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In Haper Lees To Kill a Mockingbird the socioeconomic realities of the Great

Depression are depicted accurately. The novel has many characters belonging to different
positions in the socioeconomic hierarchy. Each characters socioeconomic problems are
analyzed using detailed dialogues and Scouts point of view.
The poor economic condition of farmers, like the Cunninghams, during the Great
Depression is described in the novel. They need to entail some of their land to fund their
harvest. The rest of the land is mortgaged to the hilt, which means that the borrower
has an exceptional amount of debt which he isnt probably going to pay back (Lee 21).
They dont have any cash available after paying heavy interests to banks, and thus have
to render to bartering. They even suffer hunger at times, evident by Walters lack of lunch
money in school and the way he indulges in syrup at Atticus house. However, the
Cunningham family is strict about repaying their lenders with whatever they have in
stock because they deeply value their land. In many of the testimonials and
autobiographical texts of 1930s farmers, a similar passion for farmland is found
(Ganzel). During WWI Herbert Hoover, US food administrator, urged farmers to increase
crop production because Europes food demand was high. Thus, farmers began to borrow
money for land and machinery like tractors. The farm mortgages doubled between 1910
and 1920 from approximately $3 billion to $6 billion (McElvaine 1932). However,
Europeans began to feed themselves after the war, and American crop prices plummeted.
In 1930s southern farmers werent only hit with a rapid devaluation of crops, they also
had to combat one of the longest drought periods in American history. However, farmers
steadfast attitude allowed them to keep their lands, survive the anxious period, and even

find money to invest in better farming solutions such as better tractors, hybrid seed corn,
and pesticides. This steadfast attitude is clear in the way Mr. Cunningham consistently
pays Atticus in installments with smilax, holly, turnips, collards, and hickory nuts. Walter
Cunningham shares his fathers responsibilities towards the land. In his conversation with
Atticus, he discusses how he doesnt find any time to study for school because he has to
help his father with chopping during the spring season. His conversation makes it clear
how the Cunninghams belonged to a breed of farmers that were even willing to sacrifice
their childrens education to save their land.
Atticus explains the bartering system in Maycomb to Scout by describing how
hard it is to find nickels and dimes in their farm countya phenomenon that economists
refer to as liquidity crunch. Then he gives her an example of Dr. Reynolds who charges
folks a bushel of potatoes for delivering a baby. Bartering in a less populated county, like
Maycomb, may be conceivable. However, the bartering systems high transaction costs,
including search costs, bargaining costs, and enforcement costs, rendered it an ineffective
method of transaction for any society containing greater than 150 citizens (Ferguson 28).
Bartering only became an economic reality for small societies during the depression
because of the liquidity crunch and intense deflation (Rothbard 311). Walter Schmitt, a
blacksmith who experienced the 1930s Great Depression, recalls accepting potatoes as a
form of payment (Ganzel). And, Helen Bolton recollects paying her doctor with bushels
of corn. She further recalls that the price of corn was 10 cents per bushel during the
depression, but after the price rose to 50 cents per bushelconfirming the significant
devaluation of crops during the depression (Ganzel).

When Scout asks Atticus if they are poor, he says yes, indeed. Atticus said
professional people were poor because the farmers were poor. Atticus Finch is a lawyer,
and can be coupled in the same socioeconomic category with other professional such as
Judge Taylor, Dr. Reynolds, and Sheriff Tate. All these professionals provide services,
whether it is creating a will, running the court, delivering a baby, or protecting the county.
However, their clients can solely pay them with commodities such as a bushel of potatoes
or a sack of hickory nuts, and thus these professionals arent accumulating capital in
dollarsmaybe the reason why Atticus thinks he is poor. The 1929 stock market crash
caused a rapid decline in consumer demand for all products and services (McElvaine
1932).
The second socioeconomic problem is the lack of education, social mobility, and
lawful justice for the black community in Maycomb. After Jem visits Calpurnias Church,
he learns in a conversation with Calpurnia that everyone, except for four people, in the
First Purchase couldnt read. And, Jem is utterly shocked by the great disparity between
the literacy rates of black and white people. Calpurnia tells Jem how she learned to read
from Miss Maudies Aunt, and how she taught her oldest son Zeebo using the bible and
Blackstones Commentaries. Many African Americans adopted the bible as a tool for
learning how to read during the Jim Crow South (Iron 88). Even though black literacy
rates were increasing in the 1930s, local school boards in Alabama spent three times as
much on white school as they did on black schools (Iron 102). Additionally, majority of
blacks in Maycomb worked as labors, not professionals. For instance, after Atticus shoots
Tim Johnson, Calpurnias son Zeebo is responsible for cleaning up the dogs dead body.
Zeebo, along with other Africans, may have a hard time finding a decent job because

blacks were losing their precarious footing on southern agriculture during the Great
Depression. As the cotton prices declined from 18 cents per pound to 6 cents per pound,
white farmers started firing black workers and instead adopted mechanical devices to do
the job (McElvaine 1937). The novels plot clearly highlights the effect of racism on the
legal decisions in the court. Even though all the evidence suggests Tom Robinson is
innocent, the Jury convicts him guilty because he is a black man. The historical case of
Emmett Till was similar to Robinsons case. Till was lynched at the age of 14 for
whistling at a white woman (Nelson 34). Racism during the 1930s Jim Crow south was a
social reality (Nelson). The aforementioned disparities between blacks and white
inevitably forces blacks to inhabit a lower socioeconomic status in Maycomb County
similar to historical Jim Crow South.
The third socioeconomic problem that people in Maycomb County face was the
parasitic nature of the Ewell family. Ewells are parasitical because they break laws and
disturb peace in Maycomb, and they are fully dependent on Maycombs welfare money to
survive. Atticus says Ewells have been a disgrace of Maycomb society for three
generations. The Ewells represent the lowest part of the socioeconomic hierarchy in
Maycomb because they are dependent on local welfare. During the Great Depression,
FDRs New Deal program split welfare into two categories: federal and state. The federal
welfare was responsible for creating jobs, involving the Works Progress Administration
(WPA). The state or local governments were responsible for financially supporting the
unemployables, a group that included the following: widows, poor children, the elderly
poor, and the disabled. Atticus tells Scout that the Ewells dependent on local welfare.
Thus, even though Ewells are able-bodied people, they are categorized as

unemployable because Maycomb knows the pathetic family cant support itself.
According to Scout, Bob Ewell tries to join the WPA, but soon gets fired for being too
lazy. The WPA was the most successful New Deal Program, giving construction work to
11 million Americans during the Great Depression (McElvaine 1930).
Another problem society in Maycomb faced was the lack of proper education for
all youth. Under economic pressures, educators tried their best to creatively cut down
costs and keep schools running. However, schools couldnt save some basic, yet
expensive facilities like the cafeteria, bus transportation, school athletics, foreign
language and music programs, and so on (Price 3). For example, students in Scouts
school have an option to either bring their lunch from home or go back to home for lunch
because there is no official cafeteria facility. Scout and Jem have no official
transportation to school because the district cant afford bus transportation. And, neither
Scout nor Jem stays afterschool for extracurricular activities like sports or music because
such program were too expensive. Maycomb is a farm county, and therefore Scout and
Jem are probably in a minority, as they dont have farming responsibilities like Walter
Cunningham. Majority of students in Maycomb probably have a more difficult time
attending school because they have to miss school for farming responsibilities. In farming
states like Alabama and North Carolina, children of farmers would consistently miss
school at planting time, hoeing time, and at harvest (Price 5). They were also expected to
do other chores such as milking the cows, feeding farm animals, or drawing water. The
physical exhaustion from regular chores and the rise in school absences conflicted with
their proper education. Walter had consistently failed the 1st grade three years in a row,

and Borris Ewell only shows up for the first day of school. It is clear how education
wasnt a priority, amidst the economic pressures of the Great Depression.
Harpee Lees To Kill a Mockingbird address all the aforementioned
socioeconomic problems of the Great Depression. All characters have their assigned
place on Maycombs socioeconomic ladder and experience historically relevant
problems.

Work Cited

Ferguson, Niall. The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World. New York:
Penguin, 2008. Print.

Irons, Peter H. Jim Crow's Children: The Broken Promise of the Brown Decision. New
York: Viking, 2002. Print.

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Warner, 1982. Print.

McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941. New York, N.Y.:
Times, 1984. Print.

Nelson, Marilyn, and Philippe Lardy. A Wreath for Emmett Till. Boston: Houghton
Mifflin, 2005. Print.

Price Davis, Anita. Tarheel Junior Historian Association. Raleigh, N.C.: [North Carolina
Dept. of Archives and History], 1955. Print.

Ganzel, Bill. http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org. Ganzel Group, 2003. Web. December 13th


2015