You don’t need me to tell you that these are difficult times for many Americans. One in ten workers is jobless. One in five children lives below the poverty line. And yet, for most of us, these times are not to be confused with The Hard Times, the decade of The Depression. As I worked on my book, A Secret Gift, I interviewed at least five hundred people about their memories of those years, what they learned from such hardships, and how they were changed by them.
America was different then. Americans were different. Almost no one looked to government for help. Instead, they looked to family, to neighbors, to the church or synagogue. But mostly, they looked inward. They were proud, often too proud to admit the depths of their needs. They often hid those needs and their despair from those closest to them, not wanting to add to the burdens of loved ones. Early on I asked those who had been children in the Depression if they ever went to bed hungry. Now in their eighties and nineties, they often laughed at the question. Hunger for many was a constant. They often filled their bellies with dandelion salads or beans. Mothers were credited with miracles, conjuring up suppers from nothing. Many children did not know the word “breakfast” until years later when there was food enough for a morning meal. And even my presumption that they slept in a “bed” triggered amusement. Many grew accustomed to sleeping on hard floors, warmed only by the proximity of their parents and siblings. Evictions and repossessions had left them with nothing. Many lived as nomads.
Laying their hands on a pair of shoes decent enough to keep the snow out, was a relentless concern. Without shoes, children could not go to school, mothers and fathers could not walk the streets in search of day labor, and those who hunted for their next meal were limited by how long they could expose their feet to the cold. Adults could wear a single pair of shoes year after year, but children’s growing feet could not. Shoes were among the most coveted items in the Great Depression, just behind bread and coal.
The safety nets we have today – Social Security, Medicaid, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Unemployment – all these were unknown to Americans in the early years of the Great Depression. They come to us as a legacy of those Hard Times. From those times we learned that even the most earnest and resourceful of Americans sometimes could not make it without outside help, that being unable to find work was not evidence of personal failure or lack of character. In that period the stigma attached to accepting a hand up, if not a hand out, began to dissolve. From those times we learned that Individuals had limits and unless we acted collectively and collaboratively the entire country was at risk. Today we speak of “Entitlements.” In 1933 the word had little place in the national vocabulary and even less in the national budget. Today, the debate continues over how much or how little government should intervene in times of crisis. But only the most diehard of revanchists would dismantle the basic apparatus that was created to alleviate massive public suffering and avert another financial calamity.
There is much we who grew up in more prosperous times inherited from those who endured so much. There are the bits and pieces of folk wisdom – the “waste not, want not” mindset, the saving of string and rubber bands, the notion that exiting a room meant turning off the light. It was 1933 that Scotch Tape came to market. Anything that could be repaired was. It was 1933 that the Lone Ranger came to the airwaves, rescuing communities that could not rescue themselves. And it was 1933 that an out-of-work heating engineer began to market a new game to be called Monopoly. Its Darwinian vision of capitalism mirrored the experience of many. The word “enough” took on special meaning in those years. It was uttered with a certain defiance. It was less a measure of what one had than who one was. It spoke to the sufficiency of will. Those who could say they had enough were still to be counted among the undefeated.
These are trying times for many. For some, particularly those long out of work, they are barely distinguishable from The Hard Times. In the depths of this Great Recession, some sixteen million Americans were out of work. That’s one million more than in the Great Depression. Granted, the population was smaller then and the percent of jobless was higher – 25% vs. 10 % — but to those unable to find work and to provide for loved ones, such numbers bring little comfort.