The World of Tomorrow: The Changing Face of Migrants

The Great Depression set thousands of unemployed on the road and rails in search of work. Both the face and hopes of these migrants were different from that of the hobo. For one, most were forced to go out and search for work. There was no romance, either real or imagined, about life on the tramp during the Depression. Secondly, these migrants hoped to reach a point, find work, and settle. Problem was, there were few prospects.

In January 1933, the nation's homeless population was conservatively estimated at a million and a half, seven hundred thousand of whom were believed to be in transit or transients. A decade of massive unemployement, bank failures, foreclosures, and evictions eventually forced as many as 2 million people into transience.1

In Men On The Move, Anderson draws distinctions between the new transients and those of old by noting the shift in tone between a verse such as this:

Here are my two hands that have been idle so long,
Give me something to do! My muscles are soft, but strong;
I want to work, to labor, I'm sick of this charity stuff;
I've been on a long vacation, and by God, I've had enough!2

written by Del Wilcox and published in a publication at a federal transient camp in Iowa, and the following:

I've topped the spruce and worked the sluice,
    And I've taken a turn at the plow;
I've searched for gold in the rain and cold,
    And I've worked on a river scow.

I've dug the clam and built the damn,
    And packed the elusive prune;
My troubles pale, when I hit the trail,
    A-packing my old balloon.3

The tone of the new transient was one of frustration, not of lusty freedom. The oral and written tradition of the hobo generally did not speak of despair; struggle yes, but not the despair of the Depression's migrating unemployed.

The face of the new migrant was now, more often than ever, that of a woman. Young, single women who lost their jobs or who had been abandoned found themselves vulnerable on the road and often dressed as men or traveled in pairs or with lovers. Women also hit the road with their families; entire families migrated; part of the reason this was possible was the automobile.


Children on the road was a subject of Thomas Minehan's Boy and Girl Tramps of America (1934). Minehan roamed the country to gather material for his study. Hard times at home often precipitated a young person's descent to the road.4  excerpt

From A Tramp To A King