Friday, August 21, 2009

Today’s 9.4% unemployment is bad, but not like the Depression’s 25% unemployment

Since the start of the current recession in December 2007, the number of unemployed persons in the U.S. has risen from 7.5 million, or 4.9% of the population, to 14.5 million, or 9.4%. Many economists expect the unemployment rate to top 10% by year-end.
By comparison, at the worst point of the Great Depression, in 1933, one in four Americans who wanted to work was unable to find a job.
Still, the U.S. unemployment rate is at a 26-year high, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor. The Labor Department will report August unemployment numbers on Sept. 4.
Following my dad’s recollections of the Great Depression, my mom contributes her thoughts.

Alice L. (Kelly) Seitz was born Jan. 7, 1933:

A barter economy in farming towns

I was a young girl during the Depression.
Growing up in a small town (Jim Falls, Wis.) during the Depression years, my experiences were different from children who grew up in large cities.
For example, there were opportunities where I lived for people to barter for goods and services. My mother gave dairy products from my father’s business (Jim Falls Dairy Company) for many services rendered, including (clothing) alterations, mending, carpentry and painting, just to name a few.
In cities there would have been apple and bread lines. We did have an occasional homeless man come to the door and ask for a meal.
The most important message from my point of view is that people during this time did not whine and complain. They did what they had to do to keep the family intact.
The adult members of my family did not complain much. Rather they had the toughness of personality to endure the difficult years.
My community was primarily a farm village. We were surrounded by farms and the economy of our grocery stores and other small businesses were very dependent upon the farms.

Taking in a relative’s children

No one in my family lost their jobs during the Depression, but if they had, other family members would have helped them out.
My Aunt Loretta’s death at age 39 in 1932 presented the family with the situation of having to raise her two children. My Uncle Sam (Wadleigh), due to losing his hearing during World War I and the sudden death of his wife, was not able to cope with raising the children. My mother, Mary M. Kelly, took the two children – Mary Ruth, age 9, and Philip, age 2 – to live with her in Jim Falls. I was born the following year.

A frugal lifestyle

People were more frugal during those years.
Clothes were handed down not only to immediate family members but also to your surrounding neighbors. People were more aware of others in need and were willing to go the extra mile to help out.
Dogs ate food scraps. You didn’t buy dog food to the extent you do today.
People didn’t buy special stationary for letter writing. We used school tablet paper that was either lined or unlined.
My Aunt Josephine taught school and would use the nearest available paper for letters and sometimes she used scrap paper (such as paper with printing on one side). It wasn't because she was being frugal, it was because it was convenient. My Aunt Josephine did things differently and others were tolerant of that practice. The rest of us used blank sheets of paper.
During that time period, it only cost 3 cents to mail a letter.
Communication was slow. Chicago papers came a day late to mid-Wisconsin. Radio news was not immediate. We would get our information after the fact. There was no television. Phone lines were not clear and even at times they didn't work due to bad weather conditions. Contrast that to what’s available today with the Internet, cell phones, constant news on the television and radio. Now we know what’s going on all over the world in an instant.

Good cook in the family

Food was always delicious in my home. During the Depression era we didn’t eat any differently except for the way that it was prepared.
My mother rendered the lard from the fat of a whole pig that my father had purchased from a local farmer. The amount of time she put into preparing the meals at this time was more time-consuming than during the non-Depression era.
We ate well due to the fact my mother had excellent cooking skills and she knew how to conserve our resources. There were other homemakers that had skills like this as well. These skills were passed down from each generation.
Heavier foods were cooked in the winter such as pot roasts, casseroles and stews. During the summer months we were literally fed from the garden – lots of salads and vegetables and fried chicken.
Most people grew gardens. This was a necessity not a hobby.
We did have neighbors that fished and hunted but it wasn’t necessarily because of the economy. It was more of a hobby to them and they loved fresh game.
The menu didn’t differ much in the Depression and non-Depression eras. What was more important was the availability of goods to economically prepare what was available. During the Depression people were counting their pennies just as today people are shopping for bargains.
My Aunt Lucille and Aunt Frances were school teachers in Waukegan, Ill., and they told of being paid in “script,” which was like IOUs.

Opinions on government’s handling of the Depression

My father was critical of how the government was handling the economic situation. Dad used to say that WWII got the country out of the Depression. He was critical of most government policies during the ’30s and ’40s. He was never argumentative with people of opposing views. It was kept within the family.

Unemployment graph from Wikipedia
Other informative Web sites on the Great Depression:
Britannica Online Encyclopedia
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum

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