Hard Times: Part Three, The Depression vs. the Current Economic Downturn

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(Mitch) With the word now official that the United States is in a recession, VPR is looking back at the country’s most infamous economic downturn, the Great Depression…and the effects left by its impact on Vermont. I’m Mitch Wertlieb.

It seems like almost daily we hear more bad economic news. And comparisons to the Great Depression seem inevitable. Some economists say lessons learned and changes since the 1930’s should prevent another Depression from happening. UVM Economist Art Woolf:

(Woolf) Our economy is much more diversified, our banks are much better capitalized, they are regional in nature, and national in nature in stead of just local, we have a much better social safety net. It’s much more sophisticated and we don’t have the variability that occurred back then in many sectors of the economy. 

(Mitch) Certain industries suffered back then, what are the industries that are suffering now?

(Woolf) Back then it was manufacturing and farming, farm prices were plummeting, manufacturing sales just tanked, and the number of people that were employed in manufacturing was down about 50 percent. Today, we’re seeing a much more kind of across the board, decline, and the declines in jobs across Vermont is very modest, we’re seeing declines in the order of less than 1 percent right now, in terms of employment, but we’re seeing a decline in manufacturing, construction, people are buying fewer homes, so there’s fewer homes being built. The only growth seeing now is health care…large part of economy now that in the 1930s was non-existent. 

(Mitch) Author Nancy Price Graff says she sees a difference in scale, and in the 1930s…the nation’s mid-section faced an additional environmental catastrophe from drought. Vermont, she says, had its own environmental challenges during the Depression that we don’t see today.

(Graff) Vermont was suffering, also from erosion and soil depletion, so we have photographs from the 1930s and 40s of that and failed farms because of that.

(Mitch) While the problems may not be quite as bad today, Vermonters are suffering. Unemployment is expected to hit 7 percent, and food-stamp usage is at an all-time high. Lyndon State Historian Paul Searls says while it’s unlikely Vermont will experience the degree of hardship it did during the 1930’s, the safety net organizations that grew out of that time period can still help during this current economic slump…as long as people support them:

(Searles) Theres still a really important role to be played by organizations like COTS or your local food shelf, so if people can find their way this winter… to help support some of those institutions it would be no less important than it was in 1933 or any other time around then.
(Janet sings) 

(Mitch) Janet Rood lived in Burlington with her grandparents during the Depression. And her best memories stem from the kindness of the community:

(Janet Rood) I had scholarships to go to summer camp at Hochelaga and when I went there my life was made. I went there for eight years and then was a counselor, that was the most wonderful thing that could happen, I got out of that house, and where all the other girls were, I never felt that I was without, because I was special, I had it. 

(Mitch) Harriet Riggs was born in 1919 and grew up in the railroad town of Chester. Harriet made sure to keep reminders of those days. As we speak on a couch in her home in Richmond, she takes out a weathered old expense ledger with meticulous notes and dates reading 1931, ’32, and so on throughout the decade:

(Harriett) Garden seed was 30 cents. Groceries were 50 cents. I was thinking in terms of groceries. In those days, there were no supermarkets. And often, my mother would just call up the grocer and tell him what she wanted and they would deliver it. And because during the depression, these storekeepers were very lenient and if you couldn’t afford it right then, they’d put it on an account. So that you didn’t pay for the groceries right then and there. 

(Mitch) 90-year old John Carpenter remembers the 1930s with a smile, because he says, expectations were different in those days. His father was a professor at the University of Vermont and they cut expenses by taking in a college student:

(John Carpenter) The most striking thing that we did is that my father, younger brother and I slept every night out on the sleeping porch. Even in the winters. We could put windows on the porch, but that doesn’t do much other than keep the wind out. 

(Mitch) Of course not everyone was protected from the worst parts of the Depression. Many people were going hungry around the state, and

Economist Art Woolf says before 1935 when many of the programs in FDR’s New Deal kicked in, Vermonters had almost no margin for error:

(Woolf) The only thing you could rely on was either private charity, or the local poor farm. There was no such thing as food stamps, there was no such thing as unemployment insurance, there was no such thing as welfare benefits, none of those things existed back then. 

(Mitch) The New Deal programs were designed to break the cycle of unemployment. The Civilian Conservation Corps helped build state parks in Vermont, and the Works Progress Administration oversaw the building of bridges, schools, and highways.  And Vermont made history when Ida May Fuller of Ludlow became the first person in the country to receive a Social Security check.

But despite the Democratic President’s programs Vermont remained a Republican stronghold. And as a Republican Governor, George Aiken understood the extent to which Vermonters would be willing to embrace these new social programs:

(Searles) Aiken had an incredibly clever approach to the New Deal… he knew that Vermonters were extremely suspicious of large federal programs and the loss of local control, so when he found federal programs that he found unhappy such as flood control measures in the Connecticut River Valley he was very outspoken in his opposition to them, but Aiken always said that as much as possible we want to depend on ourselves but where we see federal action as necessary then we have to accept it and so in terms of things like the CCC, like rural electricity, and a host of other things, he sort of passively embraced them."

(Mitch)  Today, as in the 1930’s, there is a growing fear and uncertainty people feel about the economy.

In the 1930’s Roosevelt was able to ease some of the anxiety Americans were feeling with his gift for oratory, best exemplified by his famous inaugural speech in 1933 when he said we have nothing to fear but fear itself.

Economist Art Woolf says President elect Barack Obama must also recognize and take steps to address the psychology of this downturn:

(Woolf) I think there are some real fundamental problems in the economy, but one of the real challenges that president Obama is going to have to come to grips with, is how does he convince people that we’re not going into another depression, that even though things are bad, he’s got a plan and we’re going to make things right, and everything will be ok.

(Mitch) For those who lived through the Depression, like Harriet Riggs…there are lessons to be learned:

(Riggs) Well, I think the present generation they’re not savers. If something doesn’t work, they throw it away rather than repair it. And they are perhaps not as economical in the way they do things. As they used to be. I know that I don’t throw things away. I’m a saver, so that probably dates back into the years of the Depression. 

(Mitch) And she adds, the most important thing-both then and now, in hard times-is to keep a sense of hope.

(Riggs) Do the best you can, things will eventually get better

(Mitch) Our series was produced by Melody Bodette. Our technical director is Chris Albertine. 

For VPR News, I’m Mitch Wertlieb.

Marion Post Wolcott, logger near Waterbury, Library of Congress

VPR Photo: John Carpenter

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