The joy of poverty


Katie Couric and others at CBS are doing a series called "Children of the Recession," which tells the individual stories of children and teenagers enduring financial hardship.

In one article, "Doc: Children Feel Weight of Recession," Dr. Alvin Poussaint from the Harvard Medical School, says that children are experiencing the trickle down of their parents' tension as jobs become scarce and money scarcer. When asked if the impact of the recession is similar to the Great Depression, Poussaint, says no, because the kids back then were used to doing without, whereas "I think today's children have been used to much more affluence." What doesn't make sense is that if the Depression didn't affect kids as much because they were used to having little anyway, then how could today's children, being used to abundance, not reel when facing the deprivations of recession? Rather than feeling cushioned by their abundance, it seems like affluent children would have the shock of their lives to discover that, in order to keep the house, mom and dad have to sell the Lexus.

This last week my family had the chance to visit three families with huge, gorgeous homes, much like the one we moved out of last August when my husband lost his job. It was telling to hear the kids' comments on the flip side of abundance. Before, their friends were the open-mouthed ones amazed at the size of our home. Now, nine months and a cracker box of a house later, we are the gaping ones, staring at glossy hardwood floors and vaulted ceilings, Pottery Barn decor and stainless-steel appliances. It's a hard pill to swallow, especially for children who could only vaguely remember the poverty of their childhood, when milk for their cereal signaled A Very Special Occasion.

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To move from coupon clipping to abundance and back to coupon clipping is hard and humbling, but valuable. My husband and I used to cringe when our children headed out the door to the new mall across the street to hang with their friends and snarf Haagen-Dazs, frappaccinos, and personal pan pizzas. They worked hard and earned their own money, but still, it felt decadent for our sons to own every iToy available and for our oldest daughter to have, what was at one count, 58 T-shirts.

Above and beyond the meeting of basic needs (food, water, shelter), there seems to be an inverse relationship between money and happiness. My siblings and I grew up next to a wealthy family whose Mount Everest of Christmas presents never seemed to make them any happier than our homemade snow forts made us. With every desire met, the children grew up unwilling and unmotivated to exert any effort to earn side cash, which meant that, while we in our chronically hungry state took every babysitting, mowing, or cleaning job we could find, they sat passively, waiting to be served and handed one toy, dress, or bicycle after the other. Because it resulted from the work of our hands, the small Domino's pizza we five kids bought (and, with the precision of a neurosurgeon, split) with our pooled earnings, brought us more joy than the glut of hot dogs, nacho cheese-covered chips, and Pepperidge Farm cookies our neighbors ate on a regular basis.

Our children are rediscovering those kinds of joys. After all, food tastes better when you are hungry. Treats are more special when they are, in fact, treats. Clothes and toys are better taken care of when the possibility of replacement is nil. Without the numbing cushion of excess, activities formerly considered dull (the playground across the street or the zoo) now feel like Disneyland. And, as anyone who has ever found the perfect pair of J. Crew jeans knows, you haven't really lived until you've raided your local thrift store.

Perhaps, in the face of deprivation, and with the verve that inevitably rises from want, Couric's "Recession Generation," rather than sulking because mom and dad can't afford to fix the Wii, will rise to the occasion and become the "Resourceful Generation."

Amy Henry
Amy Henry

Amy is a married mother of six and a WORLD correspondent from Kansas. Follow her other "scribbles" at Whole Mama or by reading her book Story Mama: What Children's Stories Teach Us About Life, Love and Mothering. Follow Amy on Twitter @wholemama.


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