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Economically speaking

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This economic downturn could be a good thing if it gives our well-fed, designer-clad children a reality check about what it means to be rich or poor. My own otherwise grounded offspring don't have a clue. Imagine my surprise when I learned that we are "poor" because we have: One wireless controller for the Xbox 360 instead of two (they sell for $50 each); a Volvo with dents that's more than 10 years old; plug-in PCs; and prepay cell phones.

The inadequacy of what my "poor" children have apparently is just the beginning of their sorrows. While sitting in my dented car awaiting further transport to a birthday party 40 minutes away in the far reaches of Chatham County, my high school daughter assaulted me with a laundry list of lack.

She and her siblings don't have a plasma TV or $200 True Religion or Rich & Skinny jeans from the mall. They don't vacation in Canada, Cancun or Europe. They make no annual pilgrimage to Disney World where they stay on property and enjoy the Dining Plan. They don't get a used BlackBerry when a family member trades up to the latest iPhone. Facebook, I was told, has proof that other people have and do these things.

Good for them. News flash: We don't because we cannot afford it. Our net worth is no match for double-income techies or families whose primary wage-earner is a scientist, corporate exec or academic dean. We're not "old money" with family inheritances. No titans of industry or academe in our pedigree. Go back a few generations and our ancestors were slaves who owned nothing. We are second-generation college grads happy still to be employed at plain vanilla professional jobs. We buy what we can pay for with cash when possible.

That this makes us poor is a revelation. When I grew up, being poor meant you routinely went hungry, naked or both, and rarely saw a doctor. In rural Alabama, where I spent a fair amount of my childhood, poverty meant no indoor plumbing, no air-conditioning and no car. Cell phones didn't exist. When we finally got the standard Ma Bell black telephone, it came with a "party line" (think easy eavesdropping). Really being poor also meant absolutely no vacations, no dinners out, no extras and no whining.

Here I thought my husband and I had given our children a pretty nice life with their braces, backyard barbecues, commercial birthday parties, community pool, soccer team trips, dance lessons and a decade of beachfront vacations at Topsail Island. I was naïve.

Yesterday's luxuries have become 21st century entitlements. Consequently, we have a generation of children who are blind to their blessings and who always want more. An economic downturn is a good time for all of us to revisit reality. We cannot have what we cannot pay for. It's a lesson long overdue. Let's hope we don't all have to lose our jobs and watch our modest or McMansion homes go into foreclosure before we learn it.

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