The very worst thing about hard times


Studs Terkel died as last year drew to a close. He was one of the great chroniclers of life in the 20th century, gathering the oral histories of hundreds of Americans. Most were the people historians don't trouble themselves with -- people who pay the price when the historical figures bungle the task of running things.

One of Terkel's best books was Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. There's a distinctive thread running through the book's hundreds of stories, and that is the shame people felt at being poor and out of work.

Though none of them had done anything to create the economic conditions that caused their suffering, they still felt responsible. The collapse was caused by the irresponsibility and greed of the financial wizards in the boardrooms of America's biggest companies. But many ordinary people felt guilty because they failed to rise above the circumstances inflicted upon them. The stories in Terkel's book are heavily weighted with this guilt, a feeling that only added to the miseries people suffered as they lived with hunger and desperation during the '30s.

A woman I know recently shared a family story that brings those hard times vividly to life. Her grandfather lost his job during the latter years of the Great Depression, but rather than face the shame of telling his family what had happened, he kept it a secret, dressing each morning for work, then going to sit on a park bench all day, until he was expected home each night. The charade continued for a year until all the family's savings were exhausted, and he was finally forced to tell the truth to those he loved.

Shame like that tends to come from the old American Puritan belief that God rewards the worthy -- in cash. If you're well off, it's because you enjoy God's favor, and if not, not. The poor and downtrodden of the 1930s may not have consciously held that old Puritan attitude. But the shame they felt was real nonetheless, an insult added to the economic injuries they suffered.

The comedian Chris Rock has a sharp observation about the difference between having a job and having a career. If you're lucky enough to have a career, Rock says, there's never enough time for the things you want to do. If, on the other hand, you get stuck in a “job,” time hangs heavy and the hands of the clock refuse to move. I've had such jobs, and I can remember the weight of those dragging minutes as I waited for the whistle to blow and release me from my servitude. I've also known the other kind of work, where time rushed like water in a mountain stream, when a 50-minute class was over before it began, or where time spent writing consumed a morning before I even knew it had slipped by.

But even a dead-end job is preferable to being unemployed. The pain people suffered during the Great Depression didn't just strike at the belly; it wounded the souls of people who were reduced to accepting charity from organizations that served humiliation along with their handouts.

Now, the times are getting hard again as millions of Americans find themselves out of work, for much the same reasons their grandparents were jobless in the '30s. Unbridled Wall Street greed coupled with a neglectful or complicit set of blind government watchdogs built, and then brought down, a house of cards.

In the 1920s, scam artists like Charles Ponzi helped lay the foundation for the Great Depression. He's been reincarnated in our own time's Bernard Madoff. This decade's political corruption is a lot like that of the Harding administration, resulting once again in more hard times for all but the very rich.

It remains to be seen if President Obama can shorten this new depression with the infusion of vast amounts of federal money. But however long these hard times last, people should never feel guilty for poverty they did nothing to create. It's bad enough to be laid off from work without thinking it's all your own fault. 

Jaime O'Neill is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He lives in Magalia, California.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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