What is deprivation? Is it best measured objectively? That's the idea behind the "poverty line"—although that yardstick, which dates from 1939 and is based on the cost of a minimal diet, is in desperate need of updating, as a new bill in the House would do. Or does deprivation in our still well-off country have as much or more to do with relative measures as with absolute ones?
The idea that deprivation is relative seems especially relevant for people hurt by the recession. They have less than what they had before. And sometimes they also have less than the friends and neighbors around them. What do people give up when they have to cut back, and how deprived do those sacrifices make them feel?
I've been thinking about this in light of the responses I received to my question about what readers have forgone because of the recession. I heard from about 100 people. Some listed more than one thing they've given up. Their responses break down like this:
|My own place/future home||12|
|Shopping for fun||9|
|Going out to the movies||7|
|Health or car insurance||6|
|Peace of mind/sense of security or freedom||5|
|Having a child||3|
|Hopes for retirement||2|
|Private school for my child||2|
|Time with my family||2|
A lot of people, in other words, are doing without what could be labeled as luxuries: restaurant outings, trips, manicures, getting their hair highlighted, cable TV. That's what you'd expect in a downturn, and if it's not good for the economy collectively, because it means less consumer spending, it makes sense individually. More bleakly, there's also a set of big life-altering sacrifices: deciding not to have a child or buy a house.
You can't really compare the luxuries to the larger things surrendered. Babies, of course, trump cologne. Moving in with your in-laws or not being able to travel to see your child isn't in the same category as giving up a trip to Cancun, however longed for. But the emotional effect of each category, small sacrifice and large, merits its own exploration. Sometimes, small luxuries are the vehicles for larger expressions of identity.
First, the heartbreakers. "I gave up my pregnancy," writes one woman who asked me not to use her name. Her fiance's company was in meltdown and hers was midtakeover. They are both still in school. "When we found out we were going to add another life to this chaos, we couldn't do it," she writes. "An unplanned pregnancy coupled with an uncertain job market, then the fact that we would have to accelerate our marriage plans … and find a home suitable for a family (instead of tiny one-bedroom) was just too much." Women have for decades cited economic concerns as one of the top reasons for having an abortion. But that doesn't make the often difficult decision to have an abortion easy. This reader said she also suffered a second loss: her best friend, who could not understand the choice she was making.
Another reader, who is 28 and lives in South Boston, has lost contact with his 7-year-old son, who lives a few towns away, because of his dwindling income. Along with regular work has gone his "pride and self-confidence [because of] having to beg for change or free food." (He adds, "I am at a temporary work P.C. by the way, in case you are wondering how I can type this on the internet but not eat.") A 61-year-old, Margaret, sent me a long list of sacrifices, including half of her 401(k), "a sense of security," and "the hope of retirement any time in the near future." She explains that her job is tenuous and says that of all the losses she listed, "The fear and loss of any sense of security is the most painful. … For older people the deprivations are especially acute."
Maybe she is right, but I felt equally bad for readers thrown off course at earlier stages of life. A woman in Yuma, Ariz., has moved in with her husband's mother and grandmother. (She is working but her husband is not, and they have a lot of credit card debt.) She expressed her gratitude: "They are the most giving, lovely people." But she says she has given up "privacy, freedom, independence" to the new living arrangement. "I've gone from leading a normal adult life to feeling like a child again in his mother's house."
For parents, the pressure to take a second job means the loss of time—hours no longer spent at home, day after day. One wrote:
Now when I get off work rather than picking up my kids and enjoying an evening of playing with them, I go to work again. I don't miss the cable or eating out or shopping, but working two jobs to make ends meet has caused me to make the biggest sacrifice of my life and one that I never thought I would have to make, my family.
That is brutal. I turned with some relief to the notes from people who are giving up luxuries. These e-mails often started with a bit of self-deprecation and awareness that in the scheme of things, they know they can't complain. "I feel a bit superficial and silly for this one," writes Angela. Then comes the catch. "But for years a personal dream of mine has been upsizing the stone in my wedding ring. I LOVE jewelry, but never really liked the style of ring my husband gave me when he proposed. (Love the man, love the ring??)"
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