California in the 1930s was not representative of the entire United States. California only had a population of around two-and-a-half million at that time, compared to over 35,000,000 million now. It was an agricultural state. It produced fabulous crops of nearly everythinig, including fruits and nuts, but shipping was primitive. The majority of the American population lived east of the Mississippi. It was nearly impossible to ship food without having it decay en route to the big markets on the East Coast. Trains took at least three days to cross the U.S., and that was in good weather. Refrigerated freight cars were not at all common, and refrigeration built up the cost of food to Eastern consumers. Big 18-wheeler long-haul trucks did not exist. The highways were primitive in many states--just two-lane roads with a white stripe down the center, many in poor condition.
The American people were not nearly as well educated as they are today. They were not as well informed, either. Television did not exist until after World War II. And of course there were no computers, wifi, satellites, etc. Radio was mostly local. Movies were not informative. They were just escapist entertainment with no real content. Shirley Temple became the top star in the 1930s.
The men portrayed in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men were ignorant and unskilled. Most had never been to high school, as can be deduced from the way they talk in Steinbeck’s novella. Some were illiterate or barely literate. Steinbeck includes a little scene in which one man shows another a pulp magazine to illustrate the level of their reading interests.
"'Dear Editor," Slim read slowly. "'I read your mag for six years and I think it is the best on the market. I like stories by Peter Rand. I think he is a whing-ding. Give us more like the Dark Rider. I don't write many letters. Just thought I would tell you I think your mag is the best dime's worth I ever spent.'"
These magazines get passed around and around and finally end up in Crooks' room after everybody else has read them and they are pretty much worn out.
For men like those portrayed by Steinbeck, the Depression didn't make all that much difference. All they had to sell was their hard labor, whether they worked in the country or in the city. Most of the labor-saving machinery had not been invented. If a ditch had to be dug, it was dug by so-called pick-and-shovel workers. Some men used picks to loosen the dirt while others used shovels to shovel it out. There were no bulldozers, forklifts, backhoes, or any other such machines. It is noteworthy that the wagons in Of Mice and Men were pulled by huge teams of horses rather than by simple tractors. Those horses are all gone now.
World War II changed the lives of the farm laborers—especially of those who were white. They could get well-paying jobs in California in building ships, airplanes, and manufacturing munitions, among other things. Many of the younger men went into the military. This created a great labor shortage on the farms. The big ranchers were able to bring in Mexicans under various federal programs, and these migrants have done most of the farm work in California ever since, gradually moving into other jobs as they acquire knowkedge of English.
The Great Depression didn't make much difference for the kind of men Steinbeck portrayed in Of Mice and Men and shortly later in The Grapes of Wrath. World War II transformed California. The state has been booming ever since.
I believe that the socio-economic reality of the late 1920s manifests itself through the two central characters of the novel. Both George and Lennie are drifters who need to find work in the agricultural center of California. Their low wages and the difficulties of their lives are a result of the economic depression of the era. The dream of owning their own farm and living off of the "fat of the land" is Steinbeck's representation of the American Dream. Their inability to reach that dream has much to do with the difficulty for men in their position to scrape together enough money to realize their ambitions. Steinbeck illustrates this difficulty further by depicting the temptations that arise for migrant workers to spend their money on immediate pleasures. This conundrum of low income and desperate need for escape really highlights the lifestyle of the era.