a connection between reduced food intake and increased life expectancy. The Mosley programme I referenced above explores some of that research. – andy256 Apr 2 '14 at 3:02
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Health researchers collected data on causes of death in 114 U.S. cities during the Great Depression. Their findings confirm the impressions of many observers in the 1930s, mortality did not increase during the Great Depression:

enter image description here

They include a table that shows trends in death rates per 100,000 population. Starvation does not appear on the list, nor does it rate a mention in the article. The researchers do acknowledge that malnutrition led to decreased health during the Depression, but not to increased mortality. Malnutrition was a widespread problem, starvation was not.

enter image description here

A few comments about the table. First, death due to disease generally did not increase during the period, so the researchers are not misclassifying "death due to malnutrition" to "death due to disease." Second, note that in the table they even break out diseases like Smallpox, responsible for death rates under 1 in 100,000. This generally implies that starvation would have been responsible for deaths at an equivalent or lower rate.

This study confirms other studies that find, for example, that the infant mortality rate consistently declined across the 1930s:

enter image description here

The caveat is that this study is based on urban populations, and certain rural populations may have experienced more severe poverty. But the overall message is that deaths due to starvation would have been rare throughout this period. My admittedly very ballpark extrapolation from these data is that we might find a rate in the thousands per year before the New Deal agencies got up and running:

Importantly, this study shows that economic crisis does not guarantee a mortality crisis, but instead reinforces the notion that what crucially matters is how governments respond and whether protective social and public health policies are in place both during and in advance of economic shocks


Sources: David Stuckler, Christopher Meissner, Price Fishback, Sanjay Basu, Martin McKee. 2011. "Banking crises and mortality during the Great Depression: evidence from US urban populations, 1929-1937." Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. (link)

Price Fishback, Michael Haines, and Shawn Kantor. 2005. "Births, Deaths, and New Deal Relief During the Great Depression."

  • Hopefully the OP returns occasionally, as this is a more well researched answer and IMO should be considered for acceptance. – CGCampbell Mar 15 '15 at 14:28
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    @CGCampbell: Thanks. My only objection to the other answer is the bit about the Depression diet. The increase in life expectancy during the 1930s was just due to the continuation of mortality trends from the 1920s. It's kind of unsavory to suggest that the Depression was actively good for those worst hit by it. – two sheds Mar 15 '15 at 14:36
  • Interestingly, as well as a higher suicide rate from 1929 to 1934, homicide rates appear to have grown by one point, roughly, during the same period. – BOB Jan 25 '16 at 14:27
  • Is any explanation given for the sharp rise from 1935 to 1936 of almost 70 points? It is not across the board, but concentrated in a few categories such as Heart Disease (+25), Cancer (+6) and Pneumonia (+12) – Pieter Geerkens Jan 25 '16 at 16:48
  • @twosheds Good answer, (+1), with a caveat: You've got the statement "this study is based on urban populations." Rural populations were larger in the US back then. You answer will be more factual if you change the first paragraph to read "mortality in the cities did not increase during the Great Depression:" – axsvl77 Nov 30 '16 at 18:41
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I'm afraid you have to understand that at the time period we are talking about it was especially hard to get independent information and government- backed information is almost guaranteed to be doctored for political, social and other reasons. This would apply not only to the US, but to Germany and the Soviet Union as well. If you remember a phrase from 'Doctor Zhivago' movie: '...this is another disease we don't have in Moscow - starvation...'. It's natural for the governments to deny and hide any information about any adverse events. In addition, it may be easily claimed that no one died of starvation because unless somebody is locked up and deprived ANY food he can easily die of pneumonia, for example, which his body won't be able to handle because it's too weak because of poor nutrition and which otherwise it could handle. In that sense, unless the statistics were properly doctored, it could be very interesting to compare it with the statistics for the previous and later 5-10 years.

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    Please see the existing answers. Pneumonia was pretty stable at 1:1000 deaths, and so are other diseases. Also, you seem to ignore that the USA was a democracy at the time, unlike Germany and the Soviet Union. Even if the government wanted to hide it (they didn't - new Deal), the opposition would have had opposite motives. Finally, those doctoring the statistics in the pre-computer age generally didn't foresee the analytical powers we now have. You can't vanish 7 million people. – MSalters Jan 25 '16 at 12:48
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    @MSalters The USA, while undoubtedly more wealthy for the classes than Nazi German or the Soviet Union, was not a pardise free from propaganda, statistics alteration, and evil actions by the state and TPTB. For example, Germany's ethnic cleansing program originated as California State policy. – axsvl77 Nov 30 '16 at 18:34
  • @axsvl77 that's pretty poor evidence to support your claim that the US regularly doctored propaganda during the great depression. – justinm410 Nov 30 '16 at 20:39
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    @justinm410 My evidence is saying those in power in the US are not, and were not saints. The idea that the statistics are perfect in the US is a little nuts if you ask me. – axsvl77 Nov 30 '16 at 21:03
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    @axsvl77: The same observation holds for the US as for the USSR: 80 years back, neither could fathom our ability to process data, and thereby observe imperfect statistics. We know that a few million Russians starved to death, and we know Russian leadership caused it; we know that starvation in the US must have been far more rare to go unnoticed. (Which also means it's hard to blame the Federal government - they had bigger, more noticeable problems to handle) – MSalters Dec 1 '16 at 1:46

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