What strikes me about the list that follows is first, that in “The Depression” people learned to see life in new ways and become more resourceful, and second, that they learned to rely on each other much more than usual. Exactly.
In my long life I have not just survived, but evolved through a number of times when I had next to no material resources. As a result, I learned to become much more alert and aware of my environment, and to pay attention to inner promptings whenever I needed to make an important decision. Had I been continuously surrounded by the cushion of money and material goods, I would never have uncovered this larger part of me that creates external situations for me to respond to so that I may learn to both ground myself more genuinely into this Earth plane and enlarge my perspective upon it while doing so.
Also, even during those times when I was “flat broke,” I knew that even if I “fell,” I would land in a net, my network of friends and family, any of whom would take me in if and when necessary. There were times when some of them did! (Thanks especially, Dick and Judy!)
What concerns me about our current world, at least in the U.S., is that the art and ethic of truly intimate friendship has, for decades now, taken a back seat to the cultural mandate to “get ahead” by “beating the other guy.” And how do we prove that we’ve “reached the top”? By buying and showing off, more and more, and bigger and bigger material stuff, in thoughtless squandering of non-renewable resources simply to prove to ourselves and others that we’ve “made it.” What’s the result? Isolation. Loneliness. Depression! Real depression. Genuine, up close and personal, a kind of living death. Treated, of course, with pharmaceuticals, so that we don’t feel it, we don’t feel a thing.
Predatory capitalism does not just infect corporations. It is part and parcel of everyday life.
It isn’t difficult to see shades of the Great Depression in the Great Recession, and in today’s volatile economy. High unemployment, staggering debt, and stocks that, well, see the August 10th cover of The New York Post, who put it best.
Still, the hardship of the late 1920s and the 1930s has yet to be replicated on such a grand scale. The 25% unemployment rate was a reality back then. But corners were cut, ends were met, and the generation that lived through it still stands as a testament to getting past tough times.
Some of the men and women of the Great Depression are still around today, and perhaps it’s time to turn to them for inspiration.
Here’s a list of 10 ideas that were formed during that era that may help us recover, as well as remind us that, hey, it could be worse.
If you’ve got it, use it
Wanda Bridgeforth was hit hardest on the home front as a child, when her parents couldn’t afford to keep her with them. At one point she lived with 19 people—in a six room house. It was in these situations that she learned to conserve what she had, and reuse what she found.
“And they say, ‘Well, what are you going to use this for?’ and I say, ‘I don’t know, but I’m going to use it,'” Bridgeforth told NPR.
Today, individuals and companies would be wise to heed this advice. We can find resources in unlikely places, whether in the the scrap heap or the ideas of the unpaid college intern.
Review the facts
While some figures put the number of people unemployed as even higher than the numbers during the Great Depression, the widespread feeling of despair—not to mention the sheer numbers of actual starvation, poverty, and unemployment—was much higher during the 1920s and 30s than during the aughts.
1929 to 1932 saw a 50 percent drop in national income, and in 1933, almost 25 percent of the work force was unemployed. There were food shortages to go along with thousands of people filing for bankruptcy. Today’s numbers, frankly, speak more to recession than depression.
Grow your own
While small farmers suffered greatly during the Great Depression, those who could generate their own food in small gardens were able to supplement their diet with fresh fruits and vegetables.
Urban subsistence gardens—on rooftops, in vacant lots, or backyards—became particularly useful during this era. There were over 20,000 of these gardens in Gary, Indiana alone. Self-reliance, especially when it comes to feeding yourself, is an invaluable tool, recession or not.
Cash, not credit
Debt is a bit of a dirty word for people during the Depression. It’s an idea that carries over into today.
“Save and share,” Rubilee Craig, 5 years old in 1932, advised. Not a big fan of credit cards, she also said that “”Gold and silver gives you a reserve, and sometime maybe the paper money won’t be good.”
While we don’t suggest throwing away your paper money, taking on more debt in times like these might be digging yourself deeper than you can pull yourself out.
If you have to, move on
Some cities and states have higher unemployment rates than others; same goes for certain businesses. The Great Depression was a time for striking out a new path if the old one turned up short.
While some stories are less successful than others, such as Paul Satko’s journey up to Alaska in a wooden ark, the lesson remains: don’t be afraid to go where the opportunity is, rather than waiting for it to come to you.
Keep morale high
Surviving alone is no way to live. People during the Great Depression, despite little-to-no spending money and virtually no money for entertainment, found cheap ways to find distraction and diversion.
There were radio programs, such as President Roosevelt’s fireside chats, and live concerts put on by people who had plenty of free time on their hands. Marie Tubbs remembered fondly the concerts put on by her father, a violinist in Michigan.
“How clearly I remember, out of the depths of dark feelings springing from closed banks and no work, the wonderful sensation that comes from something more than ‘bread alone.’”
Keeping morale high—with music, for example—is an integral part of living during trying economic times.
Know a deal when you see it
Whether it was making your own clothes, growing your own food, or repairing your own commodities, people found ways to cut down on spending. Gladys Cole talked about buying fabric from the 5-and-10-cent store, in order to sew her own clothes. “They recycled everything, I tell you, everything,” she said.
Deals are everywhere: from buying in bulk to websites like Groupon that offer daily deals. Be sure to scope out the deals that you can take advantage of—and do all you can to take advantage of them.
Diversify and build
Businesses that worked well before the Depression—for example, A.E. Schmidt’s billiard table manufacturing—suffered once disposable income took a hit. To compensate, the Schmidt family turned to making toilet seats, and looked to increase billiard business by contacting a new client: The U.S. Commerce Department, to which they sold billiard tables for works camps.
When old revenue streams dry up, don’t despair. Attempts can be made to diversify your business—by finding new clients, new products, or a new business altogether, while staying within your means.
Despite stories of petty larceny and selfishness amongst neighbors, there are countless tales of communities banding together during tough times. Robert Hoffman remembered the kindness of the neighborhood grocer, extending credit when a paycheck hadn’t gone through.
“Everybody was in the spirit of helping out. That’s the only thing that saved us.”
Alone, we may feel more resilient and independent. But there is strength in numbers, and sticking together—whether with family, friends, or neighbors—can help us get through the tough times, both financially and emotionally.
“Tomorrow I could lose everything, but somehow I’m not afraid. I really am not.”
Dusko Condic grew up as one of eight children on the south side of Chicago during the Depression, reports NPR. At one point, his widowed mother couldn’t afford to keep their house and all nine family members were put out on the street. It was only the help of neighbors and friends that kept them alive.
The swagger and grit that grew out of those memories helps keep Dusko confident in the future. “Tomorrow I could lose everything, but somehow I’m not afraid. I really am not,” he told NPR.
This is perhaps the most important lesson of all. If possible: try not to worry. Things have been worse. And they will get better.