Considered the largest natural disaster in United States history, years of drought and unsound agricultural practices led to the blowing away of the top soil in large portions of the Plains states. While a significant area of the nation was affected by the drought and dust storms, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, and the Texas Panhandle were particularly hard hit. The unlivable conditions sent upwards of 400,000 people West as they desperately sought a new livelihood in the agricultural fields of California.
Historians may disagree over the complex economic factors that led to the Great Depression, but it is universally acknowledged to be the most severe and long lasting worldwide economic depression in history. Traditionally dated from the stock market collapse in October 1929 to the outbreak of WW II in 1939, the Great Depression resulted in wide scale unemployment, homelessness, and combined with the devastation of the Dust Bowl in the US, a massive migration of Central Plains' residents to California. At the height of the Depression, the unemployment rate was near 25%. President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted a sweeping economic stimulus plan, known as the New Deal, in order to combat unemployment and poverty in the United States. While his plans did succeed in putting some citizens back to work, the unemployment rate did not recede to its pre-depression rate until 1941 when the United States entered WW II.
A comprehensive series of programs implemented by President Franklin D. Roosevelt designed to provide economic recovery from the Great Depression. New Deal programs extended into all areas of employment, ranging from industry to the arts. Both Steinbeck and Tom Collins were ardent supporters of New Deal Policies. Unfortunately, as Charles Wollenberg points out in his introduction to The Harvest Gypsies, the disenfranchised migrant workers, who lacked "political clout", received little aid in comparison to the "massive government expenditures" designated for the politically powerful California growers (xiii). While the growers received much aid under the program, the migrants, who remained ineligible for social security and state relief assistance, received only "a small, poorly funded camp program" that was never adequately developed to meet the needs of thousands of destitute workers (xiii). Ultimately, rather than New Deal policies, the economic boom created by World War II would provide the employment opportunities necessary to save the migrants from destitution.
Name given to the migrant worker shanty towns erected all over California during the 1930s. They were so named after President Herbert Hoover who was popularly believed to have led the nation into the Great Depression. While the term is most popularly associated with the migrant labor camps in California in the 30s, Hoovervilles were present all over the United States as homelessness became a pervasive problem during the Depression. Steinbeck forever emblazoned the image of the Hooverville in the American mind with his memorable depiction of the rampant filth, poverty, and starvation of California's agricultural migrant camps in The Grapes of Wrath (1939).
Steinbeck adamantly opposed the vigilante "terrorism," which he dubbed the "disgrace of California," employed as a means of oppressing the migrant workers and keeping them in a perpetual state of fear (Harvest Gypsies 61). In The Harvest Gypsies, Steinbeck argues that vigilantism undermines the authority of the federal government and encourages the breakdown of democracy by promoting lawlessness. He writes, "Since a government is its system of laws, and since armed vigilantism is an attempt to overthrow that system of laws and to substitute a government of violence, prosecution could be carried out on the grounds of guilt under the criminal syndicalism laws already on our statute books" (Harvest Gypsies 61). Steinbeck rails against the "stupid" and detestable policy of vigilantism in both In Dubious Battle (1936) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939) (Harvest Gypsies 37).
Term Steinbeck used to describe the emigrants flocking to California from the Central Plains during the 1930s. Steinbeck saw the white American migrants' situation to be unique from the foreign migrants who comprised the agricultural labor pool before them since they had come from prosperity. Unlike the foreign-born migrants who were male, single, and oppressed into peonage by a system of legalized discrimination, the American migrants had nearly all been farmers or farm laborers and arrived with their entire families in tow. Steinbeck reports: "They are men who have worked hard on their own farms and have felt the pride of possessing and living in close touch with the land. They are resourceful and intelligent Americans who have gone through the hell of the drought, have seen their lands wither and die and the top soil blow away; and this, to a man who has owned his land, is a curious and terrible pain (Harvest Gypsies 22). Steinbeck believed their ingenuity and resiliency would eventually protect them from being forced into a perpetual state of poverty and warned that these Americans could only be pushed so far before revolting.