I knew an old couple that lived in Youngstown, Ohio. They had grown up in the Great Depression but later as teachers led comfortable middle class lives. But they never forgot their hard beginnings. I remember being their weekend house guest about thirty years ago and noticed that the bars of soap in the bathroom and kitchen rested on their narrow faces, not the usual broad one. When I asked them about it, they said that this way there was less waste of soap from seepage due to contact with the counter surface.
It was a telling sign that they were frugal people who abhorred waste. You knew that they would squeeze the very last bit of toothpaste out of every tube, that they would dilute the last bit of shampoo in the bottle at the end so that they got all of it out, and that no food would be thrown away uneaten. But while thrifty they were by no means stingy. In fact, while they eschewed ostentatious living, they were very generous people, giving both of their time and money to benefit others, supporters of worthy causes and charities, and you would receive a warm welcome in their home. But they knew how to live on a tight budget, and tried to live simply even when they were not forced to.
When we look back at the times that give us the most sense of pride as a people, it is usually those times when people made it through hardships, like the Great Depression or World War II, when things were hard to obtain and people made do with very little. It gives us the reassuring sense that we can survive tough times again if we had to. While there is no intrinsic virtue to being poor, going through tight financial times at some point in one’s life teaches one how to live carefully. One looks back with a sense of pride that one was able to overcome it.
When we came to the US, our first ten years were nomadic, living in small apartments in low-income neighborhoods, with thrift store furniture, an old and cheap used car (when we had a car), and simple food. All our clothes were purchased at sales. We never even bothered to go to the main floors of the department stores where the regular priced items were. In those days, the phrase ‘bargain basement sales’ was literally true. Department stores had separate entrances from the sidewalk that led straight to the basement where all the clearance items were, so us poor people could go straight there and not clutter up the main store.
Even though I have no wish to relive those days, I don’t look back at those times with horror. There is no shame in being hard up. And we were fortunate that we were never hungry or fearful of not being able to pay the rent, at least in the short run. Those experiences have given me the assurance that should things turn out for the worse and I can no longer live the fairly simple way I do now, I can revert to an even simpler lifestyle with a much lower income without much difficulty. The thought of becoming poor again does not frighten me.
During the current financial crisis, I have been reading and listening to stories about how people are trying to deal with suddenly lowered incomes. What often surprises me is the description that some people give of their lives before the crisis hit. Although they seem to be people who have jobs and incomes similar to mine, they live lives that are quite different. They have mortgages that are three to five times my own, eat out at restaurants four or five times per week, and routinely go on vacations to exotic locations. People seem to have the sense that this is what normal life is or should be, rather than an exceptionally extravagant lifestyle. Or maybe it is me who is out of step.
I particularly wonder about retirees who feel that they are entitled to a very good life in their so-called ‘golden years’, the sense that they are somehow entitled to play golf and go on cruises and travel the world, and who vehemently oppose any tax measures that might lower their lifestyles even slightly in order to provide more public services or benefits to those less well off. Because such people tend to vote in large numbers, politicians pander shamelessly to these well-to-do retirees, especially in states like Florida and Arizona, further encouraging this sense of greedy entitlement.
At the same time I see old people continuing to work at low paying jobs that require considerable physical energy long after they should have retired, obviously because they need the money to just make ends meet. Surely some well-to-do older people can forego a few of their luxuries so that all old people can spend their last years with dignity, and not be forced to push their ageing bodies through difficult workdays.
The only things I feel that anyone is entitled to, that are fundamental human rights, are the basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, and health care. Everything else is a luxury that is nice to have but not an entitlement. Living to a ripe old age with reasonably good health is itself is a gift, a luxury denied to many people. We should be thankful for it.
There is no intrinsic virtue in being poor. But going through such an experience, especially early in life, teaches you how to cut corners and live simply and, hopefully, gives you empathy for those who have not been as fortunate and who may be still living the life that you left behind. This is why I think that it is good for young people to experience at least a few years of living on a low income.
People who are well-to-do should stop complaining about paying higher taxes. We often don’t appreciate how much luck went into us being where we are. Those of us who are lucky to be so well off should be glad to spread the wealth around to improve the conditions of those who did not get the breaks we did.
POST SCRIPT: Happy Days are here again
Andy Griffith, Opie, Richie Cunningham, and The Fonz give out some election advice.