Thursday, January 15, 2009

A different kind of economic growth

Posted by Courtney E. Howard

I was not around during the Great Depression, but I do know that it had such a profound effect on my grandfather that he would only pay cash. Loans and credit cards were out of the question; if he didn't have the cash, he would not buy whatever it is he needed.

If we bought him a nice sweater, shirt, watch, or engraved pen, he would thank us but then put it away in a closet until such time as the ones he was using wore out. If he already had perfectly good shirts, why spend money on new ones, he would quip. It could be a little frustrating for family and many found it peculiar, but, in retrospect, I think he had it right.

I was not spoiled growing up, but my parents made sure my brother and I had everything we needed: food, clothing, shelter, and even some of the "warm fuzzy" stuff like their love, time, and attention. I would visit friends' homes and occasionally become jealous of all that they had (a doll house, the latest and greatest new electronic toy, one of the first VCRs or personal computers (a Radio Shack TRS-80), a Colecovision or Atari, etc.); in contrast, I tagged along and helped out as my mother delivered donated food, gifts, and money for heating oil to local families in need. I saw how dire their situations were, and how grateful and they were to gain assistance. Many adults, though thankful, were also contrite, embarrassed, and even apologetic; that was twenty-five years ago.

This year, rather than food or toys, donations were doled out as gift cards. Parents in need called from their cell phones asking for money and gifts for their kids just days before the holiday. Upon delivering cash cards to these folks, I found them living in better conditions than my own; one particular recipient had two cars, lived in a large antique house, had a new cell phone, and 12 (yes, 12) dogs. Others called for cards multiple times -- some had spent the first ones not for the intended purpose, but rather beer and cigarettes, while others simply forgot that they had called earlier, as they went down the list of outlets offering assistance to those in need.

I met lots of people on disability, suffering from such afflictions as a learning disability or attention deficit disorder. Sadly, though, I did not see parents (whether single or in pairs) who are working hard but still failing to make ends meet; those are the ones I particularly like to see gain a helping hand. I believe in helping those who help themselves -- and kids, of course.

We might not be in a depression, per se, but I am seeing a great deal of desperation. More than two dozen burglaries have been reported this week alone in my neighborhood. At the grocery store, patrons are increasingly paying cash and putting things back when they find they don't have enough cash at the register.

Kids in general don't seem to have adjusted, and maybe that's good. Some parents are explaining the economy and budgeting to kids, while others are trying to shield their children from the effects of the recession. I don't have my own kids, but I would tend to be among the former. I would like to think that I would give my kids the facts and let them sort it out for themselves, as I did. As a child, I saw both ends of the economic spectrum all around me, and I think I am the better for it.

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