Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Poverty, Then and Now

How the condition of poverty has changed over the years. Looking back at the way we grew up in the 1950s, and applying today’s definition of poverty, we might well have been classified as “poor”. We had a house with a mortgage, clothes on our backs and food on the table, but almost no discretionary income for “luxuries” like a car, vacations, or even just going to a restaurant for dinner once in a while. Until I started working in my early teens, my father was the family's sole wage earner; mothers rarely went to work back then. Dad worked two jobs just to pay the bills and keep us going. Times were tough, but never once growing up did I ever think of our family as poor.

Maybe because we were not so far removed from the Great Depression and the crushing poverty of that sad period in American history. Compared to those folks, I considered us to be “middle class”. My grandparents kept the hard reality of those dark days alive with stories of how they survived. Poverty had a different meaning then. It meant no jobs, no matter how much you were willing to swallow your pride and do anything. It meant getting by with only one meal a day, and even going without so that your children would have something to eat. There was no welfare, no food stamps, and no health care if you couldn't afford to pay. People who lived through that economic nightmare were never the same. After the economy recovered and times got better, they always had a hard time spending money, even when they had it.

The Great Depression affected everyone, but especially the people in poor neighborhoods like mine. They had no savings to fall back on, no unemployment insurance to tide them over, all they had was each other. The irony is that even if help was available in the form of public assistance, their values would hold them back from accepting it. These were people who were fiercely proud of their work ethic and mindful of the responsibility to support their families. It was anathema for them to accept handouts from the government because it diminished them as independent, self-supporting Americans.

Human behavior is fascinating to study. During this terrible time in their lives when everybody had so little, it might be understandable if people hoarded what little they had. But in the poor neighborhoods, the exact opposite mentality developed. The feeling was that we’re all in this together, and if I have something, because you’re my neighbor and my friend, I will share it with you. Food was shared, used clothing was passed around, and unwanted furniture always found a ready home. All this was done without any sense of obligation or strings attached. It was, for lack of a better term, the goodness in people asserting itself in a time of need. This didn’t just apply to individuals, but to neighborhood businesses, who despite their own reduced revenues, reached out to help their regular customers whenever they could.

At the risk of being redundant, I want to repeat a story from an earlier post that illustrates perfectly what I’m talking about: "My wife’s grandfather lost his job and had a hard time providing for his family. The owner of the neighborhood bread store in Brooklyn delivered two loaves of bread to Grandpa's door daily for two years, with no request for payment and no questions asked. On some days, that bread was all the family had to eat. The point is, Grandpa was not just a customer, but a neighbor and a friend. The bread man knew he would get his money when Grandpa went back to work, and of course he did."

I pray the current recession never gets so bad as to bring back the dire conditions our parents and grandparents experienced in the early 1930’s. Poverty today means something different than it did back then. Today people receiving welfare payments are not ashamed to take handouts; on the contrary they look on money from the government as an entitlement. The “poor” walk around in designer sneakers talking on $300 i-Phones. With each passing welfare generation, the notion of working for a living recedes a little more, and living off somebody else’s labors becomes the norm.

I wonder what life would be like if we hit a 1930’s type depression and the government could no longer afford to support people who contribute nothing to society’s welfare. Would people take care of each other as they did back then, or would there be open warfare in the streets? I don’t ever want to find out.


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Joseph Del Broccolo said...

Strange how we all thought alike! Dad worked and put food on the table, and Mom made it cook, gave us clean clothes, clean house and shiny shoes. What little money we had, was never wasted. It would go to help others, support the church, pay a tuition or three, and never, ever squandered. Stitched clothes was the answer to worn out, and ironed and washed was the answer for new! A family and friend was tight, we looked out for each other, and picked each other up when we had to.

Jim Pantaleno said...

Those values are fading fast my friend.

The Whiner said...

Don't despair...remember that my community raised $30,000 to help pay Ava's medical bills. Joe, my friend Michele held a fundraiser for us, and all the community pitched it. We live in a small town, and people here do care about each other. Dad, you saw it first hand. There are still good people in the world.

Jim Pantaleno said...

Without a doubt, I will never forget what Michele and the town of Portland did for Ava. I agree daughter that there are many good people in the world, and we need every one to offset the growing number of greedy, selfish and amoral ones.