THE UNEMPLOYED MAN AND HIS FAMILY Mirra Komarovsky Sociologist Mirra Komarovsky studied the psychological and sociological effects of the Great Depression in American families. In this case study, she

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Mirra Komarovsky

Sociologist Mirra Komarovsky studied the psychological and sociological effects of the Great Depression in American families. In this case study, she presents the Pattersons, a typical working class family.

Source: Mirra Komarovsky, The Unemployed Man and His Family: The Effect of Unemployment Upon the Status of the Man in Fifty-Nine Families with an Introduction by Paul Felix Lazerfeld (New York: Dryden Press, Inc., 1940) 26–29.


Mrs. Patterson is small, well-built, and still very attractive. She looks younger than her age. Mr. Patterson is a slight man who talks quietly and somewhat timidly.

Mrs. Patterson believes she was greatly in love at the time of marriage, but she said, “You know how those things are—they never last.” She wasn’t satisfied with her husband’s economic success prior to unemployment, but neither was she dissatisfied. While he was a steady worker, they never had enough money to get ahead on or to have their home exactly the way she wanted it. She had a couple of girl friends whom she had known for years, and they had much nicer homes.

Mrs. Patterson gave the interviewer to understand that her own family was of a higher economic status. Her father gave her a piano, for example, which she still has, while her husband could never do that much for his girl.

It is clear that Mrs. Patterson dominated marital relations prior to unemployment. As far as the bringing up of the girl was concerned, whatever the wife wanted went. She was much stricter than Mr. Patterson. He was too chicken-hearted; and if it were up to him, he would never punish the girl. The wife said, “If you went by his advice, you would be wrong most of the time.” “I could never bring myself to spank the girl,” said Mr. Patterson. “She seldom needed it. She has always been a very sweet child and still is. But I just left everything to my wife, because, after all, she had to take care of the girl most of the time.” If the girl asks him for anything he usually answers, “whatever your mother says goes.”

He always turned over his pay envelope to his wife, leaving a little change in his pocket. Mrs. Patterson worked before the depression, now and then, to earn money for little luxuries for herself and her daughter. She helped friends in a store. The couple used to go out quite often. She usually decided where they were to go and made dates for both of them. Once a week he would attend his lodge meeting.

Mrs. Patterson mentioned that she had never been able to stay at “outs” with her daughter even when the girl was small. She used to be able to “take anything from her husband,” but was “chicken-hearted” about the girl.

Prior to the depression Mr. Patterson was an inventory clerk earning from $35 to $40 a week. He lost his job in 1931. At the present time he does not earn anything, while his 18-year-old girl gets $12.50 a week working in Woolworth’s, and his wife has part-time work cleaning a doctor’s office. Unemployment and depression have hit Mr. Patterson much more than the rest of the family.


The hardest thing about unemployment, Mr. Patterson says, is the humiliation within the family. It makes him feel very useless to have his wife and daughter bring in money to the family while he does not contribute a nickel. It is awful to him, because now “the tables are turned,” that is, he has to ask his daughter for a little money for tobacco, etc. He would rather walk miles than ask for carfare money. His daughter would want him to have it, but he cannot bring himself to ask for it. He had often thought that it would make it easier if he could have 25 cents a week that he could depend upon. He feels more irritable and morose than he ever did in his life. He doesn’t enjoy eating. He hasn’t slept well in months. He lies awake and tosses and tosses, wondering what he will do and what will happen to them if he doesn’t ever get work any more. He feels that there is nothing to wake up for in the morning and nothing to live for. He often wonders what would happen if he put himself out of the picture, or just got out of the way of his wife. Perhaps she and the girl would get along better without him. He blames himself for being unemployed. While he tries all day long to find work and would take anything, he feels that he would be successful if he had taken advantage of his opportunities in youth and had secured an education.

Mr. Patterson believes that his wife and daughter have adjusted themselves to the depression better than he has. In fact, sometimes they seem so cheerful in the evening that he cannot stand it any more. He grabs his hat and says he is going out for a while, and walks hard for an hour before he comes home again. That is one thing he never did before unemployment, but he is so nervous and jumpy now he has to do something like that to prevent himself from exploding.

Mrs. Patterson says that they have not felt the depression so terribly themselves, or changed their way of living so very much.

The wife thinks it is her husband’s fault that he is unemployed. Not that he doesn’t run around and try his very best to get a job, but he neglected his opportunities when he was young. If he had had a proper education and had a better personality, he would not be in his present state. Besides, he has changed for the worse. He has become irritable and very hard to get along with. He talks of nothing else, and isn’t interested in anything else but his troubles. She and her daughter try to forget troubles and have a good time once in a while, but he just sits and broods. Of course that makes her impatient with him. She cannot sit at home and keep him company, so that during the past couple of years she and her daughter just go out together without him. It isn’t that they leave him out—he just isn’t interested and stays at home.

Mr. Patterson insists that his child is as sweet as ever and always tries to cheer him up, but the tenor of his conversation about his wife is different. She does go out more with the daughter, leaving him alone. He cannot stand it, worrying so and having them so lighthearted. “When you are not bringing in any money, you don’t get as much attention. She doesn’t nag all the time, the way some women do,” but he knows she blames him for being unemployed. He intimates that they have fewer sex relations—“It’s nothing that I do or don’t do—no change in me—but when I tell her that I want more love, she just gets mad.” It came about gradually, he said. He cannot point definitely to any time when he noticed the difference in her. But he knows that his advances are rebuffed now when they would not have been before the hard times.


The wife gives the impression that there might have been some decrease in sex relations, but declines to discuss them. She tells the following episode:

The day before the interview she was kissing and hugging the daughter. “I like to keep the girl sweet and young, and in the habit of kissing her mother good-night.” The father walked in and said, “Don’t you get enough of that?” Mrs. Patterson went on at great length as to how terribly that statement hurt her.

The interviewer also witnessed another episode. Towards the end of the interview with the wife, the husband walked into the living room and asked his wife if she thought the interviewer would be interested in talking to their neighbors. The woman said, “Don’t bother us, we are talking about something else just now.” He got up quietly and went into the kitchen. In a moment she called after him, “Oh, you can sit in here if you want to.” Nevertheless, he stayed in the kitchen.


The evidence on the basis of which change was said to have taken place is as follows:

Husband’s, wife’s, and daughter’s statements that wife goes out without the husband more frequently than before, despite his protests.

Wife’s statement that she blames husband for unemployment and her dissatisfaction with the changes in husband.

Husband’s statement that there has been a decline in sex relations on the initiative of his wife, indirectly supported by wife’s testimony.

Husband’s sense of deep humiliation at being supported by his wife and daughter.


  1. What was the impact of prolonged unemployment on the Paterson family? How did different members of the family respond to economic hardship? Who suffered the worst? Why?
  2. Who did Mr. Patterson blame for his unemployment? Who did his wife blame?
  3. What does this case study reveal about working class family conditions and relations before the depression struck?

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