How Is the Great Depression Related to “To Kill a Mockingbird”?

Set during the Great Depression, “To Kill a Mockingbird” depicts several families afflicted with crippling poverty, most notably the Cunninghams. This family is primarily characterized by their pride and willingness to work hard despite their financial difficulties.

One of the Cunninghams, Walter, is Scout’s classmate who she inadvertently embarrasses in front of their teacher by pointing out that his family cannot afford to pack him a lunch for school. According to a website maintained by the English faculty of Melbourne High School, Scout later questions why Walter’s father never pays Atticus but instead brings items like stove wood, turnip greens and hickory nuts to their door, learning that the Cunninghams are unable to pay with money but insist on repaying their debts regardless. The Cunninghams are also unable to allow their children to attend school, needing them to stay home to help earn some money. Atticus directly attributes their poverty to the Great Depression, noting that the crash most strongly affected farmers like the Cunninghams, and treats them with sympathy and respect.

Between 1930 and 1934, when the novel is set, over one million farmers lost their homes and livelihoods, while social workers in rural states reported malnourishment among schoolchildren with proportions as high as 90 percent. Theories abound on what caused the Great Depression, but economic historians emphasized the plummeting of farm prices and skyrocketing increase of interest owed as a trigger for the mass loan defaults that began the destabilization of rural economies.