Worse than the Great Depression

The next time you hear someone say that things are worse than the Great Depression now, do me a favor and smack them upside the head for me, please. This is the kind of nonsense you hear nowadays and we need to dispel these myths right here, right now before people start to believe it.

My father was born in March of 1929, jut before the Great Depression began. My mother was born that same year as well, two months after the Great Crash. And I can tell you, from the accounts I grew up hearing, we are nowhere near the Great Depression.

America is a much richer place than it was in 1929. So are most places in the world from Ireland to Australia, Russia to China. All developed countries have extensive social safety nets to prevent mass poverty. And the standard of living is much higher than it was in the 1930s. These facts alone bear remembering when you hear tales of apocalyptic woe. We have roads, cars, technology, heating, insulation, plumbing, refrigeration and a host of other things that many in America did not have in the Great Depression including those in my own family.

When I grew up, my father told me that he grew up in hard economic times in a large southern city, living hand to mouth, the poorest of the poor. My father didn’t remember the Great Depression from the vantage point of an adult, but from that of a child who came into the world with an ever present sense of fear and anxiety, living at the boundary of modernity and civilization. Passersby and tourists often call this kind of existence quaint, but he called it desperate. He has since passed, but I still remember the anguish with which he spoke when he recalled that dark period in American life.

On Monday, I was talking with my mother about the Great Depression and I asked her about a story that my father had told me about that time. He had said that he and his brother literally had no shoes for school at some point during the Depression. I asked my mother if this was true or if it was one of those I-walked-5-miles-to-school-uphill-both-ways-in-the-snow embellishments. She told me it was worse.

He went for days without any shoes during the spring, walking to school in his bare feet. When Elementary School graduation came, a teacher, aware of his situation, took pity on him and bought him some decent shoes to wear for graduation. And this was in a large city. Think how it could have been elsewhere. I have never experienced that type of deprivation, nor have many Americans living today.

That is the Great Depression and it is NOT what we are going to see in America — not now, not ever again.

My mother also told me her own stories of woe. She said she missed the first few weeks of school every year throughout the 1930s so that she and her 3 siblings could pick cotton in the fields of rural Arkansas in order for her family to have enough to eat. Her mother grew most of their food, but bought chickens and the like in the summer, canning the leftovers for the Winter. She used sterilized glass jars I remember seeing at my grandmother’s house when we went to visit when I was young.

My mother and my father did their very best to shield me from this type of deprivation and poverty. They gave me every opportunity known to man, allowing me to succeed with confidence that the future was bright and that I could make it by dint of my own effort. The fact that my parents were able to give me these gifts says a lot about the determination and grit of Americans in escaping hard times.

Not everyone has had the same opportunities I have had. But, quite frankly, it offends me to hear some uninformed souls talk about today as if it were the 1930s. It is not. And we should be thankful.

Below are a few books I recommend that gave me a better understanding of what the Great Depression was really like.

The Great Crash 1929 – John Kenneth Galbraith
Once in Golconda – John Brooks
Only Yesterday – Frederick Lewis Allen
The World in Depression, 1929-1939 – Charles Kindleberger
Where Are the Customers’ Yachts? – Fred Schwed

  1. pej says

    I would also recommend one of the Autrian economists books on the subject, as the other are keynesians and are hence failed economists:

    Rothbard – America’s Great Depression

  2. Edward Harrison says

    Ah yes, I should have caught that. That is a very good book and the best account of them all. It was missing from my bookshelf so I must have overlooked it.

    I now have it in my Bookstore:

    America’s Great Depression


  3. hbl says

    I think your point is a good one — with the huge increases in productivity since the 1930s we are very unlikely to experience similar levels of material adversity.

    However, “worse than the Great Depression” can be used in a variety of contexts. Our starting imbalances are by many measures far worse — the most important being an unsustainable credit-to-GDP ratio of 350% in the US compared to well under 180% at the onset of the Great Depression (the ratio peaked at 180% part way through). There are mitigating factors as well (e.g., we have deposit insurance set up already), but unfortunately there are plenty of other things that are worse on the negative side also. So it could be said that we risk a relative loss of asset values, growth, etc that is worse than the great depression.

  4. Edward Harrison says

    hbl, I think you make a fair point and you could be right that we do see a relative loss greater than the Great Depression. So, in that sense this crisis could become worse than the depression.

    That said, my motive is to remind people of the progress we have made in this country and around the world. My hope is that understanding this will help sustain people through what will undoubtedly be tough times.

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