Monday, February 23, 2009

Reflections on the New Great Depression

In Questions for 2009, posted at 3Quarks this morning, Bryant Urstadt takes a dark look at our protracted recession. The writer muses to himself "Will I write a great novel? Probably never... If I wrote a great novel, could I even get it published? With major publishing houses shrinking as fast as the newspapers, this seems unlikely... If I got it published, would anyone read it?" And so on.

This part jumped out at me:

How can so many women be supporting so many men? Among my friends, the men are all in sweatpants at home, or supervising the meltdown of some formerly flourishing concern, while the women soldier on, bringing home the paychecks, and sometimes making dinner, too. Statistics bear this out. Eighty percent of the fired are men. This is not just the collapse of an economy, but the collapse of a gender.

First off, it's a sad but true that most well-paid jobs are held by men. It's well and good that women are making progress toward equal pay for equal work, but the mathematical reality is that in the workforce men outnumber women. And even in this time of "single-parent households" which nearly always means a woman and her children, for most families men still do the heavy lifting.

This economic imbalance may have roots in our agricultural past. For Western farming culture** the division of labor is fairly straightforward. Women cared for the house and children while their men took care of the barn and fields. What little economy was needed was not a big deal. The big money went for essentials and what little remained was incidental. Mama may have had a little "egg money" or "pin money" stashed in a jar somewhere but that was as close to discretionary income as they had.

Ironically the Great Depression slogged on for some time until WWII turned out to do more than anything to bring about a "recovery." During and following the war women moved into the workplace and became integral to family economics. The post-war economy shifted from an agricultural base to a manufacturing base. While the men were at war women started to make serious income furnishing wartime needs from uniforms to airplanes.

When the men came home most women continued in their new roles. A new family model emerged with two incomes which accounts for a decade of incredible prosperity until the marketplace (Remember The Marketplace? That's the altar at which we have worshiped since WWII.) adjusted costs to calibrate expenses upward. Family income changed going into the Sixties. The second income, which started out as "discretionary," little by little became essential. By the end of the Sixties the two-income family had replaced the old (agricultural) single income model.

The change was made easier by a distribution system that enabled California truck farms, Iowa meat plants, Idaho potato farms, Wisconsin dairy farms, Georgia peach farms and New York apple farms to put products on every table in the country. And Detroit was making enough cars that one car per family was no longer enough. No need to go on. You know the rest.

Times were tough during the Great Depression but by most accounts there was enough to eat, even though begging, soup lines and other forms of charity formed the distribution network. In the current crisis, so far, there is enough to eat but as the writer observes it may be the woman's contribution to family economics may be, even in the case of homelessness, what stands between poverty with or without hunger.

I submit that Bryant Urstadt's keen observation goes to an important but overlooked reality. Women have replaced agriculture as the lynch-pin to our economy. As a population, women now stand between what we imagine to be a worst case scenario and physical hunger. We must now redefine "discretionary income" as women's earnings have become essential.

**Malcolm Gladwell points out in Outliers a fundamental difference
between Western farming, which is seasonal, and farming in the East.
Very important differences too complicated to summarize here which
may very well figure in how current economic challenges may be
approached by two very different cultural bases.

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