By Gerard P. Cuddy
Economics writer Daniel Gross argued in the New York Times last fall that a Great Recovery awaits the return of the "greatest economic force known to mankind - the American consumer." Gross called for Americans to return to buying Viking stoves, jewelry, and Priuses on credit, arguing that a "renewed willingness and confidence to spend money we don't have is vital to the continuing recovery."
I beg to differ. After the consumer binge that led to the Great Recession, American families are trying to put their financial houses in order. And, unlike the big banks, they can't depend on government bailouts. So they are recovering by paying down their debts, cutting back on spending, and saving more.
The Great Recession may be officially over, but the pressure on millions of household budgets is still quite real. Most Americans will not be rushing out to spend $5,000 they don't have on a Viking stove.
Indeed, the old consumerism may have finally run its course. A new thrift ethic, emphasizing sustainability and long-term growth, could take its place. Excess and short-term gratification are out of fashion - maybe for good.
Signs of this new thrift ethic dot Philadelphia's streets. On Walnut Street, Consumer Credit Counseling Services of the Delaware Valley has its walls decorated with local schoolchildren's crayon drawings on the theme of savings. In Kensington, community gardens grow where old mattresses and retro floral-pattern couches once moldered. On Frankford Avenue, artists open galleries in abandoned storefronts. Where contractors dig and drill, they tout green credentials and rooftop gardens.
If these signs do indeed herald a lasting displacement of rampant consumerism, it would not be the first time Americans have embraced thrift. As David Blankenhorn notes in Thrift: A Cyclopedia, progressive reformers of the early 20th century launched a movement for thrift, which they defined broadly as a wiser use of resources. With a coalition of hundreds of organizations - including the YMCA, the American Library Association, the Chamber of Commerce, the Boy Scouts of America, and the National Education Association - they spread the message and encouraged a host of thrifty activities, ranging from saving money to gardening to reusing household goods.
The progressives saw connections among saving, giving, cooperating, conserving, and thriving - all under the banner of thrift. This thrift ethic inspired social reformers and philanthropists to start savings banks, credit unions, building-and-loan associations, public libraries, gardens, national parks, and thrift shops. For decades and in thousands of communities, these organizations and others held annual National Thrift Week celebrations.
Much of what these reformers stood for is as vital and valuable today as it was a century ago. This year, Beneficial Bank is proud to be part of bringing back Thrift Week, which started on Monday (Benjamin Franklin's birthday) and continues through Sunday.
The local community development organization People for People is hosting the first Philadelphia Thrift Leaders' Roundtable, bringing together bankers, community organizers, urban farmers, and an array of others to discuss how Philadelphia can promote thrift. Students at William Penn Charter School are holding an assembly on thrift and social justice, and they are joining students from People for People Charter School in a service project.
For the first time since 1966, a city is celebrating Thrift Week. And what city is better suited to lead the way than the hometown of noted thrift enthusiast Benjamin Franklin?
In America today, there's an almost palpable longing for solidarity and sustainability. It's evident in the thrift-store clothing transformed into fashion statements by young hipsters, in the morning cup of coffee from a fair-trade farmer in Rwanda, and in the hand-knit scarves sold by struggling artists and idealistic grad students on Etsy (which has a blog on "craftivism" featuring ways to use crafts for charitable ends).
Americans want to use their resources more wisely, be generous, and create closer communities and a more sustainable planet. In short, they want to be thrifty. As we climb out of the Great Recession, I can't think of a better American value to rally around.