April 1, 2009
The New Money Manners
Bling, bling is out.
Perhaps because of articles like this, suggesting a new Great Depression is upon us, or TV shows like this, suggesting we just might avoid that fate, or maybe because we've all got friends, family, or neighbors who are out of work, but Americans have quickly adopted new mores when it comes to public displays of money.
Even those who are well off, in consideration of others who are financially hurting, are toning down any evidence of conspicuous consumption. "I just feel so decadent with all the stuff I've got," says Ethel Knox.
And the values replacing those of consumption are laudable. "I think this economy was a good way to cure my compulsive shopping habit," Maxine Frankel, 59, a high school teacher from Skokie, Ill., said as she longingly stroked a diaphanous black shawl at a shop in the nearby Chicago suburb of Glenview. "It's kind of funny, but I feel much more satisfied with the things money can't buy, like the well-being of my family. I'm just not seeking happiness from material things anymore."
Another trend is appearing among the friends and family of those who are less well off. What's the best way to help your friends? "For all the people who are struggling to pay the bills," writes The New York Times financial columnist Ron Leiber, "there are many in their inner circle who have been agonizing for months over how or whether to write them a check." Loaning a friend money, for example, can put a real strain on a relationship, especially if the giver is worried about not being paid back or feels the receiver isn't using the money well.
Some people are setting up websites so others can anonymously help someone in need. A church, Leiber points out, also works well as a charitable middleman. "Sue Barnet of Wetumpka, Ala., arrived home one day in November to find a $200 check in the mail. The bookstore where she worked had closed, and someone from her church had given the money anonymously to her minister and asked that he forward it."
It's one small way churches can step up during this recession. And they need to, says Bradford Wilcox. With the expanded governement services on offer from the Obama administration, churches will be pushed out of the social service sector. "Charitable spending by churches declined 30% in the wake of the New Deal," Wilcox reports, "and that nearly all of the decrease can be accounted for by increases in public spending in the 1930s." And those services are the best thing churches have to get new folks in the door.