Archive for March 24th, 2008

Hard Times Come Again- Voices of Those who Have Been There Before

Sharon March 24th, 2008

 While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door.
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh! hard times, come again no more.

Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor.
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears,
Oh! Hard times, come again no more.

Hard times, come again no more.
‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard times, hard times, come again no more.
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door.
Oh Hard times, come again no more - Stephen Foster (I particularly like the Nancy Griffith Version)

Wow - while I took a few days off, the FED magically fixed everything and now Bear Stearns is trading at $10 a share.  Which means, of course, that the economy is fixed, there are no worries about recessions, depressions, slumps or collapses.  I hope you are all feeling better now.  Isn’t to just fabulous?  Oil prices are down too - I’m told they’ll hit $30 a barrel anytime now.  Heck, I’m going to pick up a Hummer and some Bear Stearns shares next time I go out!

If, however, you still have a few teensy, eensy, weensy doubts about whether the magic of nationalized debt will fix everything for you, I thought it might be instructive for all of us to sit back and listen just a little to people who have already been through a really bad economic crisis.  I’m not talking about wussy little downturns like the bust, but real hard times.  After all, it seems just possible that the geniuses who created this mess haven’t quite thought of everything.

And it isn’t like folks who have been through tough times are in short supply - in fact, you don’t have to read accounts from long ago.  Chances are you can find a neighbor or someone in your town who, in spite of the prosperity we’ve enjoyed can tell you what it is like to suck it up and do without, not with an Ipod, but medical treatment, heat or dinner a few times a week.  There are plenty of such folks like my neighbors Dennie and Gwen (names and some details have been changed to protect their privacy),  who have a daughter in college and his child support payments, their inadequate income and a big worry about the fact that they think his cancer may have recurred - but they don’t really have the money, insurance or time off work to go find out - so they just aren’t thinking about it.

But there is a qualitative difference between the rich world poverty we know right now and mass collective poverty - rich world poverty is heavily mitigated by the wealth around the poor.  For example, if Dennie could get his step-daughter in college to teach him to use the internet (or would let me do it for him - trust me, I’ve offered), he could find a program willing to cover his diagnosis and treatment.  If his wife was willing to go on food stamps and to the food pantry and accept the loss of their house they could probably almost survive the loss of his income when the small construction company that employs him dumps him off their payroll.  If they were willing to see her daughter give up college, they all could get along decently.  There are options out there - painful ones, but they exist. 

But in many cases, those backup resources depend on a body of wealth out there - on able to pay consumers who can absorb costs others can’t cover, on the generosity of those who are comparatively well off to fund food pantries and charitable programs, and a tax base able to support other resources.  Being poor in the rich world sucks badly - but it does come with some cushions against some blows.  It does mean that the first time Dennie had cancer, he got treated.  It does mean that while Gwen can’t get the asthma treatments she really needs, she can get a few things through Walmart and drug company programs. They can clothe the kids at goodwill and their daughter is bright and gets scholarships.  Instead of the first bad blow being a death sentence, they get nibbled by ducks for a good long time - and that is better.  Not good, just better.

But what happens if the body of comfortably off taxpayers starts to disappear?  What happens if charitable giving declines because there aren’t that many people left in a position to give?  What happens if you live in a place where most people are struggling to get by, and there’s not much in the way of safety net?  And what happens when the comfortably off are no longer so comfortable or even are truly poor - among thousands and millions of truly poor neighbors?

For all that I make mock of the present situation, it may well be that some combination of actions can avert that kind of crisis.  But I don’t (and let us all express our gratitude to the divinity or absence thereof of our choice that this is the case) govern the FED.  Instead, my work is to look for a way for us all to go on even if salvation doesn’t come and real hard times visit us instead. 

And I think one of the most valuable things we can do is to look - to truly look - at what our lives may be like.  I think knowing how people in other places and times have survived great hardship is essential to understanding that we *CAN* go forward even in hard times and find a future for ourselves.  The tools of getting by are essential - and the best way to learn them is through the people who endured.

One source for American experiences is the Great Depression - and there are some amazing oral histories out there where people speak their own experience, or where such accounts make up a large portion of the available material.  Some internet resources: - wonderful WPA interviews, including some in audio!

Tons of great resources:

Books: Studs Terkel’s _Hard Times: An Oral History of the Depression_ gives us an enormous range of views, from the victims to those who did well.  One of my favorite lines in the book comes from a man named Clyde T. Ellis, who said, “A group of us there decided if we were going to hell, we might as well get active in it.”  Now there’s a slogan for us!

Scoop Landford, who spent a term in prison during the Depression talked about how bad as it was in the prison (and it was bad) the prisoners were in some respects better off than those who guarded them.

“They {the guards} were as bad for it as we were.  A lot of them was eating in there on the sly.  I’ve even actually given to them a piece of corn bread to take out.  Nearly all of ‘em were family men…We eat least had a place to eat sleep.”

in David Shannon’s _The Great Depression_, we get primary source accounts of events written as they were happening.  For example, a 1932 account by the director of a relief agency in Philadelphia describes what things were really like.
Another family did not have food for two days.  Then the husband went out and gathered dandelions and the family lived on them.

Still another family thinking to get as much as possible with their last food order bought potatoes and for 11 days lived only on them…

I should also like to say that when we talk to people who ask about unemployment they say, “Well, people manage to get along somehow or other, don’t they?  You do not have very many people who really drop dead of starvation?”  That is perfectly true.  Actually, death from starvation is not a frequent occurrence.  You do not often hear about casualties of that sort.  This is because people live in just the way that I have described.  They live on inadequacies, and because they live on inadequeacies, they die of disease not precisely hunger.  The thing doe snot become dramatic and we do not hear about it.  Yet the cost in human suffering is just as great as if they starved to death overnight.”

In _Making Do: How Women Survived the 30s_ Jeane Westin interviews women and reports their recipes, strategies and histories.  The Betty Crocker Company offered a week’s nutritious menu using only foods available to those on the relief lines. 

My favorite story there is by Nice Rodriguez who worked as a housekeeper and in the fields to support her family because her husband was a Mexican citizen and not eligible for most work.  She talks about working long days cleaning for a dollar a day, but of having the ovaries to turn to an employer who demanded too much and say,

 “I mean she wasn’t mean or anything but I didn’t like the way she act.  She says ‘Well, Nico, I want you to clean the whole house, irona dn wash and do the windows and clean the cupboards and put in new paper…’  I just look at her and I say, ‘You a woman…I a woman.  Do you think you could do all that in eight hours?’

She had five kids and a dependent husband.  How many of us could do the same?

Another interviewee talks about making Christmas presents for her three children - from her own only sweater, about the work of picking out the yarn, making new mittens and what it was like to go out to do chores without even a sweater every morning.

In _Women of Valor_ edited by Sternsher and Sealander, Lillian Wald’s account of the time leading up to the famous stock market crash is earily prescient to today.  Somehow, I had alwasy envisioned the crash as unanticipated.  But it was not.

“Increasingly in the winter of 1928-1929, months before the stock-market crash, were were made aware of the foreboding among our neighbors.  In the kindergarten on morening, when the little ones were sitting around the table drinking their milk, I said, ‘What do you think you are going to be when you grow up?’ There was no active response and to prod them I said, ‘when I was a little girl I thought I should like to be carpenter….’  Whereupon a four-year-old who sat there, his head in his hand, a sober expression on his little face answered, ‘Miss Wald, the carpenter that lives in our house ain’t got any work.’

The nurses’ daily records are delicate barometers of conditions.  This was brought home to me once as I watched our statistician sticking her pins in the map that shows the current cases of pneumonia…I was told that the children of the kimono workers then on strike were probably getting less milk and good nourishment and hence their resistance was lowered.

Signs of the growing storm multiplied.  Within a brief period a success of individuals came to ask for work, and that stimulated us to further inquiry.  In January 1928, we discussed this with our intimate circle.  In February 1929, eight months before the “boom” collapsed, we summond our colleagues to a meeting, just as, on the first declaration of war in August 1914, we called a group to come together in solemn conference.”

In Timothy Egan’s superb book _The Worst Hard Time_ we are reminded that environmental disasters integrate with and exacerbate economic crises - in fact, the two cannot be seperated, because in every respect, the loss of our natural resources costs us the basic elements of prosperity, and the price cannot be deferred forever.

Egan tells the story of conservation agricultural expert Hugh Bennet speaking to senators in Washington DC on the day that the dust storms from the plains states made it all the way to the Capitol.  When the sky went black and dirt poured down on Washington during Bennet’s presentation, he turned to the senators and said, “This, gentlemen, is what I’m talking about…There goes Oklahoma.”  

We could look at other places, other times - Britain during and after World War II, Okinawa after the war, Argentina a few years ago, Russia, Cuba, Zimbabwe.  In each case the cause was different, but the hard times came.  In fact that may be the one great truth of history - that eventually, hard times always come back.  Check out Dmitry Orlov’s wonderful book _Reinventing Collapse_ to read about another place that couldn’t possibly fall apart.  Orlov contends we are presently at the first stage of such a collapse, and we had damned well better work to arrest our free fall.

What do we do?  Do we just get scared and depressed?  Well, it is ok to be scared, but in embedded in these stories are ways to go forward.  They show the value of courage, and toughness, honor and love.  They tell stories of women giving birth in a hospital with no place to take a baby home - and the woman next to her who brought her back to her tenement.  Of organizations of black tenants who took evicted people and put them back in their houses, of penny auctions and journalists who fought their editors to tell the truth.  They tell the stories of gardens and working long hours gleaning potatoes and wheat to keep bellies full.  They tell stories of moments of joy and love in the midst of terrible sadness, and most of all, of making do, and thus ensuring that things were better than they could have been.

Hard times will undoubtably come again, if not now, then sooner than any of us would like.  Best we face the future eyes up, with all the courage and all the tricks learned from those who preceeded us that we can muster!