As the current economic picture is bad, and future predictions are dire as well, I have been wondering what would be useful to us now that we learned from the Depression and the 9/11 experience. After 9/11, we learned the tragic lessons about how vulnerable we are, especially in urban centers, about how permeable our security was and the trade-offs to tightening that security, and about how hatred can be made tragically manifest on our own soil. We also learned lovely lessons about our shared identity, how to reach out and gather in community to support each other, learned how moved we can be by the stories of people we have never met, and about how brave, selfless, and without hesitation some people can be.
Although I was not around for the Depression, the media has been giving some coverage about that era. I also gained some personal lessons through my family about being thrifty and reducing waste, about being cooperative and neighborly, and about learning to do without.
Two articles in the Washington Post also addressed this last Sunday. One, Turns Out There’s Good News on Main St., was about “the new localism”, where economic factors are helping to strengthen family and community ties and forcing people to center their lives around where they live. In it, Joel Kotkin documents the trend of Americans changing their places of residence less frequently than in the 1970s. He shows how the change in women’s roles necessitates more extended family and community involvement to help raise kids, and that economic factors are increasing multi-generational family “clustering.” People are also buying more local foods, working, and finding amusement closer to home, stimulated in part by higher energy prices.
The on-line version of the article allows people to comment directly on the article. These comments are sometimes silly or snarky, but also point out some of the problems with this reframing of the economic climate’s repercussions. Some of them talk about how this viewpoint is from a middle- or upper-class urban perspective. They rightly comment that an increase in the incidence and depth of poverty, and the destruction of people’s security and dreams cannot be recast as a positive. People who are already underprivileged, in the cities cited in the article, are the most hard hit by this economy because they have not been getting by even before the crisis and have never been able to afford locally grown food at farmer’s markets. Others talk about how people who live in more rural and less affluent places live by these lessons already and do not need to learn them. Many commenters are justifiably offended by the article’s myopia.
In In Tough Times, Rethinking Wealth, Donna St. George writes about middle-class families shifting their perspective and
asking themselves about life’s larger priorities — about what is important and why, and about the kind of sacrifice and hardship that was deeply woven into the lives of their parents and grandparents, the generation of the Great Depression and World War II.
She writes about people becoming more centered on the things that matter, delaying gratification and reconsidering what is best for them. This economic situation demands people be more spiritually concerned, less materialistic, and value things more that are without monetarily value, things like
people and relationships, and it’s love and your faith and your neighbors and the people you take care of.
Kerri Wright Platais is interviewed for the story and talked about her father during the depression, how In his lifetime,
it was patriotic not to spend money but to produce our own food and take care of our neighbors and look out for people.
Two things about living during hard times popped up repeatedly in the article. One was a spiritual growth, which had multiple references and two clergy comments. Another was the idea that having less to spend on ourselves helps us focus more on the needs of others.
Again, the comments called for more consideration for people who have so little that living without luxuries is not a reasonable dialogue. And that the thoughtless and excessive spending of recent times by privileged people is an abomination in the face of poverty anyway. Commenters either felt that this economy is not as bad as it has been depicted, or warned of an impending and extreme reduction in personal resources for everyone at all levels.
There is a distinct flavor of class division between the articles themselves and the people who comment on them, which points to the lack of media consideration and outlets for people in lower income brackets. However, I do support the ideas of changing the way we live to fit our current situation, including giving up unnecessary spending. I also believe that living more locally and investing in our families and communities is a good thing. And any opportunity for spiritual deepening is wonderful. Mostly, I am happy to hear people finding an economic downturn to be an ideal time to focus on the needs of others.
What seems to missing here is the bridge between the articles’ authors and interviewees, and the people commenting on them. Actually, privileged and urban people might learn from something valuable from more rural people and those who live in poverty. If middle-class communities and underprivileged communities were not isolated from each other, they could find a way to participate in the same community of care and find the spiritual deepening they seek. For people with more resources, who are evaluating their choices and expenditures, their core concern might not be about delayed gratification and reducing purchases, it might be about better understanding their privilege and using it to help benefit people who otherwise would not get by. Both sides of this socio-economic line would benefit from some investment in community justice, in extended relationships, in love, and in faith. These may be the lessons that were learned during the Depression and after 9/11. It is time to harvest that wisdom and learn them again.