Depression Stories: Sound Familiar?

I just finished my second reading of former New York Times columnist Russell Baker’s memoir, Growing Up. I wanted to read it again to see if there were any similarities between his childhood during the Great Depression and our Great Recession. Turns out there are some, at least for the long-term unemployed right now. For instance, after his father died, just as the Depression hit full force, his mother moved into her brother and sister-in-law’s apartment with Russell and his sister. Their three-month stay turned into three years.

Here is an excerpt from Growing Up:

“While I was experiencing the routine miseries of childhood, my mother was discovering the Depression. She quickly learned that her hope of finding a job and renting a place of her own was foolish. There were no jobs to be found.

“She hoped to resume teaching. The school administrators [in New Jersey] told her her Virginia credentials were no good in New Jersey and no jobs were likely to be available even if she qualified. The story was the same everywhere. No jobs. No jobs for for saleswomen in the department stores. Department stores were firing, not hiring. No jobs in the factories. Factories that were laying off workers en masse were shutting down entirely. All that year she walked the streets, combed the classified ads, sat in offices waiting to talk to possible employers, and always heard the same refrain: No jobs.”

Baker also takes us through the heartbreaking downfall of his mother’s suitor. He had spent most of his life working his way up from baker to traveling salesman, but now he was sinking fast. Russell Baker tells the tale through a series of letters the gentleman wrote to Baker’s mother, whom he had hoped to marry. In just one terrible year, we see him trying everything and following every possible lead. Yet after all that, he had lost his job, had lost his tenants, was deep in debt, had sold his three rental houses at a loss to pay off his debt, and didn’t have enough money even to return to Denmark, his home country. By May 1933, the date of his last letter, he seemed to have lost interest in life itself.

His story sounds all too familiar now.


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