Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Beginning of Another Great Depression?

Every time I see this photo, it has the exact same effect on me. I see this tired woman, draped by her urchin children, obviously aged beyond her years from, what I'm guessing, is an unfortunate turn of events that has unfairly led her and her young family to this unfair point in their already difficult lives. I'm sure she was unaware at that moment that her perplexed face was being captured on film as a symbol of poverty and the inevitable effects from hopelessness. Her honest expression humbles me and reminds me that my own life can always be worse than it has ever been.
This poignant photo of a 32 year old destitute migrant worker and mother of seven, Florence Owens Thompson, entitled Migrant Mother, was taken in 1936. It is the most recognized out of a series of photographs, by Dorothea Lange, depicting the reality and despair of America's poorest and most forgotten during the height of the Great Depression.
Despite her hardships, Florence lived to be 80 years old. It saddens me that her daughter, Katherine, pictured on the left, was quoted in 2008 as saying the photo's fame made her family feel "shame of their poverty." I wish she could see how that emotional image of her struggling mother helped humanize the tragic consequences of the economy to the rest of us. It commands empathy, not pity, and, triggers me to encourage her to persevere. That sentiment is something that will forever be immortalized thanks to Florence, and, we will always be able to relate to it, no matter what generation gazes upon it.
I have viewed many other moving images from this era, varying from the huge crowds gathering on Wall Street right after the 1929 crash, the faces of the unemployed men picketing in the streets for work and food, the growing numbers of women forced into the workforce as men were drafted into the armed forces, and the devastating effects of the Dust Bowl.
Photographers documented history in the making, and, in turn, their unforgettable images will forever serve as proof a crucial time in America where the nation, and its people, were tested like no other time, until now.
Many decades later, our prosperous world, full of greedy undertones, came crashing down upon all of us right around the time I re-entered the workforce after the birth of my second child. It was 2006 and I was in the middle of the housing bubble as it began to burst in my unprepared section of Southwest Florida.
I was working for a home construction company that had gone through many changes since I first walked through its welcoming doors in 2000. Back then, it was a much smaller and humbler version of the ravenous beast it had grown into. Our reputation as one of the area's best home builders quickly transformed us into a champion in the competitive world of seducing clients into hiring us to build their elaborate dream homes in our piece of tropical paradise.
So, we steadily drew them in and took their gorgeous money and reaped the benefits for several years. However, in the spirit of Sir Isaac Newton and his concept of "what goes up must come down," those self indulgent days of upper management's hefty bonuses and frivolous spending, fuelled by our overwhelming number of dramatically increased home sales, came to a screeching halt, and, our company, like so many other home builders, were caught with its pants down, so to say, as we had not prepared financially when we should have, for that kind of halt in home construction.
The jovial and close knit environment I had grown to love was sucked out and replaced with a hollow and untrustworthy version I could not relate to. The so called "survivors"of the lay offs and pay cuts were constantly reminded to feel lucky that they still had their jobs, but, the trade off was somewhat unbearable.
My salary was frozen, my workload had tripled, and we were quickly taught to feel guilty if we were caught socializing, or, even worse, laughing during work hours. The somberness of the effects from the collapsing housing and credit markets with the lurking probability of a nationwide recession had numbed our society and crippled our sense of stability.
We knew we had become a nation driven by money and the pleasures that came with it. The bank loosened its qualifications and funded us for houses and other luxuries that most of us knew we couldn't afford. It was a "take it and worry about it later" kind of approach which America is still heavily paying for now.
So, where did we go wrong? It took a long time for our world to recuperate from the Great Depression, but, we did. We even went on to establish a united dream, which we gloriously entitled, The American Dream, and life was good for many decades.
So, fast forward to 2006 again, and the beginning of our generation's version of another Great Depression. We all knew there was a risk in getting our hands caught in that tempting cookie jar, and, yet, it never bothered us when it should have. Sure, we could blame the government, or the banks, greed, or ourselves, but, we were, undoubtedly, headed for another economic decline.
The unemployment rate rose, the foreclosures began and the ridiculous lending stopped. It was not a good time to be in Florida and employed in the construction field. I did not expect my life to end up like Florence's, but, I knew troubled times were unavoidable for me as well.
Was it the beginning of another Great Depression? I don't know if it is even fair to make that comparison. I think about those faces from back then and wonder what they would say to all of us now. Maybe their world was simpler than ours, but, why is it that they still seemed to practice a much more controlled approach to life and prosperity than we do now? Also, although, there was severe hardship and suffering in their photos, you can also see plenty of hope and determination to rebound, that I haven't seen this time around.
Maybe we should have realized when this started in 2006 that it was not going to simply go away by putting our halfhearted faith in the government and time to correct our unsightly ways. It will be interesting to see how, many years from now, our economic crisis is portrayed and if there is anyone that stands out, like Florence, who hit rock bottom, but, rose again, as a result of perseverance instead of waiting for that infamous and unseen bailout.

Image Credit: Migrant Mother, Circa 1936, by American Photographer Dorothea Lange

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