The Great Depression, Not So Far Away

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 16, 2008

Louise McKenzie was a 14-year-old Girl Scout when she helped prepare dinner for the president of the United States as a way to show the American public that nutritious meals could cost very little during the early years of the Great Depression.

In her Rosslyn home, a yellowed clipping from that April day in 1931 with President Herbert Hoover and his wife has been carefully preserved. She can still recount the meal: "split-pea soup, meatloaf, baked potatoes, tomato salad, bread pudding and tea, for just under 25 cents a person."

Now 91, McKenzie has heard echoes of her past in the economic turmoil of late, which many analysts have described as the worst since the "Black Tuesday" stock market crash of 1929. At the height of the Depression that spanned the 1930s, unemployment rates reached almost 25 percent.

The common adage of the time, McKenzie recalled, was: "Use it up. Wear it out. Make it do. Do without." The ethic of conserving money -- and avoiding credit -- stuck with many in her generation for the rest of their lives. Some have never used a charge card or rarely allowed a balance due.

The life experiences of the Depression generation tell an increasingly relevant story about the toll of severe economic crisis and how people persevere in times of extreme hardship. Many who remember that era, or who have studied it, wonder how the current generation would withstand such dire circumstances.

Among the larger public, the economic crisis of late has touched off deep concerns. In exit polls for the presidential election, more than six in 10 voters cited the economy as the nation's biggest issue. A few weeks earlier, 41 percent of those polled by CNN/Opinion Research said the country was headed toward a depression.

To get by in the 1930s, McKenzie and her contemporaries say, people relied on the strength of family, the support of community and the grit and work ethic of the time. Families grew food, wore hand-me-downs, helped one another, eked by.

"People are turning to this generation now because we may be called upon to make sacrifices unlike anything we've seen since then," said sociologist Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University. "They did it well."

Historian Steven Mintz of Columbia University said the children and grandchildren of those who lived during the Depression are essentially "a softer generation." Those who knew the 1930s, he said, also "knew how tough life could be before the Depression. I think they had an inner strength they could draw upon. I'm not so sure we have that."

Nathan "Hank" Greenberg, 95, a retired archivist who lives in Silver Spring, said he has never forgotten how tough it was on his family to be in debt in the 1930s and how long the bread lines stretched in Manhattan. He remembers men crying as they waited in line. He eventually lost his job as an errand boy, laid off like so many others.

"I made a vow," he said. "I don't want to owe money, ever."

To that end, Greenberg has paid for everything in cash, including his car and his condominium.

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