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This isn't your grandparents' recession

Depression-era lessons aren't always applicable today.

By Donna_Freedman Nov 2, 2009 3:26AM

When the going gets tough, it's tempting to invoke our grandparents and their tribulations during the Great Depression. A Smart Spending message board reader posting as "jestjack" started a thread called "Where are my grandparents when I need them?

"These were some of the most thrifty, smart, industrious, hard-working, and honorable folks," he wrote. "Boy, could we use their wit and wisdom in these troubled times."

I'm about to commit cultural heresy: Not everything our grandparents had to offer would be helpful. 

My paternal grandparents, who married in 1935, knew an awful lot about living on an awful little. They'd make most of us modern frugalists look like Rockefellers. 

But allow me to point out an irritating fact: The world was different then. When you look at our grandparents' lives in context, you'll see that it was easier to manage on relatively little. Not more comfortable, or more fun -- just easier.

We can't all raise pigs
Let me be clear on this: I am not saying that the Depression generation couldn't teach us all a thing or two about frugality. Advice on topics like sewing, scratch cooking, home repair and no-cost entertainment could be of great use.

But some of their advice just wouldn't fit the reality of many Americans' lives. For example, not all of us have the physical space (or the zoning) to grow a garden or raise pigs. We're limited to what we can buy in the store, and basic food prices are soaring.

If a child outgrew his shoes back in the 1930s, his parents might have simply slit open the ends. His toes would stick out, but it sure beat having them pinched all day. Or he might have gone to school barefoot. These days, either solution would warrant a visit from the Division of Family and Children's Services. 

Maybe your grandpa walked three miles to work to save a nickel streetcar fare. Good for him. But that simply wouldn't be safe in many areas today, especially for a lone woman. Besides, many people live very, very far from their workplaces because of the way our cities and suburbs have developed.

If the family did have a vehicle and it broke down, likely either Grandpa or a great-uncle could fix it. Modern cars have computerized innards that daunt most shade-tree mechanics.

And what about car insurance? Or homeowners insurance, private mortgage insurance, health insurance -- do you think Grandma and Grandpa spent thousands of dollars on these each year? Burial insurance, maybe.

White gravy and grimy shirts
Our notions of minimum comfort have changed, too. I'm not talking about the way some people can't seem to live without cable TV or a cell phone. I'm talking about our love for things like frequent showers, clean laundry and balanced diets. 

Sure, laundry and baths were harder to manage. But they didn't happen as often. It wasn't unusual to bathe just once a week and "wash up" in between, or to wear the same clothes for several days. Today's water bills reflect daily showers and hair washings, plus the laundering of towels, sheets and seven outfits per person per week. 

Don't forget to add in the cost of electricity or gas to heat the bathwater and to run the washer, dryer and clothes iron -- or for that matter, the costs of shampoo, conditioner, body wash, deodorant, razors, shaving gel, facial moisturizer, lotion, laundry soap and fabric softener.

Food back then was a simpler proposition: You ate what you had. If you were poor and all you had was flour and lard, you'd probably eat a lot of biscuits and white gravy. Imagine implementing that menu for days on end in modern times. The same DCFS worker who nagged you about your barefoot kid would return; only this time she might take your children away.

But that probably wouldn't happen, because now we can charge our groceries -- also because a lot of people don't know how to make biscuits, and because they're afraid of lard. 

There's no comparison
Again: I am not saying that we couldn't learn a lot from our elders.  But I think it's facile and even a little dangerous to get too pious about how our grandparents coped with the Great Depression and how we should be able to handle a little economic downturn, or even a big one.

Their world was just too different. It was harsher in some ways, such as the fact that if the bank failed you'd never see your money again. But a number of social and cultural pressures that we now face didn't exist in the 1930s.

You weren't expected to go to college, let alone go into crushing debt to pay for it. You weren't considered a loser if you worked with your hands. You weren't a failure if you didn't have a home of your own by the time you were 30.

Besides, underneath all those collective, sepia-toned Great Depression memories lie some pretty unpleasant realities: malnutrition, poor sanitation, a lack of medical care, institutionalized oppression. Homes were foreclosed upon back then, too. Some men deserted their families because they couldn't provide for them; some committed suicide for the same reason. 

There's plenty to be learned by reading about the Great Depression, especially oral histories of the folks who lived through it. But please don't fall into the trap of thinking that (a) we've become soft and lazy and can't take a little adversity or (b) that things were "better" back then because people pitched in and made do.

There's some truth in both statements. Some people today consider it a sacrifice just to give up going to restaurants, and some folks back then were desperately poor but still fairly happy. But the fact remains that today some people are in big trouble not because they're lazy, but because of complex personal, national and global economic issues.

Don't over-romanticize the past, either. Americans have a tendency to wax nostalgic about simpler times. They were simple, all right: A simple matter of national heritage could keep you out of the running for a good job. A simple sniffle could lead to pneumonia and almost certain death. And simply put, nobody wants to be the kid whose toes stick out of his shoes.

Published Oct. 13, 2008
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