WASHINGTON — When I heard one of TV's business experts say the other evening that we are enjoying not only a great prosperity in the US but also one that is unprecedented in any place in the world, well, it caused me to think: How do we define "prosperity"? And can we be absolutely sure that some ancient realm didn't prosper as well as we have?
But we obviously are doing very well economically and over a long period of time. And this prosperity has stretched out to just about everyone: The jobless rating remains so low that some economists are saying there is "virtually" no unemployment.
But then I got to thinking that these good times hadn't always been with us and how I had witnessed, in my early years, what those who went through it believed was the worst of times: the Great Depression.
I had been noting, too, during the end of the past century and the beginning of the new, that very little was being written about that economic tragedy, even though it had touched the lives of almost every American back in the 1930s. Where were the millennium stories about that epic event?
I remember well the prosperity of the 1920s that preceded the Great Depression. I was just a youngster, but I knew that my family and just about everyone around me in my medium-sized community was doing well. In the summers I would be a little helper for my father, who was the Champaign County, Ill., surveyor. So I was always close to his side as he talked to people around the county.
Anyway, the talk invariably turned to the thriving economy. Looking back on it now, I'm sure I was tapping into the mood of the country.
How bad was that Depression? Well, I saw figures later showing that unemployment had reached upward of 50 percent. In my own community it seemed to me that hardly anyone was working. For example, two cousins of mine ran a country grocery store where farmers from miles around came to buy. These farmers kept coming in, but they couldn't pay. So John and Karl put scores of these long-time customers "on the tab." My cousins kept their store alive through those bad years - but barely.
During a year at the University of Oklahoma, I read John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" and, during a short vacation, decided to hitchhike from centrally located Norman, Okla., to the eastern part of the state, where I thought I would be able to find the farm where the impoverished Joads had lived. Well, I did make an interesting discovery on that trip - that the Joads were really not "Okies." They had come from a farm in Arkansas - just over the state line.
But what poverty I observed as I made that journey! Again and again I would see a jobless man walking aimlessly along the road, often in near-rags. And the little towns I would go through - or stop at - seemed almost empty. I would be able to get a room for the night for $1; I didn't have much more in my pocket. And wherever I went, hopelessness was in the air.
People over the years have asked me how bad that Depression was. I tell them that in my family there were three Christmases when there were no gifts at all. Just a few cookies and cakes.
And then I tell them of my most lasting memory, a happening I would like to forget: how hungry little kids from the outskirts of Norman, Okla., would pull a wagon into an alley behind my rooming house and, each morning, go through the garbage cans. That's a picture that tells it all.
It could well be argued that one of the greatest triumphs of the past century is that we pulled out of that Depression and have been able to keep the economy pretty much on an even keel (with some corrections and recessions, to be sure) ever since.
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