Thursday, July 10

Why a Recession Might be the Best Thing for America

By Jane at What About Mom

After my husband got an MFA at Columbia, we moved from New York City to Cairo. We went from a scary neighborhood full of drug dealing and held-up bodegas to Ma'adi, a beautiful, green suburb of the world's dustiest city.

Tom taught at the American University. I took a few Arabic classes, but mostly I took care of our daughter and did the usual expat-wife activities: playgroups, church socials, and shopping trips to the bazaars.

One day my friend Suzy and I hired a cab to take us to Garbage City, a very different suburb of Cairo. There the Zabbaleen sort and recycle the city's trash that their school-aged children have collected on their donkey-cart routes.

Besides sorting and recycling, they also live on the garbage. The streets are muddy streams of rotting, stinking trash. The peels and rinds from my kitchen, the broken toys, the shreds of our family's daily life were the backdrop to thousands of Zabbaleen lives.

The United States Agency for International Development surveyed the Zabbaleen to find out which forms of aid would be most effective in helping them escape their bleak surroundings. But they found that the Zabbaleen have surprisingly little desire to leave Garbage City, because that is where their families are.

The Zabbaleen have carved a place for themselves, living where no one else wants to, doing something no one else wants to do. The lives they have carved, surrounded by family and friends, are incomprehensibly fulfilling.

In the United States I feel poor if we can't afford a second car or a vacation this summer. In Cairo I felt richer than Bill Gates because I had 45 dollars to pay a maid each month.

Of course I don't want a recession. I don't want to feel poor. I don't want my best friend from when I was thirteen to be facing a scary, high-risk pregnancy without health insurance.

And of course I wish the Zabbaleen had the opportunities and freedoms that I have enjoyed since birth.

I don't know enough about policy or economics or globalization to propose a way out of this recession mess, or even to enthusiastically support either of the presidential candidates.

I do know that I envy any person who values a life near family and friends over the material comforts that I sometimes think would make all the difference.


David said...

Everybody knows that material abundance doesn't bring happiness, but knowing is not doing. I know lots of details about material goods, but very little about just how to love my neighbors or even my closest family. Jane's observations should be taken seriously.

D T Johnson

Brad said...

It's unfortunate that economic hardship may be required to help us appreciate what we have. I don't wish a recession on any country, but I agree that there may be benefits. In fact, if a recession could engender the need for more personal responsibility, it might be the best thing that could happen to America. Unfortunately, the Great Depression led to a great deal of dependence on the federal government, and while a recession might help us in some ways, I worry that it would catalyze the movement toward government control of our finances (e.g. national health care). Perhaps it's not a recession we should fear but the combination of FDR and Robin Hood.

Memarie Lane said...

I have to point out that while Brad up there sounds EXACTLY like my husband Brad, and I actually had to click on his profile to see if it was, that is not, in fact, my Brad. My Brad will be glad to know he has a twin though.

I wish it would work that way, but living in a very poor neighborhood, I see the opposite. My neighbors work at McDonald's and at car washes, but they have more money than we do because they sign up for every social program they qualify for. As a result they all have brand new cars and wear the latest fashions, and spend everything else on pot and firecrackers. Why not? The government pays for their food, housing, childcare, health care, education, everything!

As long as these programs are still in place, I'm afraid more people falling on bad times will sign up for them and get hooked just as my neighbors have. These programs give no incentive for self-betterment of any kind, rather encourage low-wage jobs and unemployment.

Some might say that's easy for me to say, but you'd be wrong. We've been living on one-income minimum wage for over a year now. It's not easy, but we do it, with absolutely no government assistance, though we certainly qualify.

tarable said...

It seems like living within your means is the hardest concept for people to understand today. Between feelings of entitlement, keeping up with the Joneses, and the ease of obtaining credit - Americans are sinking more and more into debt. I too hope that a slight recession will wake people up to reality, forcing them to tighten their pursestrings, save for a rainier day, and adjust their attitude about the importance of material things.

the mama bird diaries said...

What a great post! To be near friends and family is a great blessing. Well, the friends at least. Oh, ok. The family too.

Sarah said...

In a slightly twisted way, I've become thankful for this recession/economic "blip" we're experiencing. The cost of gas is helping me evaluate how, where, and even with whom I drive. On my trip this summer, the sad, sad exchange rate between the US dollar and the Euro helped me purchase only those things I really wanted or needed. I've found myself spending less and less time shopping and more time doing. And the funny thing is that I'm having more fun. And Jane is completely right. It's all about the people, not the stuff. The stuff will eventually break, add five pounds to your hips, or no longer be in style, but family? Family is never a bad idea. If we learn that lesson from this "blip" it'll be worth it.

Happyhome said...

Great food for thought. We should be focusing on building our relationships, not our bank accounts.

Anonymous said...

While recessions can help the middle class re-prioritize, I hardly think it is something to be thankful for for those who are already on the financial edge. Recessions hurt the poor the most. While most of us have the option to re-prioritize our spending habits, the poor don't have that luxury. Rising prices and a tough job market can push many families into financial ruin, causing them to lose their homes and, for some, their dignity.

No, I'm not thankful for recessions.


The Fegers said...

It seems like we have to hit rock bottom in order to realize what's worth living for. I just learned that addicts have to hit rock bottom before they are ready to find help. (I just got cable and got hooked watching an intervention show.) Maybe we too need to do something similar. Are we addicted to posessions? We should realize that family and friends are what really matter. I guess a recession could help that, but hopefully way before "rock bottom."

Jane @ What About Mom? said...

David -- So true. If only knowing and doing were the same thing, right?

Brad and memarie lane -- I think you guys are basically saying the same thing -- That though a time of leanness should be an opportunity for people to figure out how to a) rely on themselves and b) do with less, a lot of people cannot resist the temptation to let someone else (the government) take over. And it is tempting, but I don't think it's a good strategy for happiness, or eventual self-sufficiency.

tarable -- Yes, I had to readjust my expectations of what my standard of living "should" be before I could see that I really need to live within my means.

mamabird -- lol. I hear you, sometimes anyway.

Sarah -- I agree that when we have the ability/opportunity/incentive to be more careful about our purchases, we're happier. I need to watch those hip-pounds!

Happyhome -- yep.

Jeff -- Of course, you're right that the truly poor are hurt most in a recession, and, like I said in my post, I don't really want one. I do, however, want to make sure my priorities are in the right order. Thanks for your comment.

The Fegers -- good analogy with the addicts. Thanks.


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