The Depression vs the Coronavirus: Reflections From My 90-Year-old Grandparents

Tawnya here.

If you’re a long-time reader of the blog you’ve already met my 90-year-old grandparents, Chuck and Nellie. Both have been kind enough to share their stories and their biggest money lessons from 9 decades of life.

While previous articles featuring them have focused on general money lessons, we haven’t focused too closely on the multitude of major events both of them have lived through. With everything going on in the world right now with the coronavirus pandemic, I thought it was a good time to again call on them for their wisdom and insight.

It’s a scary time right now, especially for those of us too young to have lived through other major events. Even the recession of 2008 pales in comparison to what we’re currently living through.

In fact, the only thing that seems to come close is the Great Depression. The Depression severely impacted a majority of Americans for years, and it’s affects were also felt around the world.

My grandparents grew up in the Depression and experienced firsthand its devastating impact. Both of them come from poor families, and in the case of my grandma, her parents were among the millions of Americans who lost everything when the Depression hit.

My grandparents are part of a select group of individuals who were alive during the Great Depression. I’ve asked them to share their thoughts on how the coronavirus pandemic compares to the Depression, and to offer advice to the younger generations.

Here are their thoughts.

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1. In Your Opinion, How Does the Coronavirus Pandemic Compare to the Depression in Terms of the Disruption to Our Everyday Lives?

The Depression certainly did impact the lives of people back then, but not like the virus is doing. During the Depression, not everyone was impacted. There were a lot of people not affected at all, only those out of work and those that lost all their money, like my (grandma) parents did. There were no jobs then and people struggled to stay afloat. As pictures show, there were long soup lines to feed people. By comparison, everyone is impacted by the virus but there are jobs available for those that want to/can work, and many can work from home. There is unemployment for those that qualify. Businesses closed during the Depression because of the banks closing, but with the virus and the bans imposed by the government, stores and businesses are forced to close, not of their own choice. Plus, with the coronavirus people are being asked to stay at home, which was something we didn’t have during the Depression. So, the virus is having an impact that the Depression didn’t have.

2. In your opinion, how does the coronavirus pandemic compare to the Depression in terms of the financial impact to the average American?

We’re afraid the virus will have a much greater impact on the average person today than the Depression did. That’s a tough one to call, in where it all depends on how long it will last. The Depression lasted many years but hopefully the virus will last just a short period. The stock market has fallen but we think it will bounce back, which it didn’t do in the Depression for a while. My (grandma) parents never did recover the money they lost. More people today put their money into investments and therefore more will be impacted. During the Depression, people didn’t invest like they do today. They are much wiser about what to do than back during the Depression. But again, it all depends on how long this virus hangs around and for the stock market to recover. Right now, a lot of people are seeing their retirement funds disappearing.

One advantage people have today is that they don’t need to have cash on hand to pay for things, they can use a debit or credit card. During the Depression, many people couldn’t get their money because so many people were running on the banks that they ran out of it, and then closed. If you didn’t have cash on hand you couldn’t buy anything, no matter what your account balance was. It was later that laws were passed guaranteeing your money in the bank up to certain amounts. This is why so many lost everything during the Depression. Hopefully with all the things we have today we won’t see as many people losing everything.

3. Which would you say had/is having a greater impact on the average American, the Depression or the coronavirus pandemic?

Well, that all depends on whether you are still working/getting paid or not. Life for people back in the Depression was pretty bleak, not knowing where their next meal was coming from. There was welfare but only if you qualified. For instance, my (grandma) father tried to get welfare but the rule was you couldn’t own a car, which we did. He refused to give it up, feeling he needed it to search for a job. There are jobs available today for those needing income, plus unemployment to keep people afloat. Back then, the government did try different programs, trying to keep people working but they usually were labor intensive work, which my father would have had a difficult time doing. There was the WPA (Works Progress Administration), welfare and others. People today are impacted with all the bans closing everything, but this will only be for a short term, hopefully in terms of months and not years as the Depression was. As soon as this virus wanes, things will open again. Let’s hope the businesses that are having to close will be able to open again. It took my (grandma) parents many years to overcome their losses during the Depression but they were inventive and industrious, and my dad decided to go for a college degree to help himself.

By the way, we didn’t have toilet paper back then. Everyone looked forward to the Sears catalog and it went out to the outhouse to be used.

4. Which Event Has Personally Affected You More, the Depression or the Coronavirus Pandemic?

That’s really difficult to say, being as we were very young during the Depression and now being older, we see things differently. We were too young to realize what was happening and being a child just went with the flow of things. We rather just accepted our way of life the way it was, not knowing what it used to be. Of course, we heard our parents discussing things, but didn’t worry about it. We didn’t question any of the why’s or wherefores’. We got along. We knew our parents would take care of us. But now being older, the pandemic is disrupting our way of life so that we’re not enjoying it. Being in the “at risk” group, our life has become very restrictive. It’s difficult to understand how all the bans, etc., suddenly change your life. You wonder about the people that are hoarding or not being humanitarian and sharing with people who need items. So mentally, the virus is affecting us more. The fear is there in the back of your mind, will I be next?

5. Has There Been an Event You’ve Lived Through Other Than the Depression That Compares to the Coronavirus Pandemic?

There was a period when I (grandma) was in high school when there was a polio outbreak. That was a scary time, as authorities didn’t know what was causing it. They thought it was spreading through swimming pools. I know a lot of the pools were closed. It seemed to hit randomly and was quite devastating, crippling patients. I have a cousin that got it and she has been disabled for life. The people who have died from the coronavirus is devastating, but polio was also a terrible disease. I don’t recall if anyone died during that outbreak. One interesting thing, people who recovered from polio were affected by it again in later life. So, in terms of an illness or disease situation, polio outbreaks are the only thing we’ve lived through that compares to the coronavirus.

6. During the Depression there weren’t enough jobs, now most people cannot go to work. What do you think has to happen to get the economy back up and running after the coronavirus pandemic compared to the Depression?

During the Depression, there were no jobs and a lot of businesses were shut down too. There was no capital to get them up and running again. It took money to do that, and a long time for the economy to recover. In fact, it really didn’t recover until World War II. Today, we still have the capital to keep the economy running, albeit, not like we would like to see. But big corporations and such are still doing ok, it’s the small ones that are closing. We feel we need to lift the bans as soon as we can, and it is safe, to give these small businesses a chance to recover. Then we can get people back to work again. Luckily, many jobs can be done from home now, which will help keep things going during this pandemic. Working from home wasn’t possible, at least not for most, during the Depression.

7. What wisdom or hope can you offer to younger generations who are struggling right now?

Never give up! My (grandma) dad was a good example of that. He was originally a farm boy, learned music, and when the Depression hit, was totally unprepared for it. No money put aside in the event there might be a hard time. However, he used what knowledge he had to earn a way to survive, took a college course that allowed him to use the skills he had to earn a good living. His philosophy was to never quit trying.

Our advice is to take that philosophy to heart. We know most of you have never experienced anything like this before, and it’s scary. You may have lost your job or be having some other difficulty. If that’s the case, try and find another way to earn a living. We’ve heard there are college courses being offered for free online right now, and there are many programs offering assistance. Luckily, there is a lot more help nowadays than when we were growing up during the Depression. Try to use this pandemic as an opportunity, to learn new skills and make some changes. Prepare yourself for those unknown situations that eventually come along, as they always will when you least expect them. You will survive this pandemic if you take care of yourself. We promise, it won’t last forever and we will get through it!