“We were poor, but we had love, that’s the one thing that daddy made sure of. He shoveled coal to make a poor man’s dollar.” — Loretta Lynn, Coal Miner’s Daughter.
Earlier this month, author Gay Talese wrote in The Daily Beast about seeing people line up to buy designer jeans, despite our economic troubles. He expressed confusion, but it didn’t take much parsing to figure out that he was disappointed that the recession wasn’t (yet) bringing about an end to behaviour he dislikes (materialism, shopping, unnecessary fashion, etc.)
Talese isn’t alone in his hope that somehow the crisis will birth a new era, and a new morality, where people eschew the behaviour of modern capitalism and all it’s ills.
But for all our nightmares of drowning in a sea of bad mortgages, foreclosed homes and shrunken retirement plans, the truth is that the effects of this meltdown won’t be all bad in the long run. In one regard, it could offer our society a net positive: Forced into belt-tightening, Americans are likely to strengthen our family and community ties and to centre our lives more closely on the places where we live.
This trend toward what I call “the new localism” has been underway for some years, driven by changing demographics, new technologies and rising energy prices. But the economic downturn will probably accelerate it as individuals and corporations look not to the global stage but closer to home, concentrating and congregating on the Main Streets where we choose to live – in the suburbs, in urban neighborhoods or in small towns.
Kortkin couches his argument in the form of a prediction, but it’s actually a hope, a hope that the economic events will bring about his “new localism” vision, and that families will be strengthened.
The problem with this notion is that it’s not built on logic. The poor but insanely happy family is the stuff of country songs, like those sung by Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash (don’t get us wrong, we love that stuff).
Though I’m certainly no scholar of the Great Depression, as far as I know the economic hard times often devastated family life. People put off marrying because they could not afford to support their own household, much less children. The children they did have were often left with relatives as they were forced to move in search of work. Moreover, the sociological evidence is quite clear that poverty is bad for families. Poor people have higher rates of marital breakup, and much higher rates of child abuse.
Even at the end of Coal Miner’s Daughter, when Sissy Spacek sings the triumphant tune, it wasn’t so much wistful as it was triumphant. The goal is to get wealthier, more comfortable and happy, not to try and find happiness by going the other way.