Has thrift become a forgotten virtue since the depression began? One school of economists advises us to purchase all we can, because that will stimulate business. When the number of purchasers falls, goods will be manufactured in smaller volume, fewer workers will be needed, and the period of unemployment will be extended. A depression, they argue, is not the time to hoard. Every dollar should be put to work, and a dollar cannot work when it is kept under a loose brick in the hearth.
No doubt there is a sense in which this advice is excellent. One of the best ways the rich have of helping the poor, Pius XI tells us in the Encyclical On the Reconstruction of the Social Order, is to invest in enterprises which will give the poor profitable work. Those who are not rich can help in their degree by making purchases as they are needed. But this advice should be tempered; purchases should not be made unless they are needed. In a recent number of This Week Mrs. William Brown Meloney tells of an interview with the late President Coolidge a few months before his death. The President was in a happy mood, but his face became serious as he said fidelity to four maxims had “made New England great.” These maxims were: “Eat it up. Wear it out. Make it do. Do without.”
The tale points a moral. We have all known families who lived very comfortably on $2,400 per year, but felt themselves in real need shortly after the annual stipend rose to $4,800. The trouble was not that the purchasing power of the dollar decreased, but that the family’s supposed needs increased out of all proportion. In their new surroundings, they neither ate it up, wore it out, made it do, or did without. The acquisition of more money did not make them happier. It made them discontented.
A sermon on thrift during this depression may seem a sermon preached out of due time. Yet if thrift is a virtue when the times are prosperous, it can hardly be a vice when we are all poor together. The only danger is that the thrift which is now imposed upon us by lack of means, may make us sour and discontented, just as increasing wealth does in days of plenty. Fifty years ago in thousands of American homes, children were taught to look upon food as a gift of the good God to make them well and strong. Hence it was “wrong” not to eat it all. To put it aside on the plea of “I don’t like it,” or “I want something else,” was not tolerated. Similarly little girls were taught to darn their stockings, not to throw them away when worn, and many a little boy went to school in neatly patched clothes. All this was a valuable training in making it do, or doing without.
Certainly there is plenty of poverty today, the result of causes which offend God, causes which cannot be attributed to the poor themselves. But we also fear that there is a poverty which is not real poverty, but only the poverty of people who once had two cars but must now put up with one.
“Keeping up with the Joneses,” is an unhappy social philosophy which was not swept away by the depression. Too few of us are willing to pray the prayer of the Wise Man who asked neither destitution nor riches, but just enough to live on. What we want is enough to live on in ease and comfort.
“A certain amount of comfort,” translates Prior McNabb, O.P. from St. Thomas’ De Regimine Principum, i, 15, “is necessary for the practice of virtue.” When the head swims from weariness, and the stomach is empty, and the rent unpaid, it is extremely difficult to regard the world with sentiments of overflowing kindliness. It is the duty of every man to do all he can to abate this excessive poverty (and still more destitution) and it is the duty of the state to supplement these private efforts with all the power at its command. At the same time, it is the duty of the individual bread-winner to practice thrift as well as patience.
We like to think that the great Saint whose feast we celebrate today was a thrifty man. The home at Nazareth was not a rich home, but we are sure that by foresight and thrift Saint Joseph always managed to provide enough for his holy Spouse and her Divine Son. May he help us all in these hard days to procure enough for those whom we love, and whatever befalls us, to live always in the spirit of Jesus and Mary.