May 14, 2009
Vol: 16 No: 23


Taking clues from the past

By Shannan Lenke Stoll / Contributing Writer

UW Prof. James Gregory thinks the way the Great Depression played out in Washington offers clues for today's economic climate

Photo by Museum of History and Industry / None

Seattle, circa 1930: While the United States was held in the grips of the Great Depression, the Emerald City had a lot less shine. Hoovervilles -- large villages of shacks and shanties named after President Herbert Hoover -- sprang up all over the city. Smith Tower looms behind a makeshift home and, below, more than a hundred shanties sit in the SODO.

Photo by Museum of History and Industry / None

Printer-Friendly Version

Like it? Share it!


We’re now 18 months into the current economic recession:  That’s a year and half of steady economic decline.  More and more people are losing their jobs and collecting unemployment every month.  State and local governments are slashing budgets for public services.  Shelters and soup kitchens in many major cities are stretched to capacity. 

Sound familiar? 

In an interview we published a few weeks back with Alice O’Connor, O’Connor talked about some of the parallels, on a national scale, between the current economic decline and the Great Depression.  Prof. James Gregory, a history professor specializing in state labor and civil rights history at the University of Washington, sees parallels on a more local scale.

In December 2008, Gregory published an op-ed piece in the Seattle Times warning that, in their dogged commitment to balancing the State Budget, Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Legislature were “on track to repeat the mistakes [of the Washington legislature] of 1931.”  Last month, the State Legislature approved nearly $4 billion in cuts for public programs, with education and health care taking the biggest hits, in an attempt to balance the budget.

Recently, Prof. Gregory began a new project looking at the history of the Great Depression on the local level.  I spoke with him about the project andwhat the Democrats in Olympia today, as well as the citizens of the Evergreen State, could learn from the Depression of the 1930s to prevent us from sinking further into economic quicksand. 

Could you describe what happened in Washington during the Depression?  How does this compare to today?

The Obama administration is doing as much as it can to do the opposite of what the Herbert Hoover administration did in 1931, when Hoover thought he had to balance the budget and tighten up on the money supply by cutting jobs right when the government needed to produce them.  But the Gregoire administration has just repeated the mistakes of 1931, when Gov. Roland Hartley figured he had to make an all-cuts budget and succeeded in damaging employment and the economy more than it needed to be. 

In 1931, our State Legislature met about 18 months into the serious recession and knew what they had to do



Professor Gregory could be in the perfect position to call union leaders together for a discussion on what to do.--at the Labor Center. A 2010 version of the UCL and some other ways to flex labor's muscle sure sounds good to me. I was especially appalled about the apparent failure of state unions to fight after Democratic Party leaders called the state police around the Workers Privacy Act. Unions also remained mostly quiet when state officials quashed the aspirations toward an income tax on big business and the rich.

Henry Noble | submitted on 05/29/2009, 6:49pm

I live in an agricultural hub of the state. What affect will pro government policies have on farms? In this town the newspaper is the fastest growing print news in the State. I also feel I have been quashed by the economic down turn, yet in the past the only way I've succeeded in maintaining my life is through marshaling my resources and staying poor. What incentive will there be to do anything other than taking the bigger Government for everything it is worth if your policies are inacted before the wheat is separated from the chaffe and a big awful Depression is weathered. I seek answers not condemnation of Business's chance to take care of it's self. My Great Grandfather was a member of the first communist party in Washington and a public works director in Everett durring the Depression. I am an active Republican in Grant County and so far opposed to high taxes. I think in the end any effect on the economic down turn will have to start with business. I was incouraged to hear your plan to work with the Drama school. I have a degree in Drama and have an interest in Depression theatre. I actually was one of the last ushers at the WPA founded Show Boat Theatre back in the 1977 era on the cut. I just might read one of the many books from the turn of the century my mother inherited from her Grandfather. That would be RAD. Gary Nichols

Gary Nichols | submitted on 06/04/2009, 9:57pm


Allen | submitted on 02/08/2010, 6:17am

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.

Search Our Archives


Nominate a Vendor of the Week