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Economists, survivors say Depression can’t compare

BY DON MECOY Published: December 25, 2008
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In the Great Depression, many Americans lined up for food and soup. In the current economic crisis, many Americans line up to shop for bargains.

Although political and economic leaders have told us the current recession is America’s greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, the two events are not comparable. And the differences are particularly acute at Christmas time.

Lloyd Mitchell, 90, of Oklahoma City said he felt fortunate to get some fruit in his stocking when he was growing up as the son of a tenant farmer in far southwest Oklahoma. Mitchell’s father grew cotton on hardscrabble land in an era of drought and record low prices.

"If you got an apple, orange and maybe a banana, you really liked that,” Mitchell said. "You didn’t eat them all at one time.”

Larkin Warner, economics professor emeritus of Oklahoma State University, said the current situation bears little resemblance to the devastation of the Great Depression.

"At this stage, to compare where we are today with the Great Depression seems to me to be kind of scare tactics,” Warner said. "For one thing, our standard of living is vastly higher than it was in those days. As a society, we’re vastly wealthier than we were in 1932.”

Consumer-driven economy
One reflection of that societal wealth is the fact that about 70 percent of the current U.S. economy is being driven by consumer spending.

While consumer spending has been contracting in recent months, the average holiday shopper plans to spend about $120 on themselves this Christmas, according to a recent survey by the National Retail Federation.

That simply wasn’t the case during the depths of the Depression.

"Everybody got one present,” said Bob Eve, a 77-year-old Nowata retiree. "A basketball would be a good example — we had a goal out on the garage where you shoot baskets — or a baseball glove. It was not bad.”

Shoppers this year on Black Friday, the frenzied day of consumerism taking place after Thanksgiving, spent an average of $372.57, the National Retail Federation reported.

More than half of respondents to a recent poll said they feel an obligation to shop to help boost the economy, and one in five said they are dipping into savings to pay for holiday gifts, according to a survey of 1,762 adults.