My dad worked on his fathers farm outside Rockford until he was in his early 30s, just as countless sons had done for thousands of years before him.
He started out plowing the fields with a team of horses, tilling up the arrowheads of the Ottawa and Pottawatomi that my brother and I still own today. Later came a tractor, but not much in the way of a paycheck. Yet with his food and board covered by the farm, Dad was able to throw nearly every cent he earned into savings because there was no greater virtue in our family than thrift.
Dads family had survived the Great Depression by dint of the fact that they were able to grow their own food. Their one misadventure was when some desperate people stole a pile of newly-harvested beans.
Mom had lived the dirt-poor life on a farm too. By the time I came along, my parents were what would be considered the working poor today. Dad had saved enough to buy a Ford (no car payments, of course) and our family lived in a succession of run-down rental homes.
It wasnt until the Eisenhower administration launched the massive public works project of building the freeways of America that my parents had any hope of buying a home and becoming middle class.
President Eisenhower had witnessed firsthand the inadequate roads of Europe and North Africa during World War II and decreed that the United States needed to build freeways as a matter of national defense. Thus came the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, a freeway network of 46,876 miles which took 35 years to construct. Millions of Americans were employed -- directly and indirectly --- during the 1950s through the ‘70s on what would probably be called a “socialist“ endeavor today. My father was one of those who benefited, serving as a highway inspector on I-696 and later the freeways of Detroit.
This colossal, federal project catapulted my parents into the middle class. At the age of 40, Dad was able to buy their first home, and it was smooth sailing from then on.
But they never forgot the benefits of saving, and I dont believe that Mom and Dad ever bought a car on credit -- they saved until they had enough money to buy their cars outright. They put their money into stocks and bonds, following a pay-as-you-go plan through life. This strategy led them from dirt-poor farmers to a net worth of more than $1 million by the time they passed away.
That is an aspect of the American way that weve somehow lost. We‘ve lost a government that serves its people in their time of need, but also a people who show responsibility by not getting neck deep in debt.
If President Obama has a lick of sense, he will propose a sweeping jobs bill that will put millions back to work, building or renovating our freeways, bridges, subways, train system and parks. He could stand on the shoulders of Republican President Eisenhower and Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt and make a pitch for jobs that America is eager to hear. His own job depends on taking dramatic action now.
Where might these funds come from at a time when America is deep in debt with a reluctance to borrow?
For starters, we could wrap up the wars we‘re fighting (covertly and otherwise) in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Columbia and let someone else play World Policeman while we get our own house in order. A recent report claims that the U.S. spent $698 billion on our military last year -- nearly twice the amount spent in 2001. Those billions could be better spent lifting Americans out of poverty and rescuing the middle class.
But if and when prosperity returns to America, one suspects that the new economy will look rather different than the one we knew. As one pundit has noted, “the new norm“ in the world is that of extremely slow economic growth -- possibly for years to come.
For my parents, economy went back to the traditional sense of the word: saving money, living within their means, deferring gratification. They never considered buying a lavish home or cars that were far beyond their means.
By contrast, since the 1980s, our economy has been dependent on the principle of borrow and spend to the point of exhaustion. Credit cards with 20% interest rates, million dollar homes bought with no money down, the endless cycle of debt that comes with an auto purchase... Weve seen where that approach has taken us.
Downes‘ ebook: Planet Backpacker: The Good Life Bumming Around the World, is available on Amazon Kindle and Apple iBooks, illustrated with 75 photos from around the world.