THESE HAVE BEEN HARD TIMES. falling profits. Growing losses. Slashed payrolls. High unemployment. Bank failures. Jittery stock market.
Personal bankruptcies have risen sharply. Many children go to bed hungry. Homeless lie sprawled on city streets.
In the days after the stock market crash of October 1987, people began recalling that the Wall Street crash of 1929 had marked the beginning of the Great Depression. Then Ravi Batra, economics professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, weighed in with a best seller, "The Great Depression of 1990," which predicted a seven-year depression that would be worse than the 1930s. Even today, as most economists herald a recovery, there is some talk of a real Depression. Capital D.
Most comparisons between then and now rely on numbers and charts. But statistics cannot communicate intense personal tragedies. The Depression, the one that began before most living Americans were born, spawned stereotyped motifs that somehow fail to get at the calamity it was for real people.
Men really did sell apples on the street. People did actually starve to death. There were entire towns where not a single person had a job. Good health was a luxury -- indeed, there were so many deaths in Logan, W.Va., that coffin-making was established as a work-relief project. Some two decades ago, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. lamented: "I don't know what is to be done to persuade people that the Great Depression took place. So far as I can tell, more and more Americans are coming to believe that it never occurred. . . . The whole thought of widespread economic collapse a generation ago in a nation as spectacularly opulent as ours is now, has for many -- perhaps for most of us -- no more reality any longer than a bad dream. Worse, the actualities of the Depression -- bread lines, soup kitchens, Hoovervilles, etc. -- have become cliches rejected by the sophisticated as corny and by the unsophisticated as communistic."
If anything, the situation is worse today. Americans tend to want to forget the Great Depression. "The Grapes of Wrath," John Steinbeck's masterpiece novel of the Depression, is still one of the most banned books in American schools and public libraries.
Anyone who fears that the current economic difficulties constitute a depression will find a tranquilizer in history.
Voice of the unemployed: "The other day I answered an ad. When I got there, there were 40 people applying. The man looked us over, picked one out, and said, 'I'll take you and pay you $15 a week.' Another fellow in the crowd called out, 'I'll work for $10' and got the job."
-- Unemployed factory worker
Unemployed montage: An average of 350 Americans each day applied for jobs in Russia, and migration was larger than immigration. . . . During the winter of 1932-33, Chicago's public school teachers did not get paid. . . . An Arkansas man walked 900 miles looking for work. . . .
TODAY, UNEMPLOYMENT IS a problem when one in every 20 workers doesn't have a job. During the Depression, about one quarter of the working population was unemployed -- and that didn't count farmers barely surviving by working seven days a week from sunrise to sunset, or factory workers making ends almost meet by working two days a week.
West Virginia mining towns had unemployment rates of 97 percent, and across the border in Fayette County, Pa., there was a colony of forgotten men living in abandoned coke ovens. In the steel mill town of Donora, Pa., in 1932, only 277 of the 14,000 residents had jobs. There were whole towns in Kentucky's coal-mining area where no person had even a penny of income.
In northeast Pennsylvania, unemployed coal miners entered company property, mined the coal and trucked it into Philadelphia, where they sold it at below the going rate. There were so many unemployed college graduates that New York department stores required applicants for the position of elevator operator to have bachelor's degrees.
The widespread impression that the Soviet Union was "industrializing" led many skilled American workers to seek employment there. When the Soviet Embassy sought Americans fill 6,000 jobs in 1931, more than 100,000 applications were received.
Voice of poverty: "Please do not think this does not cause a great feeling of shame to me to have to ask for old clothing. I am so badly in need of a summer coat and underthings and dresses. . . . I ask you to please send me anything you may have on hand in that line which you don't care to wear yourself."
--An Iowa woman in a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt in 1936