An article published in Russia claims that 7 million people are demographically unaccounted for during the Great Depression in the USA, and can therefore be assumed to have died as a result of the economic hardships, presumably mostly by nutritional deficiencies(?).

article: http://english.pravda.ru/world/americas/19-05-2008/105255-famine-1/

I do not know how to evaluate this claim. Can anyone help me understand why it has merit or not?

I read a similar question on this site: How many people in the US starved to death during the Great Depression?. This similar question does not deconstruct the Russian researcher's claims, just refers to them as "demonstrably false".

I would have commented on that question, but I do not have enough reputation to do so (this being my first day on this site).


1 Answer 1


The United States did not experience famine conditions during the Great Depression. Consider that a major economic problem during the Depression was that there was too much food. This "excess" supply made food too cheap, which bit into farmers' profits. To address the "problem" of overproduction, the government paid farmers not to plant crops:

The Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) was a United States federal law of the New Deal era which reduced agricultural production by paying farmers subsidies not to plant on part of their land and to kill off excess livestock. Its purpose was to reduce crop surplus and therefore effectively raise the value of crops.

Obviously, destroying food didn't sit well with many people, so in October 1933 Congress created the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation. The FSRC

aimed to divert commodities such as apples, beans, canned beef and cotton to local relief organizations. In December 1933, the agency distributed three million tons of coal to the unemployed of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa and in September 1934 shipped 692,228,274 pounds of foodstuffs to the unemployed in thirty US states.

The FRSC eventually branched out into school lunches, and by 1939 it was serving lunches to around 900,000 children daily. The FSRC was just one of the many alphabet agencies created during the New Deal. Other major agencies included the Works Progress Administration employed millions of men and the Civilian Conservation Corps employed 3,000,000 men in nine years,

The basic effectiveness of these poverty relief programs is evident in the fact that historians and economists are consistently unable to find increases in American mortality attributable to the Great Depression (with the exception of suicide).

I'm not claiming that there wasn't poverty, hunger, and hardship during the Depression: there definitely was death due to starvation during the 1930s. But in no sense did the United States experience anything on the scale of the Holodomor. Would Hoover (who helped address Russian famine after WWI) or FDR (father of the modern American welfare state) have allowed around 5% of the population to starve to death when the nation literally had more food than it knew what to do with?

The answer: probably not. The basic humanity of the two presidents aside, the well-known economist Amartya Sen argues that electoral pressures in functioning democracies tend to prevent famine. And indeed, the first presidential election after the start of the Depression brought in an administration and Congress devoted to using the power of the state to distribute food and resources to needy Americans.

  • 3
    My Grandmother's father was a doctor in rural Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. She told me she witnessed him multiple times write out "prescriptions" for food to starving children brought into his office because they seemed sick. When you consider that about 1/6th of the people in this state today have issues with hunger, dial back to a time when we didn't have today's safety net, and this answer just doesn't jibe with reality.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 19:26
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    For the record, the "prescriptions" were redeemable at the restaurant in his building, he paid for them, and the amount was put on the patient's account. I'm told he died with 10s of thousands of dollars owed in those accounts. His kids were not allowed to pay for much of anything whenever they went home.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 19:30
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    I'm not saying the exact number in the question is reasonable (and the stated methodology in the question frankly looks highly sketchy). But 0 isn't reasonable either.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 19:31
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    @T.E.D.: I didn't mean to imply the number was 0. I know that in some years around a hundred starved to death in NYC alone. That's America for you: we will tolerate "marginal" people suffering and starving to death. But those numbers just don't scale to anything in the millions.
    – two sheds
    Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 19:38
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    I think democracy, in particular the USA form, gives disproportional influence to the rich, over that of the poor, and this same dynamic was in place at the time of the Great Depression. I can provide links if necessary.
    – Maya
    Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 19:59

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