Starvation in America?

I recently read an article posted on an alarmist web site that stated that “millions of Americans starved to death during the Great Depression”. Is there any truth to this? My parents and their siblings and mothers and fathers all lived through this period, they were not hesitant to share with their children their experiences, and I don’t recall ever hearing about people starving. What’s the real skinny?

There was hunger and malnutrition, and it was very serious, but reports of mass starvation in the U.S. during the Great Depression are greatly exaggerated, from all I’ve ever read. Don’t know how many actually starved to death here but it would’ve been very few, if any.

It’s been pretty damn difficult to starve to death in the US since the beginning of the 20th century, and a long while before that in most of the country. Even during the Great Depression, there were no famines. Food was sometimes scarce, and people did go hungry, though, especially in some rural areas where charities and government programs could not easily reach. Still, the situation was not generally lethal.

If “millions of people” means even 1.3 million, then that is 1% of the US population in 1940. Which means 1 out of every 100 people must have starved to death. Either there would have been a huge famine in one isolated area, or else if it was spread out equally over the country, almost everyone alive at the time would have known someone who starved to death. The same way everyone alive in WW2 know someone who served.

So I don’t buy it. Did people starve? Probably some. Did millions starve? Not likely, or else we would all have stories of Uncle Bob, who starved in '32, and Grandpa Dave, in '36. It would have been almost a Holocaust level of death and horror that we would all be deeply aware of.

On a tangent, I recall seeing some documentary a few months ago that studied the long-term effects of malnutrition during the Depression. I was half asleep when it was on and don’t remember the details, but apparently there was some sort of health benefit in some cases, but not in others. Sorry I can’t be more specific…

Where there were major crop failures (i.e., the Dust Bowl), people didn’t just stay there and starve; they left. Instead of famine, we had migration. That’s how the Okie exodus described in The Grapes of Wrath came to be. There is a scene at the very end of that book showing one starving man, but he’s pretty clearly allegorical.

Millions starved “to death”? Not a chance. If it were that many, you’d see extensive, proven, documentation about this number all over the internet, similar to the Jewish Holocaust of WWII.

Tens of thousands? Nope. If it were tens of thousands, or even thousands, you’d see similar, proven, numbers all over the internet, similar to the pandemics of Yellow Fever in in the South during the 1890s and 1900s.

Make no mistake: malnutrition and poverty was extreme in the 1930s, and there were no doubt millions who lived in poverty during that time (which is probably what that author was meaning to reference; the numbers who lived in poverty, not the actual deaths). I’m sure we could come up with documented cases of people actually starving “to death” in America during that time. But nothing I’ve ever come across comes close to suggesting the deaths were “millions.” It was probably in the hundreds. At best.

False start.

And had an extremely memorable snack.

I posted on this sort of topic a few months ago, didn’t get much specific (though some posters noted that still another earlier thread had existed, which I never found).

I would highly doubt “millions” or even “thousands” though.

It’s pretty much impossible to obtain accurate figures on starvation deaths because in all likelihood nobody has ever starved to death in the entire history of the world.

To actually starve to death, ie to die from a lack of energy caused by insufficient calories, you would need to be undernourished for a prolonged period and then engage in some very strenuous exercise. In reality that just isn’t going to happen. Maybe some prisoners somewhere have been starved to death in this manner, but for various reasons it’s quite hard to do even under those circumstances. For free people starving to death is impossible.

What happens in reality is that people become increasingly malnourished and then succumb to some other cause of death related to their malnutrition. Most commonly this is going to be disease, but malnourished people also become lethargic and mentally incapacitated and succumb to accidents.

So it’s going to be impossible to find figures on how many people in the US starved to death. Someone has already mentioned the Grapes of Wrath, but they overlooked the real examples of people starving to death. There were several references in there to children dying of malnutrition because of a diet that consisted almost exclusively of starch.

And that is where most of the US starvation deaths are going to be hidden: childhood malnutrition. While food may have been available in the great depression it wasn’t being given away. People living in poverty had real problems obtaining enough protein and fresh vegetables to keep them alive. As a result malnutrition was rampant and the death rates from various diseases and “accidents” would have gone through the roof.

But you will never see the cause of death listed as “starvation”. The cause of death will be septicemia, or pneumonia or dehydration because that is what actually killed the victims. But for all practical purposes those individuals starved to death: they died because they couldn’t get sufficient food.

The only way to even estimate starvation deaths during the depression would be to look at the death rates from diseases and accidents prior to the depression, then look at the rates during the depression. Whatever the difference is the best estimate of the death rate from starvation.


While I doubt that starvation caused millions of deaths it is not entirely implausible. The figure would certainly have been in the tens of thousands.

The elderly are another group whose life expectancy is drastically reduced by malnutrition, making them susceptible to the ailments associated with “old age” rather younger than they would have otherwise. Their death certificates wouldn’t say starvation either.

According tothis 1939 report(warning: pdf) the death rate in the U.S. actually remained pretty steady from 1929-1937, between 10.7 (in 1934) - 11.9 (in 1929) per 1,000. Compare that to 1928, when the death rate was 12.1/1,000.

In fact, the death rate from 1932-1935 was actually lower than previous or subsequent years.

There was a pretty steady decline in live births during those years, but the population continued to grow from 116.3 million in 1929 to 129.2 million in 1937.

Hunger, yes. But “millions starving?” The data don’t reflect it.