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Could You Survive Another Great Depression?

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.


Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He is also co-author (with Patricia Clark Doerner) of The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007).
  • Here in the Upper Midwest many of us are still closely connected to the farming way of life. I am only one generation removed from the farm, and if it came to it, my mother and I could still grow a large garden, make preserves, and probably even handle livestock. Our hometown, three hours north of us, is populated by farmers and retired farmers who retain their community spirit. I have no doubt that we would all pull together and find a way.

    As for people living in large cities, the realization that there is trouble will come when they start going into their grocery stores and finding empty shelves. I have personally seen empty shelves (in a grocery store in rural Alaska, when the planes weren’t able to get in for several days due to a volcano), and it is a scary experience. I think there will be widespread civil unrest.

  • It is coming but it will be more like the Russian famines of the post-Bolshevik era than the Great Depression. During the Great Depression most Americans had Jesus and sitting next to the stove to hear Mom reading the Bible aloud was entertainment enough after a day of hard work. There was order and everyone knew his place.

    What you are all missing is that this country has been raising an evil generation for some time now. Most parents have no idea of what their children are doing. Ask any law enforcement office and find out.

    The major problem of an utter economic collapse will be the defense of communities from armed bands of criminals and government thugs confiscating everything on sight.

    In 1929 there were criminals but most Americans had a good head on their shoulders, common sense, ingenuity, and there was enough peace to do one’s thing and enough solidarity to pull together as a group.

    This time around we might as well consider ourselves a complete different country much more like Russia in 1917 when parents abandoned children and some even killed them for food. Read Malcolm Muggeridge reports if you don’t believe me.

    Yet our Lord told us “fear not little flock” and John Paul II, who lived through similar situations during and after WWII, also echoed the words of our Lord in his first words to the faithful in October 1978: “do not fear”.

    Let’s see how the Lord gets us out of this one. One thing is for sure, the pack of fools running this country Democrats AND Republicans are for the most part a bunch of inept, lazy, corrupt, vile, and immoral, good-for-nothing cowards. They are leading a great country into the abyss and willingly so. Expect nothing from them and you will not be disappointed.

    Right now all we need is two serious disasters one after the other (God forbid!) to send everything into a tailspin.

    We have much praying and penance to do.

  • I don’t know what’s going to happen but I have the gut assurance that there is a way forward. Everything matters, nothing is bound to futility, as the Disciples learned when they gathered up the fragments of bread so that “nothing should be lost.”

    Pray, pray, pray.