There are certain social crises, catastrophic in nature, that have impact upon marriage and the family. Adjustment difficulties are greater during times of crisis than at other times for the reason that changes then are more sudden and more extensive; catastrophe confronts the family with problems of great magnitude which call for immediate adjustment and for which its members are frequently unprepared. To be discussed here is depression.
The business cycle, involving as it does periodic fluctuations between prosperity and depression, seems to be a characteristic of modern industrialized society. It may be that someday science will have developed far enough to permit control of these economic irregularities but it hasn't done that yet. Business depressions are always disorganizing to society, the great one starting in 1929 and extending through the early thirties having been particularly so. What are their effects upon the family?
First of all, we can note relationships between depression and certain statistical rates. (1) In times of depression the marriage rate goes down. This is particularly true of the middle and upper classes, and its reason is the expense of marriage, plus a desire to maintain previous standards of living. With the poor, however, including those on relief, depression seems to make very little difference in the rate at which they marry. As society starts its upward swing toward prosperity, the marriage rate increases rapidly as if to make up for lost time. (2) The divorce rate during depression is likewise low, and, as with the marriage rate, it picks up again when prosperity shows itself. Studies reveal, however, that more years of married life are lost through delayed marriage in a depression than are gained through delayed divorce. In both cases the phenomenon is merely, or largely, one of postponement and the reason is economic. Depression does not remove the causes of divorce, in other words, but simply delays it because of the expense involved. (3) Similar in behavior to both the marriage and divorce rates during depression is the birth rate; it is low while the depression lasts, but climbs rapidly as the cycle pulls the other way. Reasons are fewer marriages and an attempt to maintain the traditional living standard by saving the expense that additional children at that time would involve. (4) Depression also affects sex practices outside of marriage. Illegitimacy increases considerably, which suggests an increase in premarital relations as a substitute, probably, for marriage. Commercialized prostitution, on the other hand, actually declines during times of depression. It is commercialized, and, like most other businesses, must suffer when money is scarce.
While depression may have some effects that might occasionally be beneficial to a family, such as checking the trend toward extreme individualism by forcing the family to assume greater responsibility for its members, it is mostly disorganizing. Here are some of the reasons and ways: (1) It increases illicit sex behavior, as indicated above, which in turn weakens or undermines the very foundations of a happy home life both for the present and the future. (2) It requires that the family lower its sights or in other ways adjust its economic way of life. Loss of employment or decrease of income will usually mean curtailed expenditures. Plans for a new car or for a child's education may have to be abandoned. It may even be necessary to change the place of residence and to live under crowded and substandard conditions. This causes nervousness and irritability, especially when privacy is lacking, such as when two or more families move in together. (3) It leads to tensions and conflicts of one sort or another. Worry over where the next dollar is coming from, humiliation and shame at the loss of status or the necessity of accepting relief, the sense of failure and inadequacy, fear of the future, all tend to disorganize. As a result, the nerves of family members are on edge and quarreling is frequent. Discontent, rebellion, and an increase of delinquency and crime often result. (4) It disrupts the roles and blocks the goals of various family members, thus making for frustration and despair. Though the father could in no way change the situation, he may be blamed by other family members for not having work and be humiliated because of it. The son, who normally would find employment and settle down in marriage, now finds these avenues blocked and himself forced to a period of idleness.
In general, depression is hardest on the middle-class families of America. Except when the rich lose nearly everything, they are not so reduced in wealth but what they can draw upon savings and continue with a level of living not much different from before. The poor are accustomed to low standards anyway. But the middle class is laid low by depression and the emotional stresses that accompany its readjustment are not very easy to take.