One of my father’s favorite stories was the one about his neighbors, who were building a house when the Depression began. Without the funds to complete the building, they simply capped the cellar and lived in it until happy days returned again.
Today, they’d probably be charged with violating the building code and endangering children. To me, though, the story always illustrated the power we all have to overcome adversity — if we are willing to use it.
This family, living in the 1930s, had few options until New Deal reforms kicked in to provide help. (One of the sons signed up with the Works Progress Administration.) But today, I wonder how many poor people are willing to make the sacrifices that would allow them to live without government assistance, or even move into the middle class.
That’s hard for me to say. I have always believed that the poor deserve help. I admired Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson for their programs that provided “safety nets,” so the worst ravages of the Depression would not happen again.
The problem is, those nets don’t serve as catch and release holding pens. Some fish are content to stay there for life.
This fact disturbs me on several levels. I deplore the lack of initiative on the part of people stuck in the mire of generational poverty. I worry for the children who don’t learn the value of responsibility. And I have come to see the welfare state as a purveyor of “bread and circuses.” If poor people are content, how will we ever get the societal change we so desperately need?
In other words, people have to be at least metaphorically hungry to find the strength to storm the Bastille.
As the child of parents who grew up in the Depression, I learned that it was important to work hard, look for bargains and save money. To this day, whenever someone offers me a small moonlighting opportunity, I hear my father saying, “If they’re going to pay you, take it.”
Since Dad was self-employed, I learned about entrepreneurship. My parents started with little money, built a successful business and were finally able to afford a few luxuries. No amount of money was too small to be saved. I never pass up a penny on the street. It goes in the piggy bank, which, when full, contains $5.
Do I “need” to do this? No. But we all do need to save for that proverbial rainy day. Just look at all the celebrities who earn millions, then go broke.
I have observed that it is a tendency of people who live in poverty to underestimate the value of doing this. Instead, they seek the instant gratification of buying lobster with their food stamps, then run out of money at the end of the month.
That statement is based on anecdotal evidence provided to me by friends who work in supermarkets. I’m generalizing, of course, but I really think that if people receiving government assistance applied basic money management skills to their benefits, they not only would lead better lives, but recognize their ability to get off welfare.
True story: My Aunt Stella never worked. She took care of her father and brother, and when they died, she was eligible for Social Security. All went well, until she received a letter telling her to cease and desist saving money. Yes, my sweet 85-year-old aunt had saved more money than the feds allowed. They stopped her payments until she spent down her savings.
It was impossible, however, for Stella not to save money; she just gave it to my mother to put it in an account under Mom’s name. Then when she needed, oh, a new winter coat, Mom would withdraw the needed funds for her.
I was inspired by her frugality. So when my husband, Paul, and I wanted to buy a house, I knew we could save for a down payment. If it was $20 a week, it was $20. I bought store-brand foods and made lunches for us to take to work. We ate out only once every other week. We did not buy fancy electronics, luxury cars or expensive jewelry.
After we bought our house, we applied the same techniques to pay down our mortgage.
I consider myself fortunate to have learned money management skills at the feet of the masters, those Depression-era survivors. It’s tragic that the most basic one, that you can improve your lot in life if you’re willing to work at it, is not being taught to those who need it most — the children living in poverty.
The economic climate in this country is dismal. Good-paying jobs are hard to find,and the prices of food and fuel just keep going up. Our problems are, I believe, the direct result of government policies such as NAFTA. Of course, this makes it harder for poor people to pull themselves up. But do they, do we, care enough anymore to do anything about it? I haven’t seen much evidence of that.
Liz Soares welcomes email at [email protected].