The unemployment rate the year you turned 16
COVID-19 forced millions of Americans into the ranks of the unemployed overnight. Nationally, the unemployment rate this year so far peaked in April at 14.7%; by September the rate had fallen to 7.9%, with employers adding fewer jobs than in previous months and signaling that improvement in the labor market was losing steam.
To contextualize these rises and falls, Stacker researched the unemployment rates back to 1929 using the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) as the main source for U.S. unemployment rates between 1940 and 2019. Prior to 1947, the BLS considered adolescent laborers at least 14 years old in unemployment totals. In 1947, the BLS changed the law and only began accounting for people 16 and older. Then and now, the BLS counts individuals as unemployed if they are currently jobless, looking for a job, and available for work.
BLS didn’t estimate unemployment rates from 1929 to 1939, until the 1940s, when reports were based on data from several sources. Rates for those years are therefore approximations, and there are no monthly estimates for that decade.
One obvious trend in the rise and fall of unemployment over the years is the federal government’s immediate assistance if need be. When more than 6% of Americans cannot find work, the federal government steps in to bring the number down in different ways, from tax cuts to the Fed adjusting interest rates to fight inflation. For example, COVID-19 stimulus checks were sent out to Americans in order to keep the economy somewhat stable during the first wave of the inevitable job losses.
Along with each year’s unemployment rate, information about programs or events that may have an effect on the overall rate was included. Read on to find out the unemployment rate the year you turned 16.
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- Annual unemployment rate: 3.2%
The stock market crash in October of 1929 was the match that sparked the Great Depression. Going into that crash, the country’s unemployment rate was at a healthy—and low—3.2%. The Great Depression caused ballooning rates of unemployment over the next several years.
- Annual unemployment rate: 8.7%
The unemployment rate almost tripled in one year as the U.S. sank into a deep depression. In 1930, GDP growth slumped to -8.5% while inflation fell to -6.4%. Exacerbating economic woes was the Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930, which slapped 900 import tariffs with increased rates of up to 48% and ground trade to a virtual halt.
- Annual unemployment rate: 15.9%
Unemployment in 1931 almost doubled as the Dust Bowl claimed 7,000 lives and put even more Americans out of work. The Dust Bowl—caused by a combination of drought and unsustainable farming practices—rendered almost 100 million acres in the Southern Plains unworkable and unlivable.
- Annual unemployment rate: 23.6%
President Herbert Hoover in 1932 called for a temporary tax increase that proved insurmountable for many Americans. The highest income tax rate jumped from 25% to 63% while the lowest tax rate jumped from 1.1% to 4%. The increases served to further balloon the unemployment rate, while significantly reducing the amount of revenue collected from individual income tax.
- Annual unemployment rate: 24.9%
1933 represents the worst unemployment rate in U.S. history since records have been kept, second only to April 2020 numbers amid the coronavirus pandemic. To help dig the country out of the Great Depression, that year President Franklin D. Roosevelt rolled out the New Deal.
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- Annual unemployment rate: 21.7%
Enacting the New Deal immediately eased some of the economic woes throughout the U.S., bringing GDP growth that year out of negative numbers—to 10.8%— for the first time since the Great Depression hit. The unemployment rate dipped and was followed by three years of more-significant drops.
- Annual unemployment rate: 20.1%
Unemployment continued notching down in 1935, although in 1934 and 1935 recovery out of the Great Depression had largely come to a standstill. When the Supreme Court deemed the National Recovery Administration (NRA) unconstitutional, American industries were able to grow production unfettered. American recovery gained momentum later in the year.
- Annual unemployment rate: 16.9%
President Roosevelt requested from Congress $1.5 billion for the relief effort, following up on aid already requested the year prior. 1936 also brought with it a new presidential election, that Roosevelt won against his challenger, Kansas Republican Gov. Alf Landon.
- Annual unemployment rate: 14.3%
Spending cuts in 1937 resulted in significant drops in manufacturing (37%) that dropped down to 1934 levels. The “Roosevelt recession”—a period in which economic recovery stalled—lasted well into 1938.2018 All rights reserved.