To Kill A Mockingbird is set in the 1930s during the Great Depression. During this period, the United States and much of the world were experiencing the greatest economic downturn in modern history. Due to a number of factors, the huge economic gains of the previous decade were largely erased in a short amount of time. This led to unemployment rates in the United States reaching an estimated 30 percent by 1933. The southern United States, where this story is set, was impacted the Great Depression in a particularly poignant way.
This era is the backdrop to this story. In the first chapter, Maycomb is described as being hit particularly hard by the economic downturn. Scout mentions several details that are emblematic of the Great Depression, such as Hoover carts. These refer to broken-down cars that are hitched to a horse or a mule and named derisively after the president at the start of the Great Depression. The several farmers of the story, such as Mr. Cunningham, are particularly negatively impacted. In fact, Mr. Cunningham pays Atticus for legal services with food that he grows because he has no money to spare. In the second chapter, Atticus explains that because the farmers are poor, the whole town is now poor, too.
The Black population of Maycomb is the worst off of all. In addition to discriminatory Jim Crow laws, they have even less financial security than people like the Cunninghams. Most of the Black residents of Maycomb were likely sharecroppers. This meant that they did not own the land that they farmed. When the federal government enacted several programs to help impoverished farmers, Black sharecroppers were frequently overlooked.
In fact, this period saw some of the largest expansions in the social role of the government in American history. In order to mitigate the terrible effects of the Great Depression, the government enacted numerous programs under what was called the New Deal. Much of this effort was aimed at creating more jobs. Mr. Cunningham is too proud to accept government help. Bob Ewell, on the other hand, accepts relief checks but wastes the money. At the beginning of chapter 27, Scout mentions that Bob Ewell did briefly secure a job through the Works Progress Administration (WPA)—one of the largest New Deal programs—before he was fired for laziness.