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United States Unemployment: 1900 – 1947

Estimates on unemployment prior to 1948 from the Bicentennial Edition: Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970.

Bureau of the Census, Department of Commerce
1975
Infographic

Chapter D: Labor, ‘Series D 1-10, Labor Force and Its Components 1900 – 1947. In Bicentennial Edition: Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975. 

Background

The source “United States Unemployment, 1900 – 1947” shows the unemployment rate from 1900 to 1947 in table format using data from the US Census Bureau. The unemployment rate in this data set is an average of each year of the percent of unemployed of the labor force, age 14 and up.

Questions

  1. What was the highest rate of unemployment in this table? In what year did that occur?

  1. What events in US history may have caused this?

  1. What was the lowest rate of unemployment in this table? In what year did that occur?

  1. What events in US history may have caused this?

 

  1. How is the labor force data in this source different from data in Source 1? Why is this important?

Using this source, students will be able to get an estimate of the highest and lowest level of unemployment between 1900 and 1947.

To obtain the unemployment data from 1900 to 1930, questions on the ten-year census were used. However, the census only provided estimates of the civilian labor force and employment, so the calculations used to determine the unemployment rate using census data were also estimates. In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, data collection became more detailed and rigorous. The Works Progress Administration (WPA; in 1939 renamed the Work Projects Administration) surveyed people in various areas in each state to get a better sampling and more consistency by conducting the survey on a monthly basis. In addition, the WPA began to identify the unemployed as persons not working but “willing and able.” Because the questions Are you willing to work and Do you want to work were subjective, the methodology was changed in the 1940s to define the unemployed as  those actively seeking work who have not found it. This marked a major shift in unemployment data collection, and since 1948, unemployment data based on those in the civilian labor force who are looking for work and cannot find it is collected in the Current Population Survey. This data is then analyzed and published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Because the unemployment data for 1900 to 1947 and 1948 to the present day comes from different sources, an exact comparison between the two is not possible. However, it is still possible to analyze trends and conduct general comparisons to put any rate in historical context.

The key component of this source is that it shows data on the unemployment rate for the first part of the twentieth century, for ages 14 and older. It also provides teachers the opportunity to introduce the importance of assessing how data is collected. It also helps to address the idea of estimates in numerical data. As with all the other unemployment data, the unemployment rate does not take into account marginally attached, discouraged workers, and others who have not been looking for work in the month prior to the survey.

This source shows that from 1900 to 1947 unemployment was highest in 1933 (during the Great Depression) at approximately 25.2% and lowest in 1944 (during World War II) at 1.2%.