This article has been corrected since it was published in the print magazine.
My father was a child of the Great Depression. Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1921 to Italian immigrant parents, he experienced the economic crisis head-on. He took a job working in an eyeglass factory in the city’s Ironbound section in 1934, at age 13, combining his wages with those of his father, mother, and six siblings to make a single-family income. When I was growing up, he spoke often of his memories of breadlines, tent cities, and government-issued clothing. At Christmas, he would tell my brother and me how his parents, unable to afford new toys, had wrapped the same toy steam shovel, year after year, and placed it for him under the tree. In my extended family, my uncles occupied a pecking order based on who had grown up in the roughest economic circumstances. My Uncle Walter, who went on to earn a master’s degree in chemical engineering and eventually became a senior executive at Colgate-Palmolive, came out on top—not because of his academic or career achievements, but because he grew up with the hardest lot.
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My father’s experiences were broadly shared throughout the country. Although times were perhaps worst in the declining rural areas of the Dust Bowl, every region suffered, and the residents of small towns and big cities alike breathed in the same uncertainty and distress. The Great Depression was a national crisis—and in many ways a nationalizing event. The entire country, it seemed, tuned in to President Roosevelt’s fireside chats.
The current economic crisis is unlikely to result in the same kind of shared experience. To be sure, the economic contraction is causing pain just about everywhere. In October, less than a month after the financial markets began to melt down, Moody’s Economy.com* published an assessment of recent economic activity within 381 U.S. metropolitan areas. Three hundred and two were already in deep recession, and 64 more were at risk. Only 15 areas were still expanding. Notable among them were the oil- and natural-resource-rich regions of Texas and Oklahoma, buoyed by energy prices that have since fallen; and the Greater Washington, D.C., region, where government bailouts, the nationalization of financial companies, and fiscal expansion are creating work for lawyers, lobbyists, political scientists, and government contractors.