The Great Depression looms large in the modern imagination — especially in the light of the most recent financial crises. But its scale is hard to fathom now. A crisis equivalent today would be the combination of the 1994 Mexican peso crises, the 1997-98 Asian & Russian crises, the 2000 dot com bubble, the 2007-8 financial crisis, according to the economist Liaquat Ahamed. And all these — a halt in capital flows, a collapse of market confidence, a frenzied bubble, and fall of major financial houses unfurled over a period of four years between 1929 and 1932 taking down 25% of global GDP, 25% of employment, and 40% of global bank credit.
The photo above by Margaret Bourke-White was surrounded by myths too; there are a few things it is not. It was not shot during 1929-32 crisis. It did not depict a breadline of workers laid off by the depression. The oft-repeated belief that this photo prompted Henry Luce — Life magazine’s patriarch and Bourke-White’s employer — to decide that his photographers deserved a byline was probably apocryphal too. But the photo’s absurd slogan “World’s Highest Standard of Living” — absurdly jarring when the white ur-American family with their dog was juxtaposed with the queuing black people below — propelled it to become the Great Depression photo in recent years.
The people depicted were flood victims. Bourke-White took the photo in Louisville, Kentucky during her assignment to over the Ohio River flood of 1937. The floods claimed nearly 400 lives and left roughly one million people homeless across five states in the winter of that terrible year. The flood marked a catastrophic decade in America which began with the Mississippi Floods of 1927, the Great Depression, and the Dust Flood, straining Federal and local resources. A leviathan American state was born to tackle these series of calamities.