Recession sensitivity

Money Bike

You probably know someone hit by recession. Recession sensitivity helps avoid making others uncomfortable.

The old days are gone and there’s more than a few analysts who don’t see the high life ever returning. They say that the peak of cheap oil production in 2006 means economic growth is over. Instead, we can expect a continual contraction of the economy that will ultimately affect us all.

Whether its fate, or karma or just chance, we’re the people alive today and we’re the one’s who have to deal with it.

For many in North America, contraction has already hit, and with a whammy. Officially we have a 9.1% unemployment rate. Unofficially, many believe it’s double that. Chances are you know someone who’s lost a job, on unemployment, working jobs far below their skill level and expected pay rate, or facing foreclosure. You may know couples where this has happened to both folks.

You may be that person.

Or you might be one of the lucky ones whose biggest gripe is that food prices are up, gas prices are volatile, and everything costs more —air travel, consumer goods, dinners out. But otherwise life is pretty much unchanged.

If so, then this column is for you.

The duty of the privileged

If you’ve escaped the impact of the recession, congratulations. If you’re enjoying life as it was before 2008 (except perhaps worrying that it will happen to you, too), there’s a special onus on you to develop awareness that not everyone has it so good.

In other words, if you continue to behave like nothing’s changed, your innocent actions might be putting others in a very uncomfortable position.

Contexts for a faux pas

Take school activities as an example.

Schools, whether public or private, are a hub where a great many families come together in community. Though many public schools reflect a seeming homogeneity in the demographics, there’s almost always families within that community who have less. This is even more pronounced in a nation with an unofficial 20% unemployment rate.

Private schools may seem like the rarefied realm of the privileged, but most have vigorous financial aid offerings, and you can bet that some kids in the school are on some form of scholarship, especially now.

This means that the glory days of the mid-90s, and the high life of the early aughts, are not today’s climate. Translation: Well-intentioned pleas for more money for school activities, teacher gifts, celebratory get-togethers, youth outings, friends’ birthday presents and other extras may be adding severe extra stress to folks already stretched the most.

It’s just $5 bucks!

Those who are unaffected by recession tend to see asking for “just $5 bucks” as, well…just $5 bucks. Who can’t afford that?

But what most people asking for money for a well-intentioned cause forget is that the same person may be being asked for “just $5 bucks” for ten other well-intentioned causes, too.

Your target “giver” may be counting every penny just to get through the month’s budget.

Paying a mortgage or rent, food, car payment, car insurance, car fees, gas, credit card debts, tithes to church, regular kids’ expenses, medical insurance,  deductibles, or up-front medical costs and medicine and so on using only one’s savings or an unemployment check is, well, tough.

The pride of the unemployed

Further, people naturally want to keep up appearances.

They want to give the $5 bucks because to not do so forces them to either a) confide their troubles to you, which few people want to do or b) confront you over a values issue like whether teachers need to be rewarded with a monetary collection among the community? Someone already struggling doesn’t want either of these options. They’ll starve before confronting anyone over it.

Now wait, let me duck, because I feel the rage building and I don’t like getting hit with books.

This is not about who deserves what

I love teachers!

Yes, teachers are overworked and underpaid. Many of them, in fact, have lost jobs, or are under attack by a GOP establishment that wants us to believe that everything delivered by public funds can be delivered better by the profit motive. Teaching is usually a rewarding job, but it can be a thankless one at times, with pressures from all sides.

But this is not a column about the worth, merit, or deserving nature of our teachers.

It’s about how, when America was flying high during the last 10-15 years, pulling out just another “$5 bucks” wasn’t a big deal for a great many families. For a great many families (but certainly not all), being asked on behalf of our multiple kids for multiple gifts for the coach, theater director, chorus leader, homeroom teacher, librarian,  janitorial staff, college intern, principal, club mentor, youth group leader, scout leader, intramurals monitor, and the fill-in-the-blank youth helper, or the $5-20 bucks for the pat-on-the-back congratulatory night out, was doable.

Now, not so much.

The times they are a-changing

The issue here isn’t recognition. It’s money as the form of recognition. Because some of the people you’re asking for cash are now on food stamps.

The ranks on food stamps has swelled to 45.8 million Americans. Nearly 15% of Americans are now on food stamps. And food stamps don’t stretch very far. That means that people need their $5 bucks, or more like $200-$300 extra bucks to get through the month, even if they’re eating very simply.

Folks you know may be privately struggling to stay in their house, still driving their car in pursuit of work, looking nice in clothes they already had and yet privately are nearly penniless and on food stamps, trying to get by month-to-month.

The $5 bucks hurts. The $20 dinner out, hurts. But folks feel pressured to contribute lest they are found out for struggling. They want to be seen as part of the old world that some are still enjoying.

Even folks not on food stamps may be underwater with their house, losing money in business, facing investments that went south with Wall Street’s shenanigans, and have little access to the credit they once had. They simply don’t want to be asked to dig in and give more CASH right now.

Recession sensitivity

So if you’re the enthusiastic mom who wants to organize ways to recognize others, begin with truly recognizing what’s happening in the world. Develop and operate from recession sensitivity. And then make different choices. Some options are:

  • Pay for the gift of gift certificate yourself, asking no one for help, but get everyone to sign the card. Stay mum about your contribution. Let it be between you and your God.
  • Seek alternative forms of recognition. Have kids make a giant card or mural.
  • Plan a dinner for the teacher and his or her family that you and some cohorts make at home and deliver to the house.
  • Teach the kids a song and have them sing it to the teacher and then deliver a plate of baked goods.
  • If you’re crafty, make something, like a classroom or coach’s den message board. Or whatever you do best.
  • Invite them to dinner at your place.

Almost nobody does something as a volunteer because they think someone is going to give them a present for it, whether monetary or not. Teachers and youth leaders repeatedly say they got into the work not for love of money, but for love of doing something they care about. So any recognition, monetary or not, is equally meaningful to the recipient. Being heartfelt is all it takes.

Vigorous adjustment to the new normal

Somehow we all need to find a way to adjust to the new normal. That means not only being aware that a fifth of our population —and not just the folks you don’t know who live in places you don’t want to visit —are going through a major down shift.

But also that the abundance and yes, even excess of former times, has to be dialed back to a more modest level. Many no longer take spending money all the time for granted. It means adjustment in our relations with our peers, and with people providing services. Becasue you don’t know who’s going through what, but you can know that about a fifth of the people you know are going through something monetary.

Sensitivity and adjustment doesn’t have to be negative. Your relations simply have to be reimagined.

A little awareness in this process goes a long way. And if you’re among the more privileged during this time, that duty falls especially to you.

–Lindsay Curren, Lindsay’s List

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About Lindsay Curren

Lindsay Curren has no intention of ending up the Scarlett O'Hara of the 21st century, dizzy and confused as neo-Rome burns. Instead, the Staunton, Virginia based writer, designer and high-heeled survivalist writes Lindsay's List, the women's conservation blog and edits Transition Voice, the online magazine on peak oil and the coming life of sweaty labor and, hopefully, nicer manners.

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