The primary effects for children of the American Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s were hard labor, malnutrition and hunger, and displacement. Many young people also developed emotional and psychological problems as a result of living in constant uncertainty and of seeing their families in hardship. The difficult working conditions of this period meant that many children were orphaned, too, and orphans were often left to fend for themselves, even at very young ages. Many of the children who survived this period grew into very frugal adults who placed a profound emphasis on saving and education, as if to keep the experiences of their growing-up years from repeating.
Desolate families often had no choice but to put their children to work to help earn money. Sometimes kids accompanied their parents peddling goods or tending fields, but other times they worked more or less independently, doing manual labor and working long, grueling hours. In most cases children were pulled out of school, often at the elementary level, in order to help their families get by. The United States today has rather rigorous laws preventing child labor and requiring education up to a certain point, but these laws did not exist at the time of the Depression. In many cases the young people who left school to work never went back, even after the economy stabilized.
Hunger and Malnutrition
Many children of the Great Depression were malnourished and ill. Food was sparse, and the things that were available often lacked the protein, vitamins, and minerals that growing children need to thrive. Almost all laborers in this period went to bed hungry, though the impacts were perhaps the harshest for the very young, whose growth and development in many ways depends on solid nutrition.
The infant mortality rate was also very high, due in part to poor maternal health and nutrition and in part to the lack of proper medical care. Few families could afford to see doctors or other medical professionals, which meant that they more or less cared for themselves — but with basically no resources. Lack of dental care caused many to suffer from tooth decay and periodontal disease at a young age, as well.
Displacement and Isolation
Rather than watch their children starve, many families elected to send children to various relatives or friends in other places. Sometimes this was done out of a hope of a better existence, but in many cases it was simply to have one less mouth to feed. Children who were displaced or sent away from their parents and siblings often felt profoundly isolated, and many did not understand why they could not remain at home. This was particularly true when some, but not all, children were relocated. Those forced to leave often resented those who were allowed to stay, particularly if they perceived their new circumstances to be harsher.
Special Concerns for Orphans
During the Great Depression, many children were left orphaned as their parents succumbed to illness, died of injuries sustained at the workplace, or starved. This led to what later became known as the plight of the Orphan Train children. A number of labor organizers made it a practice to essentially round up orphans who were otherwise destitute and fending for themselves, then move them to rural farm areas where they were forced to do rigorous farm work in exchange for room and board. Most of these arrangements were passed off as voluntary, but the children involved rarely had all of the information before agreeing to go and in most cases they worked essentially as indentured servants. They received no pay for their work, and many who tried to leave were told that they had to work longer to pay off the debt the landowners had incurred to pay for their shelter.
Orphaned children who endured these living circumstances for long stretches often found themselves in desperate situations as they grew into adulthood. Some went on to lead happy and prosperous lives, but many also ran away from their labor farms as they approached their teenage years only to become involved in criminal activities. Some resorted to armed robbery and prostitution, while others spent years imprisoned for committing felonies.
Emotional and Psychological Scars
Other elements that affected children of the Great Depression were fear and psychological depression. As the relentless pressure of work with little reward continued, many saw little hope at home. In many cases, these emotional tolls lasted well into adulthood. Some children who were exhausted from their daily routine of laborious work ran away and hopped aboard railroad trains and boxcars, and a number died in accidents as a result or else ended up on orphan labor farms when they hit a point of desperation along their trek.
Most of the children who survived the Depression years carried the scars of the era well into adulthood, and many even to death. These people tend to be very frugal, and often focus intently on saving. Many have a hard time throwing almost anything away, possibly out of fear that it may one day become useful or direly needed. It is also common for many to put a big focus on education, especially when it comes to university training.