My grandfather didn't live to witness this Recession. Perhaps it's just as well. It would have dredged up too many unhappy memories of the Great Depression.
When I was little, I used to twirl around on the red, swivel, architect's stool in front of his drafting table, listening to him tell stories about his life during the Depression. He sighed heavily and shook his head often. After all those years, it was still hard for him to talk about it.
He told us how the Depression moved across the United States slowly, like a plague of locusts or a disease. His family listened to the news reports on the radio, hoping that the Depression wouldn't make it to Colorado but when it did hit, it hit hard.
All construction ground to a halt and since my grandfather was an architect, he no longer had any work. His family lost their home and their possessions. They fell out of the middle class and into a poorer class. They left the town they lived in and retreated to a family homestead in the mountains. It was an old log cabin and no one lived there anymore, but there was space for a garden and they could hunt. They cut back. They made do. They went without. They went hungry. It was not romantic. Both my grandfather and grandmother were college educated, but financially, they had been thrown back in time more than seventy years.
When our Recession hit, I lost money and jobs just like everyone else. I cut back. I made do. I went without. I went hungry. I slipped out of the middle class and found myself below the poverty line. I was college educated, but financially, I had been thrown back in time more than seventy years. I remembered my grandfather's stories and sometimes, I wished I had somewhere else to go. I thought about that homestead cabin once in awhile and wondered if anybody lived there.
My grandfather's stories of the Depression took a hopeful turn when he talked about the WPA. The WPA was a federally funded program which employed millions of men, and some women and youths to do public works projects. For the first time in three years, my grandfather had work. In fact, every male relative I had, who was alive at the time and old enough to work, was employed by the WPA. That federally funded program saved my family. It gave my grandfather hope and diffused his anger over a depression that happened through no fault of his own.
When the WPA went into effect, my grandfather moved back to town. Architects were only allowed to bid on one job in one county but my grandfather bent the rules a bit and drove his old Chevy truck from county to county bidding on jobs. He worked so many jobs at once that he sometimes got them mixed up. My grandfather said he never worked harder in his whole life than he did during the Depression.
When our Recession hit, I remembered everything my grandfather taught me and I worked several jobs at once. I did anything and everything: cleaning, laundry, ironing, gardening, freelance writing, baking, garage sales, teaching, tutoring. I often worked so hard that cleaning chemicals filled my lungs and gave me headaches and nausea. I was often dizzy and at night I had trouble with my eyes. I thought about my grandfather a lot, knowing that at night when his vision blurred, he parked by the side of the road and slept on the old, cracked seats of his truck.
Even with all his hard work, my grandfather barely survived. Even with all my hard work, I've barely survived.
Programs like the WPA, which saved my grandfather, and the GI bill, which later educated my father, allowed America to grow a flourishing, educated middle class. My father didn't have student loans to pay off. He began saving money to buy a house right after college. He felt securely and permanently part of the middle class. He always knew he'd belong to the same class.
I always assumed I'd belong to the same class too, the one I had identified with since birth. Now I'm not sure if I'll ever be middle class again.
My grandfather's generation and my father's generation worked hard, but they also got a lot of help from federally funded programs. What would their lives have looked like without the GI bill and the WPA? Would America even have an educated middle class?
Today's generation is just as frugal and hardworking as my grandfather's generation. How will we pull ourselves back into the middle class without help? And what about our future? Will we ever have a flourishing middle class again? Our Recession may not be exactly the same as my grandfather's Depression, but in so many ways, the situation is just as debilitating.
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