To Kill a Mockingbird is set in Maycomb County, an imaginary district in southern Alabama. The time is the early 1930s, the years of the Great Depression when poverty and unemployment were widespread in the United States. For parts of the deep South like Maycomb County, the Depression meant only that the bad times that had been going on for decades got a little bit worse. These rural areas had long been poor and undeveloped. Black people worked for low wages in the fields. White farmers were more likely to own land, but they were cash poor. It was common for children to go to school barefoot, and to suffer from ringworm and other diseases.
Although automobiles had been around for some years, most farm families still depended on horses for transportation and to plow their fields. Scout’s family, the Finches, belong to the elite of local society. Atticus Finch is an educated man who goes to work in a clean shirt. The family owns a nice house and can afford to hire a black housekeeper. Still, the Finches are well-off only in comparison with the farm families who live in the same county. They, too, have little money. Instead of bringing people together, the shared experience of poverty seemed to contribute to making the South more class-conscious than other parts of the country.
One reason why people like Scout’s Aunt Alexandra place so much importance on family background and “gentle breeding” is that these concepts were just about all that could be counted on to separate a family like the Finches from the truly poor. The advantages of education, a professional career, and owning one’s own home did not last long if a family happened to have a run of bad luck. The fear that the family’s position could only get worse, never better, helped to turn some people into social snobs.