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Overheard in the toy-strewn playroom of a rambling three-story house in the suburbs of Cleveland:
Victoria, 11: "We're poor."
Madeline, 8: "Yeah, we're richless."
Richless. Out of the mouth of babes, a word that captures precisely where so many of us truly are as we take stock of our situations in these distressing — but not yet Depressing — economic times.
We are richless. Some of the riches we had are gone.
We are not poor. We are not really likely to become poor.
It's a crucial distinction to make in an America that has such a lousy sense of its own history.
Let's take Victoria and Madeline's family, for instance. I know them well; they happen to be mine, too.
In the Great Depression — long before the girls' parents or grandparents were born, but well within the memory of their 88-year-old great-grandmother — our family had very little money and very little else.
They did not own a home. They often moved because they couldn't make rent. They carried their few possessions with them, took good care of them and eventually handed them down.
They ate tomato sandwiches and — since the patriarch worked as a meat cutter — they also ate lard sandwiches.
The lesson learned from that experience was simple: Be thrifty. Be driven by need, not greed. And by making the most of their resources over the years, the family managed to get ahead.
"I complain today because a loaf of bread is $2," my father said to me, more than once. "But I have the $2. When a loaf of bread was a nickel, I didn't have the nickel."
Yet many of us who grew up able to afford that loaf of bread all along wound up with eyes too big for our stomachs.
We joked about buying things "to stimulate the economy." When we felt discontented, we found ourselves engaging in "retail therapy."
We had plenty of encouragement to keep up with the Joneses. All we had to do was turn on a TV to see what we didn't have and to tune out all the things we did have.
In the end, we acquired more than we needed. More even than we WANTED.
And we have wound up doing what Franklin Roosevelt warned us against: We're fearing the fear itself.
Now here's the good news: HAVING all that stuff gives us a head start if we do keep sliding toward a "Capital D" Depression.
We have more clothes than we could ever wear — if we focus on need and not greed.
We have food on the shelves that will keep for weeks and months and years — if we focus on need and not greed.
We can work together to find a million ways to share all of these hidden resources with friends and neighbors and even strangers — if we focus on need and not greed.
So ask yourself if you have the money for the loaf of bread.
If the answer is yes — even if things look pretty grim at the moment — please consider the possibility that you're not down and out yet.
You're merely richless.
Todd Holzman is supervising senior editor for NPR Digital News.