For Tennessee Valley, Hard Times Didn't Start with Depression

Main Street vs. Wall Street

My grandfather always said the Great Depression was the best thing that ever happened to the South. I'm sure he was just being his usual contrary self, but his point was about the historic difference between Wall Street and Main Street and the attention media and historians pay to one and ignore the other.

Popular wisdom is that the 1920s were boom times. The stock market zoomed ever upward, good times rolled, and then we had a crash in 1929. What is usually ignored, except by the people who lived through it, is that in the rural South people lived through the 1920s in dire straits, amid rampant hunger and extreme poverty.

Farm prices collapsed after World War I. The introduction of tractors and fertilizers in other parts of the country resulted in over production of commodities. There was also a crippling drought for two to three years in the South. Poor farmland was gorged by erosion and farm bankruptcies were epidemic. It didn't start in the 1930s; it didn't start with the Great Depression. It's just that the Great Depression brought the rest of the country the same problems that plagued the Tennessee Valley long before the stock market crashed.

The Great Depression brought the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Works Progress Administration, and the Civilian Conservation Corps. For the first time in a long time, actual cash made it to rural areas.

It is popular now among conservatives to talk about the failure of President Franklin Roosevelt to end the Depression and the failure of his programs. There is an excellent bestselling book by Amity Shlaes (The Forgotten Man) spelling out the failures and making the case that Roosevelt actually prolonged the Depression because of the inconsistency of his methods. I don't disagree with the premise of the book; it has long been accepted that the Depression didn't end until the mobilization and expenditures of World War II.

But I also know that if my grandfather hadn't been hired to chop down trees to form the lake behind Wheeler Dam and if my mother hadn't gotten 10 cents an hour to work in the school cafeteria under a WPA program, some members of my family might have starved to death. There is a reason why my real name, heretofore known only to my mother and the IRS, is Franklin.

After the Depression and the war, the battered Greatest Generation saw the electrification of the rural Tennessee Valley, the growth of real jobs, and the stabilization of farm prices. Yes, life was hell during the Depression. But for most rural people in Appalachia, it had been hell for a lot longer than the 1930s.

And the 1950s were no picnic either.

My point in all this is that the national news obsession with the stock market and the fate of investment banks is not necessarily the primary preoccupation of Main Street. Out here in the real world, 95 percent of mortgages are being paid each month. There are no closed signs on local banks. In fact, people are buying houses.

That is not to say we are not affected by national events. We still shudder to open 401K statements. And job losses continue to climb. But we are not in a depression. We are not even as bad off as we were in the late '70s and early '80s, when we experienced double-digit unemployment, double-digit inflation, and double-digit interest rates.

The continual contention by Congress, the President, and the national pundits that we have not seen conditions like this since the Great Depression is just wrong. I suggest you go find someone who lived through the Depression and ask them if this feels the same.

Before Congress decides to spend several trillion more dollars to saddle our children with massive debt, maybe we ought to pause and see what happens with the economy. We are not immune to the softening of the world economy and we will suffer more before it gets better. But when the French and the German socialists are telling us they won't join us in creating trillions of dollars in debt because it is irresponsible, it ought to give us pause.

Wall Street ain't Main Street.