(Macon, GA) The Great Depression of the 1930s left a visual signature: black-and-white images of hobos and 5-cent apples, Hoovervilles and gaunt Appalachian farm women.
What will be the memorable images of the Great Recession? That aesthetic question is certainly not the most important one, but it raises deeper issues about what kind of period we are going through, how it compares to our national experience, and how it will be remembered.
I pose the question on a day when we learned that GDP growth rate remains miserable three years after the initial crash and has been worse that whole time than we thought–while Congress is considering an austerity package that may cut another half percent off GDP.
We should be cautious comparing our times to the Great Recession. As this helpful table from CNN indicates, all the gross economic statistics were much worse then. Besides, the baseline was much lower in 1928; thus people were far more vulnerable to destitution. The Great Depression produced clearly visible signs of suffering, such as thousands of people loading their last few possessions onto Model T’s and heading to California.
But the current recession is quietly devastating. It has, for example, reduced the median net worth of Hispanic households to $6,325 and of African-American households to $5,677–figures that have a 1930s ring to them.
Moreover, those black-and-white WPA photos tell an exaggerated story when juxtaposed to today. Life went on in 1931, as it does in 2011. In fact, my family’s house and our whole suburban neighborhood were built early in the Great Depression. The ceilings were lower than they would have been in the 1920s–to economize on heating–but they were middle-class homes, experienced in living color by the people who owned them. At the peak of the Depression, one quarter of American workers were unemployed, but three quarters were still at work, doing things like building our suburb.
So what will evoke our times decades from now? Images of foreclosure signs in desert subdivisions? Abandoned strip malls? Or will we think of iPads and Facebook and let memories of the economic decline slip away?