High unemployment, rising inequity between the rick and the poor, losing hope in the future, a growing anti-immigration sentiment and an increase in tension between the races might accurately describe America today, but it also describes America during a great economic downturn in the late 1890s.
This is not our ‘first’ great recession. There are striking similarities with what America is going through today and past recessions and the Great Depression. All of these economic downturns manifest change across the political and cultural landscape of America. These moments in our history also have a significant impact on individual workers and families.
What happened during the economic panic of 1893 bears resemblance to what we see happening in America today. The last part of the 19th Century was a period of technological advancements, regional markets had new competition from national and even global markets and unemployment rose above 16%, compared to 7.9% today.
In large numbers immigrants came to America to work in new factories and the skilled worker’s position in the job market was no longer as secure. By 1896, the richest 1% of the population had more than half the nation’s wealth and the 44% of the lowest income Americans had only 1.2%. Americans were earning less than in the previous decade.
Blue-collar workers were less likely than white-collar works to find jobs. Political discourse turned ugly and seemed less inclusive. In 1894, an anti-immigrant organization, the American Protective Association saw its membership grow to 2.5 million – that was 1 out of every 14 adults. And race relations changed for the worse.
In politics, the Populist movement was born and the movement promoted a moral superiority and a sense of resentment. Socially and culturally, tolerance, in general, declined.
Looking back on the terse political discourse during the Presidential Election of 2012, we can see many similarities between America now and America then. On many levels there is hysteria in America today. The economy, same-sex marriage, abortion and race relations invite hatred as part of every debate.
In the book, “Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It” Don Peck writes, “Father Charles Coughlin, known as The Radio Priest, regularly spoke to some 30 million or 40 million Americans – the largest radio audience in the world at the time – about the depravity of Communism, international financiers and Jews. Coughlin praised Adolf Hitler and other Fascists, seeing in them a strength and moral purity absent from capitalist democrats.” It is sad to acknowledge that there are popular radio hosts today that spew similar hate.
The Great Depression of the 1930s was also defined by many of the same political and cultural changes of the late 1890s. High school and college grads could not find jobs and there was a growing sense that higher education was not as important as it once was and in no way guaranteed employment, which is a sentiment we have heard expressed in recent years.
The 1970s were defined by more than the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War. It was the two big recessions that defined that era. The recession of 1973 and the recession of 1978 were both the result of dramatic increases in the price of oil and during this time incomes did not increase proportionately. In the early 1970s, the United States was importing more than it was exporting and American workers were experiencing new competition from international markets. And that’s what we are dealing with today in America.
The 1970s were the only time in modern history that America experienced the phenomenon of ‘stagflation’. Stagflation was a time when there was high inflation during a recession. During this period, once again, anti-immigrant groups became more popular and even anti-government militias grew in membership.
Opportunity and necessity, not just the feminist movement, led to women entering the work place in massive numbers. As our economy began to shift away from manufacturing, physical strength was not the requisite it once was for employment and that was the opportunity for women to compete equally for jobs. But that also changed family dynamics. Both parents were working and the divorce rate skyrocketed because women now had the personal income to live without the support of their husbands.
It is true that we do not always learn from the past, however, in looking at our past as a nation we can clearly see that many factors lead to economic downturns. The political and cultural changes we are experiencing in America today are very similar to what we have endured in our past. Hate inspired by fear and insecurity, income disparity, anti-immigrant sentiment, less tolerance for others and tension between the races all characterized our past and define our nation again during the current economic downturn.
During the presidential campaign, the Republican Party fed off of these frustrations and that proved to be a major miscalculation. Perhaps it is a degree of acceptance of this current economic climate in which we live that has led many Americans to refuse to buy into the hate, paranoia and hysteria that form the opinions of others. And it is certainly a younger generation that is defying the opinions of the Establishment on issues ranging from who should lead our country to same-sex marriage.
If we haven’t actually learned from the past we should take comfort in the reality that, as a nation, we have been down this road before and we have not only survived, but we have recovered. It is an over-used cliché, but it bears repeating – “divided we fall, united we stand.”
Rather than advance the hateful political debates we have had over the past few years, we owe it to our Founding Fathers to find ways to embrace, compromise and work together to once again establish the United States of America.