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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Great Depression survivors don’t see history repeating

BOCA RATON, Fla. – Oct. 6, 2008 – Bank failures, plunging stock prices, mortgage foreclosures, rising unemployment – no wonder the specter of the Great Depression has been invoked repeatedly in the current financial crisis.

But is this economic meltdown anything like the Great Depression?

“No, this is nothing,” said Boca Raton resident Mary Walsh, who at 96 has vivid memories of the panic and despair that gripped the nation for a decade after the stock market crash of October 1929.

“There were six families in the house where I lived, and only one man was working,” said Walsh, who spends many days talking and playing cards at the Mae Volen Senior Center in Boca Raton. “There were a lot of people out in the street and there was no help from the government.”

At the Northwest Focal Point Senior Center in Margate, Rose Borham, 89, came to a similar conclusion.

“We went to bed hungry in the Depression,” said Borham, who grew up in the north Bronx when the New York borough was almost rural.

“We cooked a pot of potatoes, and if we had a pat of butter to put on them, that was great.

“The similarity here is fear about losing money in the bank, our savings. You want to live with dignity, so of course I’m concerned. But maybe with the government now, we’re a little better off.”

Few, if any, analysts predict the current financial crisis will lead to a second Great Depression. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, a former Princeton University professor and expert on the Great Depression, has been loathe to compare then and now, while warning of “very negative implications” if credit markets dry up and fear spreads.

But the present economic decline has been described as the greatest financial blow to strike America since the Depression, which triggered a worldwide economic downturn that lasted until the start of World War II.

In the United States, unemployment hit 25 percent, and the absence of any social or financial safety net drove middle-income families overnight to bread lines, soup kitchens and homelessness.

As tough as times are now for many Americans, including South Floridians, federal insurance for bank deposits, Social Security, and last week’s approval by Congress and President Bush of a $700 billion bailout package make a depression unlikely, experts say.

Still, the worry is there, especially for survivors of the Depression era.

Helene Mayer, 81, a resident of Century Village in Deerfield Beach, said she has a few stocks but “I’m afraid to call [my broker] to see how this has affected me.”

As worried as she is, however, Mayer, a retired New York City teacher, can recall a time in the 1930s when “we lived in two rooms for four people. “My dad lost his business. I didn’t have one toy,” she said.

Mayer said she did not visit a dentist until she was 12, adding, “I didn’t need to – there was no candy.”

Scars borne by those who lived through the Depression are often invisible, but real. Anne Reinhagen, 90, who grew up in New York and New Jersey, broke into tears at the Focal Point Senior Center when she told of the humiliation she felt at having to wash and polish a well-off neighbor’s floor for 65 cents and a half-sandwich lunch.

“We learned how to survive, to save everything, even bread crumbs to put in the meatloaf to stretch our food,” she said.

Retired construction boss and Navy veteran Henry Newmon, 85, a native of West Palm Beach, remembers his father, a city worker, being paid in worthless scrip – ersatz money – when he was thrown out of work.

“It started with the banks,” said Newmon, voicing support for government bailout measures intended to stop the credit squeeze and prevent increases in unemployment.

“The Depression was a bad time all around. And there are too many out of work now. But this is not like the Depression.”

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