One definition of recession and depression was a favorite of presidents Harry S. Truman and Ronald Reagan. “A recession is when your neighbor loses his job; a depression is when you lose yours.” Reagan, when on the presidential campaign trail in 1980, added: “And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”
The quotation has been cited in print since at least February 9, 1954, when it was “overheard on the street.” A few days later, Teamsters Union President Dave Beck (1894-1993) used the definition of recession and depression in widely reprinted speeches. Beck certainly popularized the quotation and possibly said it first.
“When you tighten your belt, it’s a recession; when you have no belt, it’s a depression” was cited in the 1930s. A similar phrase—“A correction is when you lose money and a bear market is when I lose money”—has been cited in print since 2005. “Minor surgery is surgery that happens to someone else” is another similarly themed expression.
The Yale Book of Quotations
Edited by Fred R. Shapiro
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press
U.S. labor leader, 1894-1993
“I define a recession as when your neighbor loses his job, but a depression is when you lose your own.”
Quoted in Time, 22 Feb. 1954. Frequently attributed to Harry Truman, but the earliest evidence of Truman’s using it is later than 1954.
9 February 1954, Harlan (Iowa) News-Advertiser, ‘The Lady’s Notebook” by Elsie Graves, section 2, pg. 2, col. 2:
Overheard on the street: a mild recession is when your friend loses a job. A depression is when you lose your own.
Google News Archive
15 February 1954, St. Petersburg (FL) Times, “Union President Says Auto Industry In Bad Shape; He’s Willing To Invest” by Norman Walker, pg. 4, col. 3:
MIAMI BEACH (AP)—Teamsters Union President Dave Beck expressed fear yesterday that the country is headed for serious depression because of growing unemployment and conditions in the auto industry.
As to the difference between a recession and a depression, Beck said “I define a recession as when your neighbor loses his job, but a depression is when you lose your own.”
Monday, Feb. 22, 1954
This week Dave Beck, president of the A.F.L. Teamsters union, declared that “the auto industry is in the worst shape it has been in 30 years.” He said anyone with cash in hand can walk into a new-car salesroom and buy an auto at up to 30% off list price, and many dealers are “near bankruptcy.” The country, said Beck flatly, is headed for a serious depression. Said he: “I define a recession as when your neighbor loses his job, but a depression is when you lose your own.”
14 April 1964, Lebanon (PA) Daily News, pg. 4, cols. 6-7:
Jim Clarke, who has become associated with the First National Bank of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., after several years as vice president of the American National Bank and Trust Co. of Chicago, has some favorite economic definitions.
He credits them to a Stanford Business School professor.
Clarke says they include:
Recession—a time when a friend loses his job.
Depression—a time when you lose your job.
Panic—a time when your wife loses her job.
Google News Archive
12 September 1980, Pittsburgh (PA) Post-Gazette."Reagan, in Erie, sees half-truths,” pg. 7, col. 4:
“You know,” Reagan said, returning to economics, “when your neighbor loses his job, it is a recession. When you lose your job, it is a depression. But when Jimmy Carter loses his job, it will be a recovery.”
The United States From Watergate To Bush V. Gore
By James T. Patterson
New York, NY: Oxford University Press US
Republican audiences especially relished his (Ronald Reagan’s—ed.) favorite line: “A recession is when your neighbor loses his job, and a depression is when you lose your job, and”—here he paused for effect—“recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”
New York City • Banking/Finance/Insurance • Wednesday, January 14, 2009 • Permalink
I love it! It reminds me of the day when people actually knew their neighbors. Ronald Reagan was a smart man. I don’t know what the world has come to but I do know that my neighbors are unknown to me. If they were in a recession I wouldn’t know it.