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Could you survive another Great Depression?

Dr. Paul Kengor's picture

I just read two very interesting articles on the U.S. economy, written from historical perspectives. They compelled me to share my own historical perspective. And what I want to say is more about our changing culture than our economy.

One of the articles, by Julie Crawshaw of MoneyNews.com, notes that the “Misery Index” — the combined unemployment and inflation rates — made infamous under President Jimmy Carter, has hit a 28-year high. It’s also 62 percent higher than when President Obama took office.

But that’s nothing compared to Mort Zuckerman’s article in U.S. News & World Report. Zuckerman measures the current situation against the Great Depression. He writes:

“The Great Recession has now earned the dubious right of being compared to the Great Depression. In the face of the most stimulative fiscal and monetary policies in our history, we have experienced the loss of over 7 million jobs, wiping out every job gained since the year 2000. From the moment the Obama administration came into office, there have been no net increases in full-time jobs, only in part-time jobs. This is contrary to all previous recessions. Employers are not recalling the workers they laid off.... We now have more idle men and women than at any time since the Great Depression.”

Zuckerman is a perceptive writer who looks at economies from a historical perspective. In my comparative politics course at Grove City College, I use his article on the Russian collapse in the 1990s, which Zuckerman showed was worse than our Great Depression.

I can’t say we’re teetering on that precipice, but Zuckerman’s article got me thinking: Imagine if America today experienced an economic catastrophe similar to the 1930s. How would you survive?

I remember asking that question to my grandparents, Joseph and Philomena. How did they survive the Great Depression?

My grandmother, never at a loss for words, direly described how her family avoided starving. Compensation came via barter. Her father, an Italian immigrant, baked bread and cured meats in an oven in the tiny backyard, among other trades he learned in the old country. My grandmother cleaned the house and babysat and bathed the children of a family who owned a grocery store. They paid her with store products. Her family struggled through by creatively employing everyone’s unique skills.

What about my grandfather? When I asked that question as he sat silently, my grandmother raised her loud Italian voice and snapped: “Ah, he didn’t suffer! Don’t even ask him!”

My grandfather, also Italian, returned the shout: “Ah, you shut up! You’re a damned fool!”

Grandma: “No, you’re a damned fool!”

After the typical several minutes of sustained insults, my grandfather explained that, indeed, his family didn’t suffer during the depression. They noticed no difference whatsoever, even as America came apart at the seams.

Why not? Because they were farmers. They got everything from the land, from crops and animals they raised and hunted to fish they caught. They raised every animal possible, from cattle to rabbits. They ate everything from the pig, from head to feet. There were eggs from chickens and cheese and milk from goats and cows. There were wild plants.

I was captivated as my grandfather explained his family’s method of refrigeration: During the winter, they broke ice from the creek and hauled it into the barn, where it was packed in sawdust for use through the summer. They didn’t over-eat. They preserved food, and there was always enough for the family of 12.

When their clothes ripped, they sewed them. When machines broke, they fixed them. They didn’t over-spend. Home repairs weren’t contracted out. Heat came from wood they gathered.

And they didn’t need 1,000 acres of land to do this.

They were totally self-sufficient — and far from alone. Back then, most Americans farmed, knew how to grow things, or provided for themselves to some significant degree.

That conversation with my grandparents came to mind as I read Zuckerman’s piece and considered life under another Great Depression. I realized: The vast majority of Americans today would be incapable of providing for themselves. If you live in the city with no land, you’d be in big trouble. Even most Americans, who have a yard with soil, wouldn’t know what to do.

Isn’t it ironic that with all our scandalously expensive education — far more than our grandparents’ schooling — we’ve learned so little? We can’t fix our car let alone shoot, gut, skin, and butcher a deer.

Think about it: If you lacked income for food, or if prices skyrocketed, or your money was valueless, what would you do for yourself and your family?

Americans today are a lifetime from their grandparents and great grandparents. God help us if we ever face a calamity like the one they faced — and survived.

[Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City (Penn.) College and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values (www.VisionAndValues.org). His books include “The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism” and his latest release, “Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.”]


BHH's picture

All you can do is avoid the inevitable as long as possible.

The death of choice might be old age but even that has it's drawbacks.

Starvation or disease are my least desirable deaths.

I would choose to go willingly and painlessly.

And not by surprise.


........is the first one from Grove City that is accurate, true, and of course will be ignored for being ridiculous, which it is not!
(By the way Dr., The Wall fell due to East German economy eating Russia up and they were glad to finally give the headache to West Germany!)

Back to your article. I remember the Great Depression personally---the last 3-4 years, anyway. You describe it pretty well.
Additionally to what you said some refrigeration was done by having a trough in an outside building with cold spring water running through it constantly where milk and such were placed.

Home canning of many, many foods, up to 200-300 quarts per summer, and stored in a cool cellar were delicious. The potatoes and onions were also kept there.

Molasses were also cooked over an open fire in a huge pan and fed several families.
Apples were dried in a small brick outdoor oven and sacked to bake apple pies.
Blackberries and blueberries, and cherries, and mulberries and raspberries were also made into jam and jelly.
Corn was ground into corn meal and wheat for flour.
Several milk cows furnished milk and butter, and 4-5 hogs were slaughtered and either canned or salted down.

90% of the population worked on a farm. Some small some huge.

As to today however, 90% do not work on a farm. In the case of another Depression we would be glad to see the government distribution trucks with beans, cheese, corn meal, flour, powdered milk and eggs, dry legumes, fat-back, macaroni, and bottled water.

Shelter would require several members of a family to live together, and the banks would be going broke again, and the government borrowing more money at high interest. Beggars would again walk the roads.
Schools would be attended sparsely.

There is a worse scenario of course, but why mention that!

Depression-era living is apparently what a certain segment of the US population wants! They are called atavists among other things!

I read this book about 10 years or so ago before I realized there was nothing much new to read anymore. It is interesting and puts forth a persuasive explanation for historical cycles in roughly 75-year increments.


Braves off tonight! Going to bed early! Ben would be half-proud!

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