A few years ago during the Great Recession, my mom would lament about how scary times were and how it was similar to the Great Depression.
Without a doubt, the Great Recession was hard on many families.
People lost jobs, and sometimes it took them months or even years to find a new one. Some people lost their homes, and many others were underwater. Still, to say that times were as hard as those during the Great Depression was a gross exaggeration.
Let’s Put American Poverty in Perspective
Poverty in the United States During the Great Depression
The site Ohio.gov has gathered stories from the elderly recounting their life during the Great Depression. If you’re a history buff, you could spend hours reading the material. By recounting their lives during that time, we get an excellent glimpse into how difficult times really were.
Margaret Vail states, “My father cut logs and built a ‘temporary’ cabin where we lived for nearly ten years. It was 14 feet by 28 feet, and by the time my youngest sister was born there, it contained two adults and eight children. Dad built hanging bunks from the four corners; the center great room was the cooking, eating, living and entertaining space. We managed. I remember the day we moved in, torrents of rain pointed out the unfinished holes in the roof. The windows were still only grain sacks, and Mother and I scrambled for all the pots and kettles to catch the dripping water.”
Other stories discuss men waiting for the coal truck to steal some coal from it to provide heat for their families for the winter. One woman discussed outgrowing her shoes. Her mother’s solution was to cut out the front of the shoes so her toes could stick out. Later, the sole came off the shoe, and her mother taped it together.
Are We Really Poor Now?
There is no doubt that there are poor among us who work at low paying jobs and struggle to put food on the table for their families. But in other cases, those classified as poor are still much richer than people in the United States were just a few decades ago or than many in other countries are now.
In a 2011 essay, The Heritage Foundation acknowledged that according to the U.S Census Bureau, “over 30 million Americans were living in ‘poverty’. In recent years, the Census has reported that one in seven Americans are poor.”
However, many of those defined as poor have enough food, adequate shelter, access to health care and amenities.
“While poor households were slightly less likely to have conveniences than the general population, most poor households had a wide range of amenities. 78 percent of poor households had air conditioning, 64 percent had cable or satellite TV, and 38 percent had a personal computer” (The Heritage Foundation).
Even more surprising, “The home of the typical poor family was not overcrowded and was in good repair. In fact, the typical poor American had more living space than the average European” (The Heritage Foundation).
While the poor may have more than we think of when we imagine how they live, a recent display by Peter Menzel emphasizes that even further. Menzel took pictures of families posing with their groceries for a week. I don’t know how he chose the families, but seemingly he was striving for the “typical” family to represent each country. For instance, the American family of 4 poses with two open pizza boxes, as well as several other fast food meals, chips, pop, meat, and a small bit of fruits and vegetables. Their food covers their table, counters, and hangs on the wall there is so much.
Certainly people from other countries eat more basics such as grains, breads, fruit and vegetables, than the Americans in the photo. This was interesting, but even more striking was the picture of the family from Chad. There are six members of the family, and all they had in front of them were two large bags of grains, one smaller bag of what looks to be beans, and several very small bags of other items. I can’t imagine how that food feeds 6 people for a week.
We’re Richer Than Many & Have More Opportunities
I don’t want to simplify the poverty that exists in the United States. It’s there. Some kids only get their meals at school. Other families are homeless. That is true poverty, and it’s heartbreaking.
For many us of though, we feel poor when we compare ourselves to our neighbors who have more than we do. We feel poor when we watch television shows that display unrealistic lifestyles. (Friends, for example.)
But remember that in the history of the United States, we are living in one of the richest times. We have more than many previous generations of Americans ever dreamed of having. More importantly, even the poor among us are living a lifestyle that is better than many other citizens in other countries.
If you feel poor because you’re paying off debt or you have a low paying job, remember that you’re still far richer than many, many other people, and you live in a country that gives you the opportunity to change and improve your situation through education and employment.