I’ve been wondering lately what would happen America falls into another really big economic Depression like the one in the 1930’s…GDII, if you will. All the market pundits and economic newspapers these days from the Wall Street Journal to (…oh, I don’t know, I can’t remember a name right now, so pick one of your own) are saying it’s coming. But I’m not a Wall Street guy and anyway, this isn’t a Wall Street piece. It’s about wondering what comes after Wall Street falls apart, like it did in 1929, if it does at all. It’s about what America and the world will be like once the money men have gone broke and taken the rest of us down with them. It’ll be terrible, but it may not be all bad.
My parents were kids during the Roaring Twenties and then lived as teenagers through the Great Depression. Their parents came to the US from Europe just before WWI. They were the poor immigrants of the early Twentieth Century and although they had a decade or so to get started on their new lives in America, they also hadn’t really acquired much wealth to lose by 1929. My grandfather had small farm, which my Uncle’s John, Al and to a lesser extent my Dad were able to keep paying the mortgage on.
The point is, they were poor when the Crash hit, so they didn’t have stocks or savings to lose. The biggest effect on them was that they didn’t get richer- just keeping what they had was the big struggle. Uncle John joined the Army after college and went on to command Civilian Conservation Corps. units; he sent home most of the cash that covered the mortgage. My dad started a business that paid his way through college. Everyone, all my grandparent’s children, lived in the family house into adult-hood and when they married, their wives or husbands and children were added to. Luckily, it was a big old farmhouse.
That was the biggest effect on them…they stayed nuclear. Big as it was, the old house was cramped, but there were vegetables growing the garden, a cow and chickens and all that small-farm stuff, so they weren’t starving. They sewed a lot of their own clothes, canned food for the Winter and took whatever jobs they could to bring in some cash. It wasn’t fun- my grandmother hated my Mom, so she was miserable there- but everybody did what they had to. And that’s the point.
Poverty has a positive side, if you approach it from the right angle. First of all, it instills a serious work ethic. You do what you need to do and forget your pride…no over-qualified or salary requirements crap. No borrowing to live above your means. If you can’t afford it you can’t buy it and if you can’t buy it, you make it yourself or do without.
You find that working for the common good is well, good. And not just your own family either; when I was poor I had neighbors who helped me build my roof, install my plumbing, loaned me tools and equipment, and just outright give me shit they had that I needed and they didn’t. Even the woman who held my mortgage waited more times than I care to remember for her monthly check. My mom of course helped too…I may be estranged from my own family now after her death, but when they let me down and I was sick to the point of nearly dying, I had neighbors, some poorer than I, who helped keep me alive. They brought me loads of firewood to heat my house, plowed my driveway…you know, stuff they didn’t have to do but did anyway. It made them feel good and I know I was grateful beyond words, even if it did dismantle my pride a bit.
My Uncle John, a Silver Star WWII veteran and the only member of my family I still spoke to, once said to me, “You’re living the way we did during the Depression.” The only difference was my wife and I were living that way during a time of prosperity. John didn’t say it like it was a bad thing; on the contrary, he was proud of us. Like so many people who survived it, he remembered the Depression with nostalgia. Despite the poverty, in a lot of ways it was a better time than any he’d lived through after, the times of greed when personal wealth became the end all and be all and the cause of so many conflicts in our family.
During the Depression, at year’s end, if you hadn’t gotten any richer, you were just grateful that you’d survived to try it again another year. You figured out ways to do it. Children pitched in too, rather than just being recipients of their parents money. Neighbors became friends and helped each other and even other strangers. If your car was ten years old and looked like shit, well, it was a car and that was the point of the thing, not it’s zero to sixty capability or how many video screens it had. Tomatoes from your own garden were far better than Mexican grown ones because they were free.
We of course face problems now that many back then didn’t. Society today is geared differently, with huge tracts of suburban homes, very little in the way of manufacturing and far less ‘homegrown’ natural resources. Most Americans have no background in farming, cooking, sewing and stuff that our ancestors did. The ones who’ll probably weather a new Depression best are the immigrants of today, the Hispanics, Indians and Asians, people who come from poverty.
Debt is the big killer today, just as after the 1929 Crash. Even more people will lose their savings, homes and cars and go bankrupt. And the nation itself carries a huge debt load, but whether or not Republicans and Tea Party like it, massive alphabet social programs like FDR’s CCC, and WPA will have to be put in place, or people will literally starve or freeze to death.
But in the end, we may become a stronger nation for it. Or we may fall apart completely. It’s up to us.