Hardship and hobos: A look back at the Great Depression

I don’t know about you, but this whole economic crisis is starting to hit home. Did you hear? Starbucks is slashing 7,000 jobs and shuttering a bunch of its stores. Let’s hope and pray the Gelman and E Street branches aren’t on the chopping block. That’d be a real crisis.

But while the economic situation seems to be getting worse, I am a bit skeptical of the pundits who seem bent on comparing the current crises to the 1930s. Is it really that bad?

To get some perspective, I called up my great aunt Mary. When she was about five years old, the Depression hit. And it hit hard. All her siblings – including my grandfather – have passed away. She is the only one left.

Aunt Mary was born in Oklahoma, but we don’t hold that against her. My great-grandfather was a United Methodist minister, so he and his family, Aunt Mary included, moved around, eventually settling in West Texas.

“The church was behind on paying Daddy’s salary,” Aunt Mary explained. “So the ladies of the church got together and canned 98 half-gallon jars of black-eyed peas. That’s a heck of a lot of black-eyed peas.”

Those black-eyed peas managed to feed Mary and her siblings through the winter.

“Your granddaddy used to always say it wasn’t that he liked black-eyed peas, but he respected them,” Mary told me.

When was the last time you respected food?

Those were different times, Mary explained. Money was tight. Food was in short supply. Even a jar of jelly was a delicacy.

Imagine this: Everyone had to make their own clothes. Your family may be trimming its budget, but I doubt you will be walking around Foggy Bottom in homemade overalls anytime soon.

To illustrate just how much they valued money, Aunt Mary told me about the time she dropped a quarter through the keys of her piano.

“Mother took apart that entire piano, got the quarter back, and reassembled it,” she said, adding that her mother did not let anything go to waste.

But despite the hardships, Aunt Mary said her parents always managed to give.

“We had lots of hobos,” she said, pausing to ask if I knew what a hobo was.

“The hobos jumped off the trains and looked for church steeples. Mother cooked for them if she could got hold of something,” she said.

Life was genuinely tough for Aunt Mary and the folks struggling to make ends meet, especially for those living out west.

“The first thing you have to think about were the sandstorms,” she recalled. “The houses were not well-built, and that sand would come right in through the walls. You would get dunes across the living room floor.”

I guess my dorm room is not so bad after all.

As students, we can learn from our grandparents’ generation. They all have their own version of this story. And amid the current economic malaise, it is important to keep things in perspective.

Like so many of her peers, Aunt Mary still views life through the lens of the Depression.

“I find myself spending carefully even though things come a lot easier now a days,” she said. “I guess you never get over the values you place on things when you grow up in a Depression.”

She paused for a moment, and then added, “And you never know, it could happen again.”

Other facts about then & now…

People in the United States are nearly eight times wealthier now than they were in the 1930s.

They spend only 10 percent of their incomes on food, compared with 20 percent to 25 percent during the Depression.

There were no unemployment benefits, Social Security or federal deposit insurance in the early 1930s.

Source:
University of Michigan-Flint

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