By Jon Berry
SOME YEARS AGO, FRIENDS IN MY QUAKER MEETING WITH GENEROUS hearts and flexible schedules started an informal taxi service to give people rides to the airport. They didn’t ask to be paid for their efforts; instead, they asked riders to send a check to a Quaker non-profit group such as the Powell House retreat center or the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Most people need a ride to the airport at some time or another, they reasoned. Why not give the $50-$100 to a good cause instead of a car service - and, as an added benefit, go to the airport with a friend?
With the recession, people in our meeting are talking about expanding the “Quaker taxi” idea to include yard work, gardening, spring-cleaning, cooking soups, baking cakes, sewing, whatever people feel led to offer. In the next few weeks, we hope to ask people in the meeting community if there are services they would be willing to donate (e.g. “Jon B., available on Saturdays to do gardening, including digging, planting, weeding, raking”). We’ll then collect and post the information in places where everyone can easily find it like the meetinghouse (pictured), and place their order. With donations down because of the economy, non-profit groups can really use the money.
We're not alone. Community groups, churches, NGOs, businesses, and other entities around the world are engaged in responding creatively to this economy. Search “responding creatively to recession” on Google, and you get 20,000-plus mentions about public service projects, theaters, businesses, community groups, churches, investors, and more. A Methodist church in my community just completed a series of workshops to help people learn new skills, from budgeting, to doing job searches online, to retirement planning.
Drawing inspiration from the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30), my father's Quaker church in Indiana gave its members $10 in coins and challenged them to tap their talents to turn that initial investment into something more to support the church's ministries. Some cooked. Some did home projects. We had terrific pecan pie and dinner rolls at the holidays baked by one member of the church. One person rented a carpet cleaner, organized a work crew, and cleaned rugs.
This weekend, I'm joining a group of activists in Brooklyn for "Soup and Strategy" to talk about creating new, community-based responses to the economy.
All this collective energy is likely going to be the next chapter in the unfolding story of the recession. Learning how people responded to hard times in the past (which I blogged about last week) – how they were opened to new worlds, connected to higher truths, and took on big issues – is really only the first step. We need to take the next step of asking how we will respond. What should we do with what we’ve been given? How can we get out of ourselves and into the world? Can we turn anxiety into action? “Let your lives speak,” as an old Quaker saying advises.
Right now, it seems, the main message in the media coverage is that people feel worried and alone. “Recession Anxiety Seeps into Everyday Life,” a recent example from The New York Times, reported that even people who have not lost their jobs, homes or savings are beset with fears of “losing everything.” Therapists are reporting a “huge effect” in their patients. Polls show 80% of Americans feel significant stress over the economy, and 27% losing sleep over money. One person interviewed for the story said she became obsessed with reading everything she could get hold of about the economy and became “so sick to my stomach” she “lost 12 pounds” and “was unable to function.”
The Times’ story goes onto state an oft-repeated idea that the Depression generation was somehow different than people today. One woman says she’s ashamed of how she’s reacting; her parents’ generation, she says, held to a belief that “you pull yourself up.”
I don’t think that's quite right. Reading histories of the Depression, I’ve been struck by how similar Americans then seemed. Like us, they had come through a period of incredible economic growth, with innovative new consumer products (automobiles, the radio, home appliances), and belief that there would be no turning back (“a chicken in every pot, two cars in every garage,” in the words of Herbert Hoover’s 1928 campaign promise). The years of prosperity in the Roaring 20s and assurances from business and government leaders that “such conditions had become permanent” created a “widespread confidence that bordered on complacency,” writes historian David Kyvig.
Then it all unraveled. It wasn’t just the great 1929 stock market crash. There was also a real estate crash (like today). And a credit crunch (like today). “Nobody trusted banks or brokerage houses anymore,” writes historian Hugh Brogan. The auto and home industries, which had come to depend on consumers buying on credit, went into tailspins. Auto sales would not again reach their 1929 level until the late 1940s. There was “an epidemic” of mortgage defaults.
Colossal financial scandals rivaling what Bernie Madoff's wiped out waves of investors (again, like now). A get-rich-now mindset was prevalent. Government regulation was lax. “Self-styled experts in the financial press” who themselves “were often self-deceived” egged everyone on, writes Brogan (hello, CNBC?).
When Franklin Roosevelt on gaining the presidency in 1933 proclaimed, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” he was speaking to real concerns. People were fearful. The economy kept getting worse. Unemployment, which was just 4% in 1928, hit 23% in 1932. Four in 10 homes were in foreclosure. The Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted to a paltry 41 in 1932, a drop of 89% from 1929 (the crevasse-like descent in chart at right). Men abandoned their families and hit the road to look for work. Divorces rose. While some people found common cause, like the heroes of Studs Terkel's Hard Times that I blogged about last week, many people isolated. The sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd, in a follow-up to their landmark study
There’s good reason to think things won’t get as bad today. The government has intervened much earlier. And, where people in the Great Depression had to turn to private charity – whose resources were quickly overwhelmed – there is something of a government safety net today.
Which brings us back to response.
America responded late to the Depression – it took more than three years for significant action. But, when the nation responded, it responded with big ideas. Many things we take for granted today have their roots in the Great Depression. My grandfather’s farm in Indiana got electricity in the 1930s because of the Rural Electrification Administration; my Dad still remembers the joy of being a kid and opening and shutting the refrigerator door and turning the lights on and off.
If you’ve just enjoyed a weekend, or are looking forward to one, thank the Fair Labor Standards Act. The act standardized the minimum wage, overtime pay for more than 40 hours per week, and the two-day weekend. Many of FDR’s big ideas, like Social Security, started outside government with calls from ordinary citizens.
So think big. This may be the time for health care for all Americans. Or think small – is there a way to redirect purchases we’re making anyway to support a good cause? But history suggests that this is a time to turn thoughts into action.
David Kyvig’s book Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1940, is a good introduction to how ordinary Americans were affected by the boom and bust of the Roaring 1920s and the Great Depression. To learn more, or to buy a copy:
I think every household should have a couple concise, well-written overviews of American and world history. I like the Penguin series, and in particular Hugh Brogan’s The Penguin History of the
While we're on the subject, I’m also huge fan of Timothy Egan’s book The Worst Hard Times, which chronicles the lives of Midwesterners who lived through the dust bowl, the Great Depression’s worst ecological disaster: