How many people in the US starved to death during the Great Depression?

I was trying to look this up earlier and could not easily find reliable information on the internet, mostly due to a new popular claim that 7 million people starved to death in the Great Depression! Otherwise, for the most part, what I could find were claims that no one starved to death, which are mostly predicated on the idea that all the deaths that seem like starvation are really severe malnutrition. According to the UN, malnutrition is still the leading cause of death in the world today. In the US, tens of thousands were dying during the years of the Depression from pellegra, which was cured in 1938 through niacin supplementation. This is known because there were Pellegra hospitals and it was believed to be an infectious disease so there are good records.

New York, which was 10% of the US population, was experiencing death by starvation and would keep track much better than most places, such as Appalachia or Oklahoma, where I would think it would be much, much worse before the New Deal programs started. There is evidence that many government agencies conducted studies on malnutrition levels, but at the time they did not have an established definition or complete understanding of the symptoms of malnutrition would be or even what foods a person must eat to not die. Source: this and this

So, I would be very interested to know how many people died of malnutrition or lack of calories, if any estimate is possible.

Since it is already demonstrable false to me, it isn't necessary to disprove the claims in the Pravda article.

According to my quick reading of the Life and death during the Great Depression by José A. Tapia Granadosa and Ana V. Diez Roux, the only noticeable increase of mortality was suicide, with a noticeable decline of mortality in every other category.

It's interesting that this paper was written in 2009, before the (shall we say) sensationalist Russian claim of 7 million deaths.

According also to Michael Mosley, life expectancy actually rose through the Great Depression. In his Horizon programme Eat, Fast and Live Longer he claims

From 1929 to 1933, in the darkest years of the great depression when people were eating far less, life expectancy increased by 6 years.

Health researchers collected data on causes of death in 114 U.S. cities during the Great Depression. Their findings confirm the impressions of many observers in the 1930s, mortality did not increase during the Great Depression:

They include a table that shows trends in death rates per 100,000 population. Starvation does not appear on the list, nor does it rate a mention in the article. The researchers do acknowledge that malnutrition led to decreased health during the Depression, but not to increased mortality. Malnutrition was a widespread problem, starvation was not.

A few comments about the table. First, death due to disease generally did not increase during the period, so the researchers are not misclassifying "death due to malnutrition" to "death due to disease." Second, note that in the table they even break out diseases like Smallpox, responsible for death rates under 1 in 100,000. This generally implies that starvation would have been responsible for deaths at an equivalent or lower rate.

This study confirms other studies that find, for example, that the infant mortality rate consistently declined across the 1930s:

The caveat is that this study is based on urban populations, and certain rural populations may have experienced more severe poverty. But the overall message is that deaths due to starvation would have been rare throughout this period. My admittedly very ballpark extrapolation from these data is that we might find a rate in the thousands per year before the New Deal agencies got up and running:

Importantly, this study shows that economic crisis does not guarantee a mortality crisis, but instead reinforces the notion that what crucially matters is how governments respond and whether protective social and public health policies are in place both during and in advance of economic shocks

Sources: David Stuckler, Christopher Meissner, Price Fishback, Sanjay Basu, Martin McKee. 2011. "Banking crises and mortality during the Great Depression: evidence from US urban populations, 1929-1937." Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. (link)

Price Fishback, Michael Haines, and Shawn Kantor. 2005. "Births, Deaths, and New Deal Relief During the Great Depression."

I'm afraid you have to understand that at the time period we are talking about it was especially hard to get independent information and government- backed information is almost guaranteed to be doctored for political, social and other reasons. This would apply not only to the US, but to Germany and the Soviet Union as well. If you remember a phrase from 'Doctor Zhivago' movie: '… this is another disease we don't have in Moscow - starvation… '. It's natural for the governments to deny and hide any information about any adverse events. In addition, it may be easily claimed that no one died of starvation because unless somebody is locked up and deprived ANY food he can easily die of pneumonia, for example, which his body won't be able to handle because it's too weak because of poor nutrition and which otherwise it could handle. In that sense, unless the statistics were properly doctored, it could be very interesting to compare it with the statistics for the previous and later 5-10 years.

Great Chinese Famine

The Great Chinese Famine (Chinese: 三年大饥荒 , "three years of great famine") was a period between 1959 and 1961 in the history of the People's Republic of China (PRC) characterized by widespread famine. [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] Some scholars have also included the years 1958 or 1962. [6] [7] [8] [9] The Great Chinese Famine is widely regarded as the deadliest famine and one of the greatest man-made disasters in human history, with an estimated death toll due to starvation that ranges in the tens of millions (15 to 55 million). [note 1]

Great Chinese Famine
CountryPeople's Republic of China
LocationMainland China
Total deaths15–55 million
ObservationsConsidered China's most devastating catastrophe. Result of the Great Leap Forward, people's commune and other policies.
ConsequencesTermination of the Great Leap Forward campaign

The major contributing factors in the famine were the policies of the Great Leap Forward (1958 to 1962) and people's communes, such as inefficient distribution of food due to the planned economy, requiring the use of poor agricultural techniques, the Four Pests Campaign that reduced bird populations (which disrupted the ecosystem), over-reporting of grain production (which was actually decreasing), and ordering millions of farmers to switch to iron and steel production. [3] [5] [7] [12] [14] [16] During the Seven Thousand Cadres Conference in early 1962, Liu Shaoqi, the second Chairman of the PRC, formally attributed 30% of the famine to natural disasters and 70% to man-made errors ("三分天灾, 七分人祸"). [7] [17] [18] After the launch of Reforms and Opening Up, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officially stated in June 1981 that the famine was mainly due to the mistakes of the Great Leap Forward as well as the Anti-Rightist Campaign, in addition to some natural disasters and the Sino-Soviet split. [1] [2]

Business Cycles Have Ups and Downs

In the CDC study, the strongest association between economic recessions and suicides occurred in people between 25 and 64, which is considered the prime period of employment.


  • The overall suicide rate generally rose in recessions such as the Great Depression of 1929-1933, the end of the New Deal in 1937-1938, during the oil crisis and embargo of 1973-1975, and the so-called “double dip” recession of 1980-1982.
  • Suicides fell in periods of expansion, such as during World War II, from 1939-1945, and during the longest period of business growth in history, between 1991 and 2001, when the economy grew rapidly and unemployment fell to low levels.
  • The largest increase in the overall suicide rate occurred in the Great Depression of 1929-1933, surging from 18 per 100,000 people in 1928 to 22.1 per 100,000, an all-time high, in 1932, the last full year of the Great Depression. That four-year period witnessed a record increase of 22.8% compared to any other four-year period in U.S. history. The suicide rate fell to its lowest point in the year 2000.
  • Suicide rates of two elderly groups, people between 65 and 74 and 75 and over, and the oldest middle group, people between 55 and 64, experienced the most significant decline from 1928 to 2007.

John Stossel Issues Correction For ‘Dumb’ Statement Claiming ‘No One’ Starved During Great Depression

On Thursday, in an appearance on Fox & Friends, Fox Business Network host John Stossel illustrated a point about the unnecessarily expansive state America’s welfare complex by saying that the nation fared relatively well when those programs were not in place during the Great Depression. He claimed that “no one” starved during that period of persistently recessed economic growth. Stossel later called that comment “dumb” and issued a correction.

“Think about the Depression,” Stossel said on Fox News Channel on Thursday, May 30. “That was before there was any welfare state at all. How many people starved? No one.”

“Good point,” Steve Doocy agreed.

On Friday, Stossel sent out a link to a correction on via his Twitter account where he called his statement “dumb.”

“This morning, on Fox and Friends, I said “no one” starved during the Depression. I was almost certainly wrong,” Stossel wrote.

During the Depression, the governor of Pennsylvania wrote, “we know that starvation is widespread, but no one has enumerated the starving.” However, all other governors who wrote to Congress, 43 of them, sent letters saying that they knew of no starvation in their states. Historians Steven Mintz and Sara McNeil wrote that there were hundreds of deaths in NYC alone.

Stossel cites a study, though, which proves that “health in America generally improved during the Depression.”

“Population health did not decline and indeed generally improved during the 4 years of the Great Depression, 1930-1933, with mortality decreasing for almost all ages, and life expectancy increasing by several years…”

How many Americans died of starvation in the Great Depression?

Didn't hear of any of it. Certainly didn't hear of millions dying.

The US has been relatively prosperous compared to the rest of the world, and has always been a big exporter of food. Never heard of mass starvation.

Which forums? What is your source?



The tale of 5 to 7 Americans dying of starvation during the depression is not Soviet propaganda, but revisionist history being spread an amateur historian called Boris Borisov (and taken up by RT in the past, and some far right internet sites):

I looked into this briefly when it was raised on a previous occasion, and it was immediately clear that he was basing his claims on a misunderstanding (or misuse) of population statistics.



The tale of 5 to 7 Americans dying of starvation during the depression is not Soviet propaganda, but revisionist history being spread an amateur historian called Boris Borisov (and taken up by RT in the past, and some far right internet sites):

I looked into this briefly when it was raised on a previous occasion, and it was immediately clear that he was basing his claims on a misunderstanding (or misuse) of population statistics.

Mao's 'Great Leap Forward' and the Power of History

We have known for some time that Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China, was one of the last century’s most brutal and vicious mass murderers. In 2005, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s biography of Mao was published in this country to wide acclaim, and for the first time, many of the myths surrounding his rise to power and the nature of his rule after 1949 were brought to light. The authors estimated that Mao “was responsible for over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other twentieth-century leader.”

One period they covered was Mao’s “Great Leap Forward,” his attempt to rapidly industrialize China in the five years between 1958 and 1962. Chang and Halliday had argued that not only did the program fail it produced mass starvation, with areas of China resorting to cannibalism. Peasants and city dwellers alike were forced to build home steel furnaces, and all metal implements — including pots and pans used for cooking — were to be smelt, turning each home into a mini local steel producing factory. Mao also ordered that all sparrows be killed, since they ate grain. The “bourgeois” bird was condemned the result was the upsetting of nature’s ecological balance, as pests and other birds once killed by sparrows began to attack crops. Before long, Mao was asking the Soviet Union to send them 200,000 sparrows from the Soviet Far East.

Mao had said: “Half of China may well have to die,” and he was prepared for such an outcome. It almost came true. Thirty-eight million people died of starvation and overwork during the Leap and the subsequent famine, which lasted for four long years. This greatest of 20th century manmade famines exceeded the deaths caused by Stalin’s collectivization of the Ukraine. As Mao told his staff, 󈬢 million (might have to) die … you can’t blame me when people die.”

Now Frank Dikötter, a historian who lives in Hong Kong, has written the first major book about these disastrous years, which Dikötter calls “one of the worst catastrophes the world has ever known.” It is titled Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962. Using regional archives in rural areas, he has unearthed many gruesome details. A British newspaper covered the author’s recent book talk, noting that Dikötter “compared the systematic torture, brutality, starvation and killing of Chinese peasants to the Second World War in its magnitude. At least 45 million people were worked, starved or beaten to death in China over these four years the worldwide death toll of the Second World War was 55 million.”

Calling the period a virtual war between the peasant and the State, Dikötter said: “It ranks alongside the gulags and the Holocaust as one of the three grimmest events of the 20th century. … It was like [the Cambodian communist dictator] Pol Pot’s genocide multiplied 20 times over.” It is not only a period that official China has conveniently forgot — wiped out of the historical memory of China’s newly prosperous populace — but of course it is one also forgot by those legions of American leftists who in those years maintained that Mao and the Chinese Communists were successfully creating a new world.

The records Dikötter found revealed:

All of this raises the question of what this means for the people of today’s China, whose real history is carefully hidden from them by the Party’s leaders. As we read of the great progress China has made in the past few decades, it is tempting to think that China is no longer what anyone would call a Communist state — since it is so far removed from these horrible events of Mao’s day.

Yet an important essay by journalist Ian Johnson, in the current issue of The New York Review of Books, makes the point that “today, the Party is arguably stronger than ever but few outsiders are aware of its enduring reach.” It is at the center of events as varied as shifts in global currency markets, New York stock market listings, and clashes over North Korea.

While China’s economy may be a market communism and many of its policies cannot be called anything resembling traditional Communism, “the Party is still Leninist in structure and organization, resulting in institutions and behavior patterns that would be recognizable to the leaders of the Russian Revolution.” Johnson provides a particularly striking example showing how powerful the Party is. China’s new thriving giant corporations are not actually run by its board of directors, but by the Party:

A similar structure guides the political decisions that are made. The National Congress is nothing but a rubber stamp institution for the Party, which runs the government through what Johnson calls a “parallel structure of behind-the-scenes control.” Even in a high school, it is the Party leader, not the principal, who decides how the school is to be run. The Party has 78 million members, which are led by the nine-man Standing Committee of the Party’s Politburo. In other words, it is not incorrect to call the regime one of “market Leninism.”

Rather than declining in power as the economy grows, the Party seemingly has perfected a mechanism to maintain control while it presides over a controlled capitalism. Those brave enough to demand real democratization, a multi-party system, and a weakening of control from above, face years in brutal prisons.

The Party presides over economic growth, and so far, the results of a better life for some — especially in the cities — have worked to curb mass demands for democracy. Johnson thinks the Party is not threatened at present, but that it “lacks the impetus to reform.” Thus he concludes, “With China on top of the world, the Party’s perch atop the country seems impregnable and yet more vulnerable than ever.”

Knowing this, it is not really surprising that China’s current rulers prefer that its people not learn the real history of the Party and the Maoist years, since its own legitimacy stems from the Revolution Mao and his comrades made. That is why getting this history to the people of China is so important. At times, true history itself can play a revolutionary role.

Great Depression Quotes

&ldquoWhen I was young
I wanted to be just like him.
One of the charm, of a bright orange smile
and muscular laughter.
Bold brown eyes flashing fearless
when he sat not alone
on cold blue nights
in empty boxcars.

Riding a freight train's
solitary wail
away from Nebraska
Depression, accompanying dreams
withered farms.
Nothing left but the
leaves of possibilities.&rdquo
― Larsen Bowker

&ldquoMarsha: I miss Mother and Daddy so much. sometimes worse than others. My mind goes back to when Jeannie and I were children. It was during the Great Depression. We lived on the farm. Every night---we sat down by the light from a kerosene lamp---we sang hymns, Mother and Daddy took turns reading the Bible---and then each one of us said prayers.

Daddy didn't like rice at all. But during the Depression. that's what we had. and Daddy learned to eat rice---AND HE LEARNED TO LOVE IT. Then, for the next almost 50 years that he lived. he wanted to eat rice almost every day!

It's 'funny' how things work out. &rdquo
― Carolyn Bass Watson Dickens, Mother of Marsha Carol Watson Gandy

'Too late, too rotten'

Regulating the skyrocketing grain prices would risk tampering with the natural laws of economics. "If I were to attempt to do this," the governor said, "I should consider myself no better than a dacoit or thief." With that, Mr Beadon deserted his emaciated subjects in Orissa and returned to Kolkata (Calcutta) and busied himself with quashing privately funded relief efforts.

In May 1866, it was no longer easy to ignore the mounting catastrophe in Orissa. British administrators in Cuttack found their troops and police officers starving. The remaining inhabitants of Puri were carving out trenches in which to pile the dead. "For miles round you heard their yell for food," commented one observer.

As more chilling accounts trickled into Calcutta and London, Mr Beadon made a belated attempt to import rice into Orissa. It was, with cruel irony, hindered by an overabundant monsoon and flooding. Relief was too little, too late, too rotten. Orissans paid with their lives for bureaucratic foot-dragging.

For years, a rising generation of western-educated Indians had alleged that British rule was grossly impoverishing India. The Orissa famine served as eye-popping proof of this thesis. It prompted one early nationalist, Dadabhai Naoroji, to begin his lifelong investigations into Indian poverty.

As the famine abated in early 1867, Mr Naoroji sketched out the earliest version of his "drain theory"—the idea that Britain was enriching itself by literally sucking the lifeblood out of India.

"Security of life and property we have better in these times, no doubt," he conceded. "But the destruction of a million and a half lives in one famine is a strange illustration of the worth of the life and property thus secured."


After World War I, some enlightened Native Americans and white individuals decided to reform these oppressive "assimilation" policies with new legislation. Although many Native Americans had become U. S. citizens through "competency commissions" and treaties, Congress unilaterally granted citizenship to all Native Americans in 1924. However, many natives were wary of being declared citizens through "competency" since it often meant that their federal land allotments and treaty rights were no longer protected and thus subject to confiscation or sale. A significant amount of the tribal estate was taken from Native Americans through fraud and state tax sales. In fact, thousands of newly created Native-American citizens saw their lands removed from federal protection and sold out from under them during the 1920 and 1930s.

Many Native-American leaders asserted that the American Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 was a mischief-maker in Native-American policy. They did not like the way it was imposed without consultation and consent from native communities. The Tuscarora chief, Clinton Rickard, summarized the views of many Native Americans by stating:

The Citizenship Act did pass in 1924 despite our strong opposition. By its provisions all Indians were automatically made United States citizens whether they wanted to do so or not. This was a violation of our sovereignty. Our citizenship was in our own nations. We had a great attachment to our style of government. We wished to remain treaty Indians and reserve our ancient rights. There was no great rush among my people to go out and vote in the white man's elections. Anyone who did so was denied the privilege of becoming a chief or clan mother in our nations.

Although the 1924 American Indian Citizenship Act granted citizenship unilaterally, it did not end federal protection of native lands and governmental entities. Hence, Native Americans acquired a new status as American citizens while maintaining their privileges and rights as members of distinct Native-American political units. However, native policymakers in 1924 assumed that tribal governments would wither away when Native Americans became U. S. citizens. But most tribal governments did not disappear as anticipated and native peoples continue to enjoy a special dual citizenship.

Poverty, poor education, and ill health characterized the existence of most Native Americans in the 1920s. When native lands were allotted, the federal government assured communities that they would be supported during the transition from communal ways to the individualistic mores of Euro-American society. But government promises were not kept, and many Native Americans continued to reject American individualism and cling to traditional group-oriented values. In some cases, native communities were devoured by their more greedy and competitive white neighbors. By the end of the 1920s, many reformers and Native-American leaders understood that instilling private property through allotment and Christianity through missionization had wreaked havoc in Native-American country.

Mao's Great Leap to Famine

HONG KONG — The worst catastrophe in China’s history, and one of the worst anywhere, was the Great Famine of 1958 to 1962, and to this day the ruling Communist Party has not fully acknowledged the degree to which it was a direct result of the forcible herding of villagers into communes under the “Great Leap Forward” that Mao Zedong launched in 1958.

To this day, the party attempts to cover up the disaster, usually by blaming the weather. Yet detailed records of the horror exist in the party’s own national and local archives.

Access to these files would have been unimaginable even 10 years ago, but a quiet revolution has been taking place over the past few years as vast troves of documents have gradually been declassified. While the most sensitive information still remains locked up, researchers are being allowed for the first time to rummage through the dark night of the Maoist era.

From 2005 to 2009, I examined hundreds of documents all over China, traveling from subtropical Guangdong to arid Gansu Province near the deserts of Inner Mongolia.

The party records were usually housed on the local party committee premises, closely guarded by soldiers. Inside were acres of dusty, yellowing paper held together in folders that could contain anything from a single scrap of paper scribbled by a party secretary decades ago to neatly typewritten minutes of secret leadership meetings.

Historians have known for some time that the Great Leap Forward resulted in one of the world’s worst famines. Demographers have used official census figures to estimate that 20 million to 30 million people died.

But inside the archives is an abundance of evidence, from the minutes of emergency committees to secret police reports and public security investigations, that show these estimates to be woefully inadequate.

In the summer of 1962, for instance, the head of the Public Security Bureau in Sichuan sent a long handwritten list of casualties to the local boss, Li Jingquan, informing him that 10.6 million people had died in his province from 1958 to 1961. In many other cases, local party committees investigated the scale of death in the immediate aftermath of the famine, leaving detailed computations of the scale of the horror.

In all, the records I studied suggest that the Great Leap Forward was responsible for at least 45 million deaths.

Between 2 and 3 million of these victims were tortured to death or summarily executed, often for the slightest infraction. People accused of not working hard enough were hung and beaten sometimes they were bound and thrown into ponds. Punishments for the least violations included mutilation and forcing people to eat excrement.

One report dated Nov. 30, 1960, and circulated to the top leadership — most likely including Mao — tells how a man named Wang Ziyou had one of his ears chopped off, his legs tied up with iron wire and a 10-kilogram stone dropped on his back before he was branded with a sizzling tool. His crime: digging up a potato.

When a boy stole a handful of grain in a Hunan village, the local boss, Xiong Dechang, forced his father to bury his son alive on the spot. The report of the investigative team sent by the provincial leadership in 1969 to interview survivors of the famine records that the man died of grief three weeks later.

Starvation was the punishment of first resort. As report after report shows, food was distributed by the spoonful according to merit and used to force people to obey the party. One inspector in Sichuan wrote that “commune members too sick to work are deprived of food. It hastens their death.”

As the catastrophe unfolded, people were forced to resort to previously unthinkable acts to survive. As the moral fabric of society unraveled, they abused one another, stole from one another and poisoned one another. Sometimes they resorted to cannibalism.

One police investigation from Feb. 25, 1960, details some 50 cases in Yaohejia village in Gansu: “Name of culprit: Yang Zhongsheng. Name of victim: Yang Ecshun. Relationship with culprit: younger brother. Manner of crime: killed and eaten. Reason: livelihood issues.”

The term “famine” tends to support the widespread view that the deaths were largely the result of half-baked and poorly executed economic programs. But the archives show that coercion, terror and violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward.

Mao was sent many reports about what was happening in the countryside, some of them scribbled in longhand. He knew about the horror, but pushed for even greater extractions of food.

At a secret meeting in Shanghai on March 25, 1959, he ordered the party to procure up to one-third of all the available grain — much more than ever before. The minutes of the meeting reveal a chairman insensitive to human loss: “When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.”

Mao’s Great Famine was not merely an isolated episode in the making of modern China. It was its turning point. The subsequent Cultural Revolution was the leader’s attempt to take revenge on the colleagues who had dared to oppose him during the Great Leap Forward.

To this day, there is little public information inside China about this dark past. Historians who are allowed to work in the party archives tend to publish their findings across the border in Hong Kong.

There is no museum, no monument, no remembrance day to honor the tens of millions of victims. Survivors, most of them in the countryside, are rarely given a voice, all too often taking their memories with them to their graves.

Frank Dikötter is a professor at the University of Hong Kong, on leave from the University of London. His books include “Mao’s Great Famine.”