7 Million Americans May Have Died of Hunger in the Great Depression

Sharon May 25th, 2008

I have not been able to find the original Wikipedia article or any of the critiques mentioned in the article.  But it does answer a question I’ve had for a long time at least in one way – because we know people died of starvation during the Depression in the US.  Hoover told us “at least no one has starved” and then they started pulling bodies out of Chicago tenements.  There was a minimum of a 25% malnutrition rate in urban schools in many places.  So yes, we know people died.  But I’ve located no full scale investigation until now.

And again, just as we saw in Gaidar’s analysis of the fall of the Soviet Union, we begin to realize that moving rural populations off the land can devastate whole nations.  Preserving farmers isn’t just about preserving rural landscapes.  Without food and the people who grow it, we don’t eat – period. 

 How many people may starve this time?  And how many will we know about, even as it happens?


“The researcher, Boris Borisov, in his article titled “The American Famine” estimated the victims of the financial crisis in the US at over seven million people. The researcher also directly compared the US events of 1932-1933 with Holodomor, or Famine, in the USSR during 1932-1933.

In the article, Borisov used the official data of the US Census Bureau. Having revised the number of the US population, birth and date rates, immigration and emigration, the researcher came to conclusion that the United States lost over seven million people during the famine of 1932-1933.

“According to the US statistics, the US lost not less than 8 million 553 thousand people from 1931 to 1940. Afterwards, population growth indices change twice instantly exactly between 1930-1931: the indices drop and stay on the same level for ten years. There can no explanation to this phenomenon found in the extensive text of the report by the US Department of Commerce “Statistical Abstract of the United States,” the author wrote. “


24 Responses to “7 Million Americans May Have Died of Hunger in the Great Depression”

  1. Phil says:

    Very interesting. Thank you.

  2. Brad K. says:

    Years ago I heard an ‘urban legend’ that most of America lived two paychecks, or less, from living in the streets. The population in 1932 must have been less than 100 million; 7% of today’s approx. 300 million would be some 21 million starved. Except I expect that today’s ‘just in time’ strategies mean less available resources for emergencies. 20-30% starving would not surprise me. 20% among US citizens, that is. I expect the illegal immigrants will be mobile and adaptable enough to fare much better, as a group. Which means that major upheaval/starvation could quickly and seriously hamper government, security, and national interests.

    Scary numbers. Thanks, Sharon.

  3. Kerr says:

    Brad—not that I’m disagreeing with you, but I think there may be some places where you could explain more thoroughly.

    “I expect the illegal immigrants will be mobile and adaptable enough to fare much better, as a group.”

    I’m not convinced that this is a safe conclusion… would you explain your reasoning?

    “Which means that major upheaval/starvation could quickly and seriously hamper government, security, and national interests.”

    Other than being self-evident, how does this follow from the above? Without further clarification, it sounds like you might mean that newly-starving formerly middle-class citizens would suddenly be in grave danger from mobile, adaptable former migrant workers without documentation, and I’m not sure that follows at all.

  4. Bonnie says:

    If one doesn’t begin (if you able) to plant your own food and can the food you grow, you might be in trouble in the near future.

    I planted my first garden last year and was surprised at how much food I had for my family’s personal use!
    I actually had to give quite a bit of it away to friends, relatives, and neighbors.

    There is so much help on the internet for growing food.

    If I could do it ANYONE CAN!

    A friend recommended this seed co.
    Organic seeds.


  5. Pat Meadows says:

    I read Borisov’s whole article and I question the accuracy of a lot of it. Especially this part:

    So-called public works introduced by President Roosevelt became a salvation for a huge number of jobless and landless Americans. However, the salvation was only a phantom, Boris Borisov wrote. The works conducted under the aegis of the Public Works Administration and the Civil Works Administration were about building channels, roads or bridges in remote, wild and dangerous territories. Up to 3.3 million people were involved in those works at a time, whereas the total number of people amounted to 8.5 million, not to count prisoners.

    “Conditions and death rate at those works are to be studied separately. A member of public works would make $30, and pay $25 of taxes from this amount. So a person could make only $5 for a month of hard work in malarial swamps.”


    My mother and father – and indeed ALL my relatives, aunts and uncles and so on – lived through the Depression. I was born in 1944. So I heard lots of stories about it.

    But the CCC and the WPA were not working in wild and dangerous country for the most part; they largely built our national parks system; they built courthouses and post offices all over the country, and bridges. Yes, the pay was low but they got a place to sleep – even if it was tents or cabins – and 3 meals a day.

    For example, there’s a WPA-built building in our town, used to be the Post Office. The courthouse is still in use built by the WPA and some buildings in nearby state parks were built by the CCC (and trails blazed on so on).

    So that part is just wildly exaggerated and inaccurate for the most part. This makes me question the rest of what he wrote too.

    I heard lots of stories about the Depression from all my relatives, and especially from my mother and father. People were starving, I don’t dispute that. But I don’t think it would have been seven million.

    Population can decline through normal attrition if people stop having babies. Old people die; they aren’t replaced with babies. And this happened to a great extent during the Depression. Borisov does not seem to have heard of this.

    Comparing the CCC and WPA to a Gulag is just way out of line; it wasn’t the same at all. For starters the CCC and WPA were *voluntary*. People wanted to be in them. They were not prisoners.

    Malarial swamps don’t exist in most of the USA.

    I think Borisov’s article is mainly hyperbole and distortion.

    Pat Meadows

  6. Sharon says:

    There’s no question there’s a strong ideological component to Borisov’s work. Like you, I have my doubts about the accuracy and the ideological impulse behind it. But, for example, the TFR rate for the depression that I hve in my copy of _Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1957 shows much of what Borisov is claiming about population, at least. Immigration did decline dramatically in 1932, but birthrates didn’t. In 1929, there were 2, 582,000 births. In 1932, 2,440,000 births, in 1934, 2, 396,000 births. So yes, there’s a decline, but a very small one, that can’t account for the problem

    On the other hand, there’s quite a few dramatic jumps in death rates during the same period – from 1933 (absolute deaths aren’t listed before 1933 in the volume I have), there are 1, 342,000 deaths, and the next year, 1,397,000. In 1936, it rises to 1,479,000 – those are higher than the total death rates during wartime – dramatically so. They don’t add up yet to 7 million, but the differences add up to close to a million during the course of the depression, and since I haven’t seen all of Borisov’s work, I don’t know how he’s tracking this.

    As for the WPA work, at least some of it involved draining malarial swamps (malaria was endemic throughout the southern US into the 20th century, and endemic as far north as Connecticut in the 19th century). For example, a historical review of WPA projects in North Carolina says, “Practically all of the work consisted of draining swamps, ponds and other breeding areas of malarial carriers thereby removing the source of malaria transmission from centers of population.” http://www.ah.dcr.state.nc.us/archives/exhibits/wpa/sewers.htm It does kind of stretch the imagination to suggest that people working by hand in malarial swamps didn’t get malaria. Information here at Bowling Green University mentions the problem of Malaria in Ohio http://www.bgsu.edu/Colleges/library/cac/ac9712.html. The anti-malaria program in the WPA was apparently one of the largest projects, according to Howard Zinn’s _The 20th Century_.

    I think whether Borisov’s claims are right or not – and again, I haven’t seen the original paper, so it is hard to comment, the overarching structure of his claims is not as ridiculous as you seem to think it is. Hungry, desperate people often want to work, even if the work is dangerous – teenage girls in China want to go into factories, even if they are sweatshops, if the alternatives are starvation. But we don’t give sweatshops a pass just because they feed their workers and give them a bed – that’s the defense that the sweatshops make all the time “well, we’re saving people from worse” – and there is some truth in that. But it is also true that sweatshops are unacceptable, and so is making desperately poor people do dangerous work with inadequate precautions.

    Again, I do not claim Borisov is right in all particulars, but the structure of his arguments seems to hold up, very broadly. Until I his original is translated and published again, we can’t no – but I don’t think anecdotal accounts will answer. And this is, I think a good example of how hard it is to get a handle on the whole scope of our history.


  7. Tracy says:

    I watched a movie in an African American studies class that dealt with people starving in the south during the depression. Wish I could remember the name. One elderly lady told a story she had heard (urban legend?) about a man who worked for the gas company coming to shut off a family’s gas. She begged him to wait until she cooked dinner. She was cooking the family dog.

    I remember breaking down in tears listening to a woman talking about coming home from school (no free lunches then) and having to make the family’s one meal of the day…. a pot of beans… and the extreme hunger she had waiting for the beans to get done.

    People in the rural “dust bowl” areas also struggled with food because they couldn’t grow it. That is why food storage is so important. Who knows what weather or possibly locust or plant disease can happen. We have one plus year in storage….even the stuff we grow. Now we are working on seed saving.

    As for the “illegal immigrants,” I am in a small farming town with 80% of our school students of Hispanic decent. What we have seen since the economy went south is that we out of 1500 students, we have decreased enrollment in the district by 40 students this year. We had been increasing by 5% or more a year for the last 10 years. Many of our poor families move frequently between the small towns around here. So…we move students in and out alot (regardelss of race or immigration status). But this is the first year we have actually decreased. Interestly the decrease has been in “English learners”. With an 80% Hispanic population, this will be the first year we will not seat a full class of English learners in our “immersion academy” in each grade. Some of that is due to the incredibly dedicated academy teachers, but some of that is because some of our newer families have went back home to Mexico.

    The sad thing is that many of people leaving town are going to the cities where section 8 housing is more available. This is the first time in over 15 years I can remember rental houses in our town being empty.

  8. GOod work Sharon in checking the death records – that was the first number I wanted to know about. If authorities were pulling starved dead out of tenements in Chicago, wouldn’t there be records? NYC? Other cities?

    Not saying it didn’t happen, just saying that the number 7 million needs to be verified through other means, especially through records that do exist.

    So Sharon comes up with about a million more deaths than would be expected. That’s a lot of people dead. Then those of childbearing age who would have procreated had they lived, didn’t. and others who survived, did not have so many children. (Too hungry?) That 7 million shortfall could be accounted for in other ways than 5% of the US population dead of starvation.

    I think we would have heard more stories about it if 5% died of starvation in one or two years.

    My middle-class grandparents, a preacher and his wife in rural Virginia, survived because their parishioners paid them in produce and proteins: rabbits etc. One time a parishioner gave them a whole bunch of dead rabbits and my grandmother skinned, cooked and canned the lot of them. She kept her canned goods in a crawl space beneath the church altar – sent her boys in and out with the loot – cooler temperatures.

    Stitching underpants out of flour sacks. Oranges once a year at Christmas. Making paper “spills” (stove lighter straws) for Christmas presents. Etc. etc.

  9. joe says:

    Nothing is impossible to the person who doesn’t have to do it. None of us expect to experience shortages of food that would lead us to that situation.
    This is precisely why you should think about starvation and what the conditions would be if it did occurr in the USA.
    You must consider two kinds of starvation. [1] administratively created starvation from the actions of government; [2] actualy shortages of food from lack of production.
    Why is starvation or any civil disruption from the lack of resources a threat to the US Governmemt? This question was asked earlier on this site. You must acknowledge the fact that the highest priority for government at the federal, state and county level is COG.
    Continuance of Government. COG is the maintainance of the power base of the units of government. They will consume resources to keep themselves in business, control and power. Emergency management is not about saving people. It is about COG. Under this conceptualization people are NOT the first nor highest priority.
    Thus you have the Homeland security organization designating those who have stored up supplies labeled as “hoarders”. If you fall into this classification all your supplies are subject to being confiscated to support COG. Not to support the common people in a time of need.
    The threat to the dissolution of and breakdown of COG is a direct threat to the seat of all government activities.
    This action of the government to maintain COG will cause adminstratively induced starvation.
    Secondly, the statement that illegal immigrants are more mobile and will be able to take care of themselves is just not true. If we have a crisis the illegals will be trapped in place like many other people. Under our system when a national emergency is declared and the COG process is placed into effect.. all of these illegals will demand services under the law, school lunches, free emergency medical care…. it will be a tidal wave in some areas of demands that will swamp and overwhelm the system.
    Have you ever seen the anti-American demonstrations of the Azatlan/La Raza groups in California? What do you think they will do when scarcity becomes the watchword of the day? Stand by peacefully? No, I think not!
    I have seen real starvation in West Africa during my stint in the Peace Corps. People will abandon children and lifemates after they have expended what energy they have begging, stealing, killing and moving from place to place…until they finally just run down out of energy and die in place .. with many people passing by and ignoring and not noticing the problem.
    To survive times of great death from whatever cause you will have to be psychologically tough. Focused on the survival of your family. You will have to be stingy. You will have to say no to people in need.
    If you think this appraisal is BS, just wait until you get hungry enough to eat your pets raw. Before that you will have to eat animal food and spoiled foods and other sources of food you think now is totally unreal.
    Most of you have not seen starvation yet. I hope you don’t.
    Under starvation community groups and churches will demand the offering of food to support those in need. This is a threat to you by dissipating you food stores whatever they may be.
    I am not a terrible person for wanting my family to survive. Nor am I some uncaring crass unfeeling person. But I will take care of my children, grandchildren and greatgranson to the best of my ability as long as I have the means.
    There is still time to prepare. But not like there was 10 years ago. And yes, I have been preparing for more than 10 years. Having lived in West Africa, Egypt and Ecuador and visited Mexico.

  10. Tom Ness says:

    From my own family’s oral histories:

    I’ve been told of Great Depression times when they were down to bread and mustard for days at a time.

    My father, who went ashore with the first occupation troops in Japan, said he saw no cats or dogs left in the country because they had all been eaten. I keep remembering this story as I now read about Americans beginning to take pets to animal shelters when they can no longer afford to feed them, only one step short of eating them. It is a not-often-considered fact that our whole phenomenon of pet ownership is 100% dependent on agricultural surpluses; when the surpluses vanish, so will the pets.

    As for desperate workers being exploited during the Great Depression, the father of a childhood friend told me about a brick factory in Red Bluff, California where laborers would line up at the gate every day for work. The men hired were required to run, not walk, with wheelbarrows full of bricks until they couldn’t run anymore, then they were replaced with the next man in line.

  11. Lynnet says:

    With MEA I am skeptical of Borisov’s figures. His statement that they made $30 and had to pay $25 in taxes seems particularly outrageous.

    But yes, there was starvation, and there was plenty of malnutrition and hunger, which leads to more deaths from contagious disease. I expect medical care was less available, leading to more premature deaths of all kinds. And hopelessness is definitely bad for the health.

    JWC’s comments lead to questions about the feasibility of storage of food. If the military, or armed bands of hoods, come to your house, they’ll get your food. The more you have, the more they’ll take.

    The same thing happened to the Jews in Germany during WWII. The Gestapo made frequent raids on Jewish homes. If they had more than a very small amount of food in the house, it was confiscated and the family was punished for “hoarding” and sent to the death camps. Could the same thing happen here? (not just to Jews, but to all of us) I don’t know.

  12. Rosa says:

    One of the sources of population decline during the Great Depression was first and second-generation immigrants leaving, voluntarily or otherwise, for their countries of origin. (Remember that second-generation immigrants are American citizens, by definition).

    Anti-immigrant groups in California and the Southwest attacked Mexican-Americans, especially landowners, and the City of Los Angeles commissioned trains to haul people back over the border. There was propaganda claiming the government of Mexico would give people land if they went.

  13. MEA says:

    Lynnet, you’ve confused me with someone else, as I have yet to post, but am about to.

    There are two sorts of death from starvation — one directly from not eating enough. The other isn’t alway listed as death from malnutrition, but come about when you have a body too weak to deal with generally non-lethal diseaser, women who don’t recover from childbirth for the same reason, people with diabities who are more likely to die if they don’t eat correctly etc.

    With that in mind, the figures don’t seem that off. There was a documented rise in infant/maternal mortality in the first part of the Great Depression.

  14. Lynnet says:

    Yes, I’m sorry MEA, I had you confused with Pat Meadows. I agree with you that malnutrition contributes to death by other illnesses, and it also contributes to infertility.

    And as Rosa says, some people left the country, either voluntarily, forced, or tricked.

    I don’t think Borisov should be regarded as a reliable source, but that doesn’t mean that suffering and death from hunger and starvation did not occur. Does anybody know of an honest book on this subject?

  15. Frank says:

    I took a quick look at the 1920-1950 censuses as summarized on Wikipedia. The population increased by 17 million from 1920-190, 9 million from 1930-1940 and 18 million from 1940-1950. That’s a wicked drop off, but to get 7 million extra deaths out of it requires immigration to have fallen by no more than about 150,000 people/year. The excerpt I saw on The Oil Drum had him saying it fell by about 800k per year.

    Sharon’s number of a million extra deaths sounds like the right kind of number. US statistics weren’t cooked like those in certain other countries I could mention.

  16. Bill Harshaw says:

    Sorry, but I can’t buy it at all. According to my copy of Historical Statistics, series B-129-142, the death rate (deaths per 1000 population) was 11.9 in 1929 and varied between 11.6 and 10.6 during the decade of the 1930′s.

    If 7 million died, where’s the bodies? Assume that starvation would be in the cities, not the country. New York City had about 7 million people in 1930, about 10 percent of the total population living in cities. If NYC had 10 percent of 7 million deaths, it surely would have made the headlines. Try searching the NYTimes archives for starvation deaths. No such stories exist.

    It’s impossible for me to believe that, in 75 years of scholarly inquiry into all aspects of the depression, someone hasn’t written a book on the 7 million deaths. Or even 1 million. It’s quite possible for me to believe that someone unfamiliar with the country who uses a New Zealander’s movie as source material (I mean, King Kong?–really) persuaded himself of what he wanted to believe.

  17. Tricia says:

    If peak oil hits and things get dire and people across the globe are starving and suffering, I believe the only workable humane solution would be for the older people (those over 35) to willingly give up food and comfort and “depart” this earth. Since I’m 45, I would be in the group “departing”. The 20-35 year olds who remain would be able to take over raising the children. That makes more sense than seeing young people starving and suffering. The older people had a decent life already. Yes, the younger children would suffer if their parents “depart”, but what’s the other option? The population would need to be drastically cut from over 6 billion down to 1 billion or less rapidly for any hope of survival.

  18. Chris Dowd says:

    I’m not sure I trust a Russian researcher with an ideological axe to grind. However, is it possible that 7 million people starved to death in the US during the Great Depression and we as a country just chose not to remember this? Without a doubt I think that is possible. This country doesn’t have a collective memory past two generations. Amnesia is what we are best at. We have even shorter memories now. The way the American media operates today- 10 million Americans could starve next month and we wouldn’t hear a thing about it in our national press- maybe a few horrifying anecdotal stories in local papers but no “big picture” would be put together by our DC controlled corporate poodle press.

    I can easily see millions of dispossessed and homeless dying lonely and unreported deaths due to starvation and none of this receiving big news coverage. I bet if one were to cull local and small town papers and records evidence of mass starvation would emerge.

  19. Kay says:

    I have been researching the Depression lately, and have come across this information:

    The CCC paid $30 a month, yes. The worker received $5 a month of that amount for spending money. The rest was sent to the worker’s family, for their use. If the worker had no family, it was invested for him until he got out. Even then, that was not much money, but it was a lot more than nothing.

    As to the deaths from starvation? The various books give anecdotal evidence of it, but rarely address the issue. The ones that do point out that the authorities of the time would not allow starvation to be listed as a cause of death. It had to be some generic term, like ‘heart failure’ or ‘vicissitude’. I guess it looked bad to admit that Americans were starving to death. Do I think they were? Absolutely. How many? There’s really no way to know.

  20. Randy says:

    I am not sure where people get there information but I grandmother said that people died and alot. some people just think of there own little part of the woods.

  21. Charles says:

    7 millions is too much people

  22. Silvertrine says:

    A lot of elderly who depended on stock gains for their livelihood died I’m sure. Its like a major heat wave in a northern city a thousand people can die and no one would know about it if it wasnt in the press. Multiply that thousand deaths due to starvation across every urban city in the country each month and the numbers start to add up. During the Depression I’m sure the Government used ‘national security’ as a means of suppressing reports of starvation deaths in the press.
    Starvation, malnutrition, suicide, disease, all rife during the depression. Though there is no way it was 7 million people.

  23. It is hard to believe that so many Americans would have died from hunger. Hopefully nothing like that will ever happen again.

  24. Zune and iPod: Most people compare the Zune to the Touch, but after seeing how slim and surprisingly small and light it is, I consider it to be a rather unique hybrid that combines qualities of both the Touch and the Nano. It’s very colorful and lovely OLED screen is slightly smaller than the touch screen, but the player itself feels quite a bit smaller and lighter. It weighs about 2/3 as much, and is noticeably smaller in width and height, while being just a hair thicker.

Leave a Reply