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Learning from the past
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While zoning out in front of the boob tube the other day, I heard a phrase uttered in a commercial that immediately woke me out of my vegetative state and started me thinking. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it was something along the lines of “How will we remember the Great Recession?” I’m sure I have heard the economic troubles our country is facing today called the Great Recession in the past, but it never really registered until now.
Naming the current financial and employment crisis the Great Recession automatically brings to mind images of the Great Depression. In a lot of aspects the comparison resonates. Consider the following statements from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library:
“Together government and business actually spent more in the first half of 1930 than the previous year. Yet frightened consumers cut back their expenditures by ten percent. A severe drought ravaged the agricultural heartland beginning in the summer of 1930. Foreign banks went under, draining U.S. wealth and destroying world trade. The combination of these factors caused a downward spiral, as earning fell, domestic banks collapsed, and mortgages were called in. Hoover's hold the line policy in wages lasted little more than a year. Unemployment soared from five million in 1930 to over eleven million in 1931. A sharp recession had become the Great Depression.”
The previous description could be said of the years from 2007 to now, just as easily as the 1930s. While we have yet to reach the record high unemployment rate of 25 percent seen during the Great Depression years, some areas of the country aren’t far off. Stanislaus County ended 2009 with a record high 17.5 percent unemployment in December and Merced County recorded 19.8 percent unemployment for the same month.
Despite the bleak similarities, I can’t help but think that we are better off now than our grandparents were 70 years ago. When I think about the Great Depression, images of vagabonds walking the highways and byways in search of work and hobos ‘riding the rail’ come to mind. I think about the shantytowns or Hoovervilles that were common in many big cities during the 30s, and the soup lines that accompanied them. During the Great Depression, cynical New York hotel clerks were known to ask incoming guests, “You want a room for sleeping or jumping?”
Thankfully, I have seen none of that in the past three years. I do not deny that with the rising unemployment, government and private agencies have been overwhelmed with requests for help with obtaining the basics in life such as food, clothing and shelter. Social service programs and public schools — and in turn the people that they serve — are feeling the impact of the loss of revenue sources.
But we are still better off. And I am optimistic for the future. We, as a nation, did learn something from our past. Thanks to the creation of government social programs such as Social Security and unemployment compensation and the Wagner Act, drastically fewer Americans have actually starved to death due to the current recession.
I also have faith in the American spirit to overcome and eventually prevail. In a Newsweek online story titled “The Great Recession’s Aftermath,” Robert Samuelson wrote that some believe, “A ‘can-do’ culture — combining intense ambition with a flexibility to adapt and an instinct for innovation — ensures that the economy will ultimately rebound strongly.”
I heartily agree.
To contact Kristina Hacker, e-mail or call 634-9141 ext. 2004.