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Hard Times: From the Great Depression to the Great Recession
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Carolina Meadows

“Hard Times in Lives — From the Great Depression to the Great Recession” was the subject of a recent talk at the Carolina Meadows Men’s Breakfast. Contrasting these two eras that occurred some 75 years apart was Dr. Glen Elder, Jr., of the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Dr. Elder based his remarks on studies made in Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, all of them having gone through similar experiences during those two time periods.

His conclusions were based on a study of two groups of boys – one group born in the early 1920s and the other almost a decade later. This study of The Great Depression, which was done while he was at the University of California at Berkeley, traced its legacy across the adult lives of children and is now providing a model for doing such work on “The Great Recession.” Ironically, the situations are quite parallel in all three countries.

The big lesson from the study of economic depressions and recessions is that there is not just “one story – there are many stories.” Dr. Elder said: “much to the dismay of journalists who want a big takeaway, we find that there are many outcomes. They vary by age and gender, class background and place of residence, among other factors.

“When the 1929 crash occurred, most Americans had little opportunity to ‘live beyond their means’ because they had to pay for what they purchased,” he said. Having to make do with what they had also developed a strong work ethic which helped many survive. Having to pay cash for everything began to change when Sears and the May Company began installment plan purchasing.

Government programs, such as the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and later our entry into World War II provided employment for many and a way out of their Depression Era poverty, he said.

Following the war, the GI Bill provided financial assistance, which enabled many young men and women to secure a college education without debt.

By the end of the century, Americans could acquire a house, a car and household goods on credit. This, and the use of credit cards, has resulted in many people living beyond their means. The Great Recession owes much to this “easy credit” trend, Dr. Elder said.

He added that for many young people, this now has been extended to paying for college educations. While the increasing number of young people securing a college education has helped to blunt somewhat the effect of the Great Recession, the end of the story is yet to be written.

Dr. Elder holds the title of Howard Odum Professor of Sociology at UNC and received his doctoral degree there in 1961. His career has included time at UC-Berkley and Cornell University, as well as UNC.

“Hard Times in Lives — From the Great Depression to the Great Recession” was the subject of a recent talk at the Carolina Meadows Men’s Breakfast. Contrasting these two eras that occurred some 75 years apart was Dr. Glen Elder, Jr., of the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Dr. Elder based his remarks on studies made in Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, all of them having gone through similar experiences during those two time periods.

His conclusions were based on a study of two groups of boys – one group born in the early 1920s and the other almost a decade later. This study of The Great Depression, which was done while he was at the University of California at Berkeley, traced its legacy across the adult lives of children and is now providing a model for doing such work on “The Great Recession.” Ironically, the situations are quite parallel in all three countries.

The big lesson from the study of economic depressions and recessions is that there is not just “one story – there are many stories.” Dr. Elder said: “much to the dismay of journalists who want a big takeaway, we find that there are many outcomes. They vary by age and gender, class background and place of residence, among other factors.

“When the 1929 crash occurred, most Americans had little opportunity to ‘live beyond their means’ because they had to pay for what they purchased,” he said. Having to make do with what they had also developed a strong work ethic which helped many survive. Having to pay cash for everything began to change when Sears and the May Company began installment plan purchasing.

Government programs, such as the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and later our entry into World War II provided employment for many and a way out of their Depression Era poverty, he said.

Following the war, the GI Bill provided financial assistance, which enabled many young men and women to secure a college education without debt.

By the end of the century, Americans could acquire a house, a car and household goods on credit. This, and the use of credit cards, has resulted in many people living beyond their means. The Great Recession owes much to this “easy credit” trend, Dr. Elder said.

He added that for many young people, this now has been extended to paying for college educations. While the increasing number of young people securing a college education has helped to blunt somewhat the effect of the Great Recession, the end of the story is yet to be written.

Dr. Elder holds the title of Howard Odum Professor of Sociology at UNC and received his doctoral degree there in 1961. His career has included time at UC-Berkley and Cornell University, as well as UNC.

By Clarence Whitefield

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