Recession habits may take root and change the culture

Last week Allen County Community College announced a sharp increase in enrollment, including its satellite campuses and its Internet student count.
About the same time the nation’s retail merchants said back to school business was lousy and worried that they may have the worst fall in a decade.
The two stories are connected. Community colleges here and everywhere attract more students because they cost less than four-year universities; because students often can live at home rather than in a costly dorm, fraternity or sorority; because workers laid off from moribund industries are going back to school to learn a wanted skill.
Recessions, in short, are good for two-year colleges.
Recessions are not good for retail merchants. Parents are hanging on to their dollars rather than splurging on clothes and other back-to-school purchases. That doesn’t mean that Johnny and Janie will go to school barefoot in bib overalls and flour sack dresses. They’ll look sporty in outfits bought at discount stores, but maybe they’ll have fewer dresses and jeans hanging in their closets.
It’s easy enough to explain what’s going on today, the bell-ringer question is how long this new set of values will last. America’s families went from a negative personal savings rate just a couple of years ago — meaning we spent more than our annual incomes on average by running up credit card debt, taking out loans on our homes and using up savings — to saving almost 6 percent of our incomes today.
That’s huge.
When the economy completes its turnaround, will these newfound habits stick or will we take a deep breath, hollar happy days are here again, and go back to irresponsibility?
Guessing what’s going to happen is day-dreamy work. But just to fill this idle moment imagine that we’re entering a social and economic sea change.
Imagine that ACCC will continue to grow because more and more students and their families choose to spend less for the first two years of their post-high school education. The money they save will mean they will not have to borrow as much to complete their degrees and can start their working lives with a more manageable debt.
It is even easier to imagine that the prudence taught to U.S. families by this brutal recession not only will keep discretionary spending down and savings up but that the change will last and last.
A very large number of Americans have learned over this past three years that their retirement was not secure and that it was up to them to prepare. At least some have learned that the price of a house doesn’t always go up and that it’s wise to buy a house to live in rather than sell. And if that lesson has been taught, the housing market won’t hit another go-go streak for decades.
Maybe this is just a Friday fantasy. But times and attitudes do change and it is altogether possible that America and the rest of the wealthy West are moving out of this awful mess we made of our econ-omies into an era with simpler, saner values. An era future historians could label mature.
Well, a guy can day dream, can’t he?

— Emerson Lynn, jr.