When I was growing up during the postwar prosperity of 1960s, my parents continually reminded us about how fortunate we were to mature in the relative prosperity of an upper-middle-class farming family community in Marion, S.C.
They often shared with us the impact of the Great Depression on their life and values. Mom then and now continues to impress upon us the value of hard work, education, thrift, God and charity. Like most young people of our generation, we often tuned out my mother's stories but subconsciously absorbed the values. It is only with the advent of the Great Recession of 2007-09, that I began to reflect on my parents' recollections of the extreme hardships they endured in the late 1930s.
My maternal grandparents ran a seamstress and beauty shop, which provided their family of several children with a modest working-class lifestyle. They were better off than the men in business suits selling tobacco on the street downtown. All the children helped with chores around the house. When the children were old enough, they looked for part-time jobs or worked in the seamstress/beauty shop or the tobacco fields.
At mealtime, everybody ate all the food on their plates without complaining. If an unemployed friend dropped by at dinner time, everybody ate a little less and the friend was fed. The younger children only wore hand-me-down clothes. At Christmas time, the children each got one present. Often it was a handmade toy or winter clothing. And when the business was profitable for that year, they could find a fire truck under the tree.
When many of my older cousins graduated from high school, college was not an option. They pursued vocational training, went to work and sent money home to help support their younger siblings. It was not until after World War II that many of my relatives went to college under the GI bill.
In my grandparents' household, every meal was preceded by grace; and every Sunday the family went to church to thank God for the family's modest existence. The family was thankful that my grandfather had a simple-yet-successful business so he had the means to feed and cloth his family and pay the mortgage on his small house and farm. Notwithstanding the family's humble means, the children always placed a portion of their hard-earned cash into the collection plate during Sunday church service. There were many people in their small, decaying farming town that needed the money more than they did.
Since the mid-1990s, my family and most of my few close friends have only known great prosperity. We live in large houses with cleaning help, have multiple cars, regularly eat at restaurants, get multiple Christmas presents, wear designer clothes and take luxury vacations. We rarely eat all that is on our plate because we fear obesity. There is no need for thrift because we have unlimited lines on our credit cards.
Try finding a teenage baby sitter for Saturday night. It is almost impossible because our teenagers get a generous allowance. Our children work in summer jobs and volunteer for charitable activities primarily to pad their college applications. When our children graduate from college, they expect employers to recruit them and pay them a salary that will support a yuppie lifestyle.
Neither they nor many of their friends understand what it's like to have to conserve due to being pressed by the outside environment. Worse yet, when they have reached a time in their lives when they should be contracting their spending habits, such as now, they are being fed mixed and contradicting messages by society.
On one hand, they are being told that unemployment rates are rising and their future outlook for employment is not as rosy as only a few years earlier. On the other hand, they are being told that consumer confidence is rising, that more people are optimistic about future employment prospecting and that change is occurring in the marketplace.
The perspective of one that has not gone through extremely difficult times, as was experienced in the Great Depression, don't fully understand what it is like to live in want, and be forced to practice fiscal prudence and dedication that is needed to rise out of a national quagmire.
Instead, this generation has been given a passage way to live a double life, and be OK with it. While they face outside pressures of the job market, they are being tempted with department store sales that are providing what one would normally deem as conspicuous consumption at semi-affordable levels - or should I say, levels tempting enough to buy. Claims coming from the White House that things are getting better allow them to ignore harsh economic reality (and take a look at their personal financial life to see the things that should change).
Younger adults who have family obligations are falling victim to this, too. They consistently must pay the mortgage and put food on the table. However, they still are much better off than the previous recession before them.
In attempting to relieve the financial stress of these people, the government is recklessly spending money it does not have on government program after program. This is the point where unsustainability meets unsustainability.
Over the past year, the Great Recession of 2007-09 has changed my perspective. I have begun to realize that there is a soft underbelly to prosperity. Have my nieces, nephews and the children of close family friendsabsorbed those core values that created the American Dream? Or did their family's prosperous lifestyle erode those core values? Is it too late to relearn the time-tested core values of hard work, thrift, education, God and charity so that we will not slide into a New Great Depression?
Hopefully, the Great Recession is a wake-up call to America.
"The Armstrong Williams Show" is broadcast weeknights on XM Satellite's Power 169 channel from 9 to 10 p.m.