The Only Thing We Have to Fear

RICHARD LOUV

November 27, 1992|By RICHARD LOUV

San Diego. -- Lately, you hear people talking, with some solemnity, of the Great Depression of 1992. Newspapers are filled with dismal polls and doomsaying prophets-for-profit. But what do they know? What do we know?

Most Americans today weren't around for the real thing; we grew up hearing stories of it, the echoes of real hunger.

Until her death in 1960, my grandmother wasted no part of an animal -- brains, gonads, gizzards. Like many baby boomers, I grew up in a time of affluence, yet nearly every hamburger that my mother cooked was extended with oatmeal.

Recently I met Katherine E. Smith, vice president of consumer affairs for Quaker Oats. She told me that my mother was probably following the decades-old recipe for extending hamburger on the old-fashioned cylindrical Quaker Oats box. ''We tried to remove that recipe,'' she said. ''We were deluged with letters from people demanding that we put it back on the box.''

She hastens to add that just because nostalgic Americans want the recipe on the box doesn't mean they're using it. Her company's research shows that younger Americans have forgotten an older, hands-on language of cooking.

''They don't know what 'extending' means. They don't know what a 'rolling boil' is,'' says Ms. Smith, who has challenged her researchers to ''come up with recipes that use no words, that are completely pictographic.''

Well, maybe different times demand different survival skills.

One essential skill is the same in 1992 as in 1932: hope. But these days, hope seems in peculiarly short supply.

''The mood of the American electorate radiates anxiety, mistrust, pessimism,'' writes the public pulse-taker Daniel Yankelovich in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs. Surveys show that pessimism among the affluent has grown more sharply than among lower income groups.

This hopelessness is especially puzzling to economists, according to Mr. Yankelovich because -- in objective economic terms -- fewer Americans have lost their jobs or suffered as badly as in the recession of 1981-82. ''Yet the public is far more %J agitated now than it was then.'' And far more likely to talk about a depression.

The public has rightly suspected (long before our political representatives would admit as much) that there are deep fissures in the nation's underpinning. Parts of our society, certainly in the inner cities, are suffering as much as during the '30s, and in some ways more. This recession has also cut deeper than previous ones into white-collar jobs.

Mr. Yankelovich says that Americans believe that the nation's economic difficulties are rooted in fundamental moral causes. ''There exists a deeply intuitive sense that the success of a market-driven economy depends on a highly developed social morality -- trustworthiness, honesty, concern for future generations, an ethic of service to others . . . ''

In short: family values, in the broadest sense.

We also suspect that the decline of education guarantees a deepening slump. The fate of the oatmeal box -- soon to offer pictographic recipes -- illustrates how poverty and want have been redefined since the 1930s. Today, food is plentiful in most of America; literacy, community and basic survival skills are not.

The worst problem we have is our inaction. But consider the problems a previous generation surmounted. Today, one in 15 workers doesn't have a job; during the Depression one in four did not.

The Seattle Times offers this snapshot of the '30s:

People then did starve to death. One year, there were so many deaths in Logan, West Virginia, that coffin-making was established as a work-relief project. Emigration then was larger than immigration: An average of 350 Americans applied daily for jobs in Russia. In 1931, when the Soviet Union sought Americans to fill 6,000 jobs, more than 100,000 applied.

During the winter of 1932-33, Chicago's teachers went without pay. In the state of Washington, men set forest fires so they would be hired to put them out. In New York, because of the glut of unemployed college graduates, department stores required elevator operators to have bachelor's degrees. People foraged for blackberries and as the Times reports, ''children chewed their own hands.''

The hunger and fear never really went away. Hubert Humphrey, who survived the dust storms of the Great Plains, developed a lifelong habit of dusting everything in sight.

Today, considering all of this, maybe the only thing we have to fear is our self-pity.

Richard Louv is the author of ''Childhood's Future'' and a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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