The 1930s were a challenging time in American history. Not only was the nation confronted with the economic crisis of the Great Depression, but the environmental disaster of the Dust Bowl severely exacerbated the crisis by causing the evacuation of large portions of America's Central Plains. What was once the "bread basket of the nation," was literally blowing away after years of severe drought and unsound agricultural practices, which failed to sustain the integrity of the earth's topsoil. The damage was extensive. According to a timeline published by PBS.org, "The 'Yearbook of Agriculture' for 1934 announce[d], 'Approximately 35 million acres of formerly cultivated land have essentially been destroyed for crop production.... 100 million acres now in crops have lost all or most of the topsoil; 125 million acres of land now in crops are rapidly losing topsoil....' ("Timeline of the Dust Bowl"). Besides obliterating crop production and thus employment opportunities, the area, overtaken by frequent massive clouds of blowing dust, became completely unlivable.
As a result, hundreds of thousands of Plains' residents hit the road in anything with wheels and took an often desperate and dangerous trip to California looking for work. As Steinbeck was coming of age as a writer, California was being inundated with hundreds of thousands of refugees. The results of the catastrophe are movingly recorded in both The Harvest Gypsies and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The already tense labor situation became even more strained as agitators worked amongst the migrants seeking to organize the labor pool. Strikes and vigilante violence were commonplace as the growers', suspicious of Communist organizers and sympathizers, sought to protect their interests against the mass of starving migrants looking for work in the state.
The untenable situation gained the attention of the Federal Government and several New Deal administrative programs, such as the Farm Security Administration and Resettlement Administration, were developed to help bring order to the area and some relief to the displaced and impoverished migrants. Many migrants sought refuge in Federal camps, which had the benefit of running water, sanitation, medical supplies and opportunities for children to attend school. Though many camps were planned for construction, few were actually built. Most migrants were left to fend for their own survival in filthy and diseased squatters camps on the sides of California's roadways.