Tuesday, October 23 , 2018, 5:31 am | Fog/Mist 57º


Lessons From Great Depression Apply to New Recession

Residents who grew up in the 1930s remind younger generations how to conserve, and that we can usually survive on fewer goods and services

The economic recession has taken many Americans by surprise. Amid our continued reliance on credit to buy beyond our means, and acceptance of whatever funds lenders offered, the bottom fell out of the housing market. One year later, jobs remain scarce, unemployment is escalating and many Americans continue to lose the roofs over their heads.

Faced with our reality, we wonder aloud how we existed in such a state of oblivion.

While many of us didn’t see the recession coming, for the oldest generation in our community, these hard times are nothing new. They lived through the Great Depression, the yardstick by which all subsequent U.S.economic crises are measured.

It remains to be seen whether this recession, deep as it is, will even come close to ravaging America the way the 1930s did, but lessons from our elders still could help us cope with today’s tough times.

When Virginia Barrett was a child growing up on a farm on the outskirts of Roanoke, Va., she thought everyone else lived as frugally as did her family.

“We were already what we thought (was) poor. ... My sister and I would go around sometimes with our father to other farms and they were like we were, so we thought this was just the way it is for everybody,” she said. As cash-strapped as she thought the family was, however, its members still managed to eat well, she said, because the farm made her family self-sufficient, providing food and water. What cash her mother could earn doing little jobs in the community would go to gasoline for the car or the electricity bill.

Far from the desperation one would think poverty would trigger, her tiny community even developed a kind of ethic when it came to what money people could earn. Jobs went to those who needed them most.

“One time the school told Mother that they couldn’t give her a job because my father was a farmer,” said Barrett, pointing out that at times if one person in the family was already earning a wage, the job would instead go to a person in a family in which no one was working.

It wasn’t an easy life, Barrett said, but one of the biggest lessons she learned was frugality, sometimes a difficult pill to swallow in these days of easy credit and instant gratification.

“We didn’t have credit cards back then,” she said. “If you couldn’t afford it, you couldn’t get it.”

Today’s economic experts debate whether the current state of the U.S. economy should have been the surprise that many say it was. Certainly the signs were there, but nobody, it seemed, was able to see how things such as mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps would affect the overall picture.

David Wass was just a baby when the Great Depression hit. He grew up the son of an engineer in Taft, a small Kern County oil town. His family did relatively well, he remembers, and managed even to help the less fortunate. But the effects of the Depression did encourage an awareness of the political times, he said.

“My father and mother would argue, they’d put stickers on the car, they went round and round,” he said. His family was split along political lines — his father and two older siblings sided with Republicans, while he, his mother and two brothers aligned with Democrats. Debates and discussions even spilled out into the schoolyard. Kids from 8 to 12 years old, he said, were arguing about political issues.

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When Virginia Barrett was a child, she thought everyone else lived as frugally as did her family. The cash her mother could earn from little jobs would go to gasoline for the car or the electricity bill. (Virginia Barrett courtesy photo)

“My father started out his political life as a communist. Then his wife inherited some money. Within two years, he was a Republican,” he laughed. Wass is no stranger to switching parties himself. A lifelong Democrat, he reassessed his political views about 17 years ago — and decided to join the Green Party.

“You can’t just sit there and believe everything they tell you,” he said, referring to officials of the current two-party system. While joining an alternative political party may not suit everyone, he said, no one should become complacent about economic issues. And because the national economy is a big part of the global economy, these days Americans have to try to understand the effect the U.S. situation has on the global economy.

“We need to understand what’s going on in other parts of the world,” he explained.

Those who have spent any time at local public meetings in Santa Barbara are likely to know Selma Rubin. The senior citizen with spectacles and a hat is known and respected around town for her activism, particularly on environmental and social issues.

While the Depression did not affect her own family as harshly as it did others, Rubin observed her father, a social worker and the owner of a couple of five-and-dime stores, reach out to the community. He offered credit to those who couldn’t afford decent clothes to wear or supplies to get by on, she recalled.

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Virginia Barrett says life during the Great Depression wasn’t easy, but one of the biggest lessons she learned was frugality. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

“The thing that would kill you would be the sadness of the men,” she said. “You know how a man feels when he has a family and he can’t provide for them? A total and abject failure in his life.” The ones who couldn’t face their situations were the ones who became hobos, she said.

It’s quite possible that Rubin’s views on conservation today stem from the waste-not-want-not years of the Depression, proof that most people can get by on less than they do.

Her first piece of advice is to get rid of the credit card.

“Take as much money as you need out at the beginning of the week or the month. Figure out what you need and spend your money out of your purse,” said Rubin, a bookkeeper by trade. “If you absolutely need a car, do errands together.” She also advocates using public transportation when possible, and just using less.

“I never walk out of the the room without turning off the light,” Rubin said. It wasn’t just about conserving electricity during the Depression, she said, it was about keeping the light bills from skyrocketing.

“We were conscious of living under careful, careful circumstances.’‘

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Noozhawk staff writer Sonia Fernandez can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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