Prolonged economic pessimism has a silver lining

The Baltimore Sun

With the downturn in the economy, Americans' economic prospects appear grim.

Their houses are losing value. The balance in their 401ks are dropping. Prices for food and gas are going up.

Those who observe public behavior say the barrage of bad headlines and personal circumstances are certain, at least for a time, to change the way people view themselves, their lot, even society as a whole. History shows that adversity -- death, destruction or financial strain -- does this to people.

But the new perspectives, they said, are not always negative. Sometimes they improve a person's outlook, make them feel fortunate for what they do have. They can strengthen family bonds. They can also spark changes in behavior that benefit other people or society.

"I believe that it is life's tough and painful experiences that give humans their best perspective into what is truly valuable about existence," said Jo Paoletti, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies for the University of Maryland American Studies Department. "That is as true for personal loss such as death as it is for economic loss."

For example, after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, families began "nesting" together at home. Residents of New Orleans vowed to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, and others donated to the cause. Paoletti said some even had positive recollections of family life during the Great Depression.

Observers say it's not clear what makes people see a silver lining or how bad things have to get before they do.

The latest Gallup poll of consumer mood shows Americans certainly think things are getting worse.

In a survey of more than 1,000 people on three days this month, 11 percent thought the economy was "getting better," down from 20 percent during the first week of January.

In that same survey, 83 percent recently thought the economy was "getting worse," compared with 73 percent who thought so in January.

If opinions are negative enough to produce heartfelt changes in perspective, it's also not clear how long that would last, said Daniel Horowitz, a historian and professor at Smith College in Massachusetts.

The family bonding and ethic of saving that developed during the Great Depression didn't necessarily spill over into the next generation. And the 1970s energy crisis spurred talk of conservation, but that subsided with the drop in gas prices before sport utility vehicles rose in popularity.

With gas at more than $3 a gallon now, people are buying hybrid cars and governments are investing in wind and solar energy, which could prove more lasting, Horowitz said.

"We're in crisis again and people are changing again," he said. "I'm skeptical of whether these changes create some long-term assumption about how we live. The answer probably depends on how long the pain lasts."

The depths of personal sacrifice may also matter, said Jason Loviglio, director of media and communications studies at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

In World War II, citizens were asked to give up metal and rubber. They conserved and worked for a common purpose "larger than personal gain or comfort," he said. Shared sacrifice left the nation feeling patriotic and bonded and, perhaps, focused on simpler pleasures.

Months into the Iraq war, on the other hand, President Bush asked the public to keep shopping to bolster the economy, a goal that seemed to lack the same sense of national unity and accomplishment, Loviglio said.

"Lives feel hurried, frantic and increasingly joyless, even as we pile up possessions," he said. "The appeal of environmentalism, like the appeal of certain 'change' candidates for political office, speaks to a growing sense of exhaustion with the scorched-earth approach that so many of our institutions seem to embrace, from the extractive industries like coal mining to foreign policy nightmares like the war in Iraq."

It's impossible to tell yet how this economic downturn -- with some officials fearing the impact of the term "recession" -- will affect the psyche of the nation. Some consumers say hearing about the troubles of others, from foreclosures to job loss, has been enough to make them think differently.

One recent day while walking around the Gallery downtown, Gretchen Simpson made her first purchase in a long while and turned down a new credit card.

A state government worker who lives in Baltimore, Simpson said she's working to save, or at least to keep from getting deep in debt. And she's been volunteering through church and is pleased to see others joining in.

"I really do appreciate things more," she said. "I'm less likely to complain about my job or about what I don't have."

Jonathan Hawkins, a produce worker in Baltimore, said the downturn also has made him focus on family and community. Lately, there have been more dinners together at home.

He's also a minister at the New Dimensions Ministries in West Baltimore, and under the leadership of Bishop Jacques O. Gardner Sr., has been encouraging people to get to know their neighbors.

"Help them when you can," he said. "Then, when you need it, they'll help you."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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