On a Bloomberg site, there is a good article entitled “When Bread Bag’s Weren’t Funny“. Despite the fact that we definitely have a sizable number of people living below the poverty line in the United States, whose basic needs are often unmet, the article suggests that modern day America no longer knows true poverty as it once did:
In 1901, the average “urban wage earner” spent about 46 percent of their household budget on food and another 15 percent on apparel — that’s 61 percent of their annual income just to feed and clothe the family. That does not include shelter, or fuel to heat your home and cook your food. By 1987, that same household spent less than 20 percent on food and a little over 5 percent of their budget on apparel. Since then, these numbers have fallen even further: Today, families with incomes of less than $5,000 a year still spend only 16 percent of the family budget on food and 3.5 percent on apparel. And that’s not because we’re eating less and wearing fewer clothes; in fact, it’s the reverse.
The anecdotes in the article are interesting, and reminded me of a few stories that I heard from my grandmother, who lived through the Great Depression as a young girl in Tennessee.
One time, her mother scrimped enough money to afford to buy my grandmother a pair of new stockings for Easter. But my grandmother lost the money on the way to the store ($.05, I think), and alas, she went without a precious pair of new stockings that year; there wasn’t another nickel in the house to pay for them.
Shortly before she died, while we were caring for her at home, I offered to make my grandmother an egg salad sandwich for lunch, and — delightful, sweet woman that she was — she appreciatively accepted the sandwich. After she ate it, she wistfully told me that the sandwich was good, and she was sorry it had been over fifty years since she ate one.
I asked her why she hadn’t had an egg salad sandwich for so long, and she told me that she had grown to “hate them” as a girl. I don’t think I’d ever heard her use the word “hate” before, especially when it came to food; she was always so genteel, and never picky. She explained that during the Depression one of her uncles — a bachelor — was a traveling salesman who had a customer — an egg farmer — who would pay for purchases with eggs, which the uncle would bring to my grandmother’s family. There was a lot of barter and trading what you had in those days.
The eggs her uncle brought the family were a large part of their diet for a number of years, and egg salad was a daily staple at lunchtime. She was grateful that they had healthy food, but honest that even good things become tiresome after a while. She said that it was fairly common for the pantry to be bare, and that her mother would not know how or what she would feed her children for their next meal, since there was no food or money in the house.
But my grandmother also said that “God always provided, and we never went hungry or actually missed a meal. She [my great-grandmother] always came up with something. We knew a lot of families who weren’t as fortunate as us.”
My grandmother vowed that after the Depression (and war that followed) she’d never eat another egg salad sandwich for the rest of her life. But — loving woman that she was — she made an exception for me before she died, even though (had I known) I’d have made her anything she wanted.