Could You Survive Another Great Depression?

I just read two very interesting articles on the U.S. economy, written from historical perspectives. They compelled me to share my own historical perspective. And what I want to say is more about our changing culture than our economy.

One of the articles, by Julie Crawshaw of, notes that the “Misery Index”—the combined unemployment and inflation rates—made infamous under President Jimmy Carter, has hit a 28-year high. It’s also 62 percent higher than when President Obama took office.

But that’s nothing compared to Mort Zuckerman’s article in U.S. News & World Report. Zuckerman measures the current situation against the Great Depression. He writes:

The Great Recession has now earned the dubious right of being compared to the Great Depression. In the face of the most stimulative fiscal and monetary policies in our history, we have experienced the loss of over 7 million jobs, wiping out every job gained since the year 2000. From the moment the Obama administration came into office, there have been no net increases in full-time jobs, only in part-time jobs. This is contrary to all previous recessions. Employers are not recalling the workers they laid off…. We now have more idle men and women than at any time since the Great Depression.

Zuckerman is a perceptive writer who looks at economies from a historical perspective. In my comparative politics course at Grove City College, I use his article on the Russian collapse in the 1990s, which Zuckerman showed was worse than our Great Depression.

I can’t say we’re teetering on that precipice, but Zuckerman’s article got me thinking: Imagine if America today experienced an economic catastrophe similar to the 1930s. How would you survive?

I remember asking that question to my grandparents, Joseph and Philomena. How did they survive the Great Depression?

My grandmother, never at a loss for words, direly described how her family avoided starving. Compensation came via barter. Her father, an Italian immigrant, baked bread and cured meats in an oven in the tiny backyard, among other trades he learned in the old country. My grandmother cleaned the house and babysat and bathed the children of a family who owned a grocery store. They paid her with store products. Her family struggled through by creatively employing everyone’s unique skills.

What about my grandfather? When I asked that question as he sat silently, my grandmother raised her loud Italian voice and snapped: “Ah, he didn’t suffer! Don’t even ask him!”

My grandfather, also Italian, returned the shout: “Ah, you shut up! You’re a damned fool!”

Grandma: “No, you’re a damned fool!”

After the typical several minutes of sustained insults, my grandfather explained that, indeed, his family didn’t suffer during the depression. They noticed no difference whatsoever, even as America came apart at the seams.

Why not? Because they were farmers. They got everything from the land, from crops and animals they raised and hunted to fish they caught. They raised every animal possible, from cattle to rabbits. They ate everything from the pig, from head to feet. There were eggs from chickens and cheese and milk from goats and cows. There were wild plants.

I was captivated as my grandfather explained his family’s method of refrigeration: During the winter, they broke ice from the creek and hauled it into the barn, where it was packed in sawdust for use through the summer. They didn’t over-eat. They preserved food, and there was always enough for the family of 12.

When their clothes ripped, they sewed them. When machines broke, they fixed them. They didn’t over-spend. Home repairs weren’t contracted out. Heat came from wood they gathered.

And they didn’t need 1,000 acres of land to do this.

They were totally self-sufficient—and far from alone. Back then, most Americans farmed, knew how to grow things, or provided for themselves to some significant degree.

That conversation with my grandparents came to mind as I read Zuckerman’s piece and considered life under another Great Depression. I realized: The vast majority of Americans today would be incapable of providing for themselves. If you live in the city with no land, you’d be in big trouble. Even most Americans, who have a yard with soil, wouldn’t know what to do.

Isn’t it ironic that with all our scandalously expensive education—far more than our grandparents’ schooling—we’ve learned so little? We can’t fix our car let alone shoot, gut, skin, and butcher a deer.

Think about it: If you lacked income for food, or if prices skyrocketed, or your money was valueless, what would you do for yourself and your family?

Americans today are a lifetime from their grandparents and great grandparents. God help us if we ever face a calamity like the one they faced—and survived.



Paul Kengor


Paul Kengor is Professor of Political Science at Grove City College, executive director of The Center for Vision & Values, and author of many books including The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor and Takedown: From Communists to Progressives, How the Left Has Sabotaged Family and Marriage (2015). His new books are A Pope and a President and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Communism (2017).

  • Gian

    The American survivorism is hard to understand. Do you ever think about Africa or India?

    The richest country in the world, faced with not the decline in its wealth but merely a slowdown in the rate of growth and that throws people
    into panic attacks of starving and hunting squirrels.

    As for Russia, please read Dr Zhivago to learn that even during Civil War with its massive dislocations and disruptions, the people mostly did survive.

    But you need to imagine not eating meat every day.

  • Deacon Ed

    1. buy a piece of land out in the country as a fallback position
    2. convert college programs into more technical schools where the tuition will pay dividends in the event of a collapse: teach farming, animal husbandry, mechanics, wordworking and carpentry, etc.

    But this would be far too lowly for our current pampered generation who will be mighty surprised when in 20 years they are paying off the debt – one way or another!

    • Erik C

      Deacon Ed, I whole heartily agree that my generation is and has been pampered like no generation before, but why do you stamp that on our foreheads like a badge of shame when we were born into such pamprosity and never taught anything else? I wish to God that school for me had consisted of farming, woodworking, mechanics, etc. but you know, by the time I was going to school all the good stuff seems to have disappeared…I only cringe at what has happened to education since then. Your response is like saying, “here son, you have inherited a piece of dung, you should be ashamed of yourself”.
      I have spent the last few years reading up on things like growing/farming food and other such things, but that can never replace being brought up in a culture in which that kind of knowledge is valued.

  • I’ve actually thought about this quite a bit. I’m a Suburbian with little knowledge of how to survive, even though we have a vegetable garden. All it would take would be an extended period of time (a few weeks perhaps) of a loss of electricity and our society would be chaos. Once the stores would be completely bought out of food after a few days, where would our food come from? No gas because the infastructure would not be working, so how would you “escape” from surburbia or the city? No computers etc. once your emergency generator runs out of gas. It really would not take much for our society to dissolve because we really don’t know how to survive. Farmers would be OK, as they were during the depression, but while many will pitch together, our society is not based on values anymore and it will be every man for himself.

    Sometimes I really wish I knew more practical skills or lived out in the country to learn these skills and I have read some books about it, but those skills are not really learned from a book. I fear for our country because the know-how of centuries is practically lost because of modern conveniences.

  • If it takes a Depression and ensuing chaos to bring us on our knees before the Almighty, then let it happen.

    Saint Teresa of Avila said, ” Remember that you have only one soul; that you have only one death to die; that you have only one life, which is short and has to be lived by you alone; and there is only one glory, which is eternal. If you do this, there will be many things about which you care nothing.”

    Live each day for the glory of God and put your trust in Him.

  • Bob G

    An interesting view. You need to mention something else: during the Depression, Americans had something of a real culture. In other words, most of them still had their faiths, which helped them endure. Paul Kennedy in his award-winning book. Freedom From Fear, notes over and over the astonishment of Gummint officials at the mute endurance of the U.S. public under repeated blows. Anything similar happens today (or soon) and we’ll see riots in the streets. I believe something like the Great Depression is coming, in fact is here. We are not coming out of this by any known means. Get ready to hunker down.

    Many writers are saying that demand for food is increasingly exceeding supply. If you can get access to farmland, and know how to work it, you will be in the catbird seat (if marauders don’t steal your crops). I think the key to survival may soon be spiritual resilience. That’s an unconventional thought at the moment, but it soon will become conventional. Good luck to all!

  • Bob G

    To Marcy K: There are still some places in the US where you could, with a little knowledge, survive off the land (if too many new people don’t show up to do the same). I could mention one or two but don’t want to trigger a stampede. The fish are a dime a dozen, berries grow everywhere, and game animals are plentiful. I met two different men who each said they lived in the woods in a lean-to for four years and survived very well. It’s do-able. What a conversation, eh? But it could come to that.

    • If the Amish can do without and live in community with each other, so can we.

      If one cannot afford to purchase an acre or two of sustainable land, then have a “family meeting” of brothers and sisters, etc, and combine resources so as a family, there is a safe haven to call home.

      My husband’s family owns a number of acres in the hills of PR which the family ( a lot of brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles, aunts, etc) “could” retreat to if necessary.

  • Isn’t it interesting that it is the land to which we instinctively flee and not to the things that man has created.

  • Gerry

    What, Rod Dreher wasn’t available to put out this type of nonsense?

    Life was sooooooo much better for the peasants before the Industrial Revolution!

  • Allan B

    Gerry, what’s the problem? It’s an article about how people survived the Great Depression. What’s wrong with that? And nobody said life was better for peasants, they’ve simply made the point that people used to have skills that would enable them to survive on their own, without being dependant on a system that may, at some point, collapse (temporarily, I’m sure, but collapse nonetheless). That’s all that was said here. Is that really so far above your level of comprehension that you feel the need to label it nonsense? The simple reality is that if we enter another such depression, people who can provide their own food and repair their houses/cars/appliances/equipment will be in much better shape than, say, HR experts or strategic consultants. Can you at least grasp that, Gerry, without putting words into people’s mouths (or to put it another way, lying)?