I was struck the other day by the observation that the start of our current recession was sharper than the Great Depression and that the steps taken by governments around the world to provide financial stimulus helped to moderate the decline.

That observation got me thinking about how different the images of this recession are from the images of the Great Depression.

The New York Times had a long article in the Week in Review section this week that captured some of the underlying difference.

A great many people have lost faith in powerful institutions, from Congress to Goldman Sachs. Yet beneath the bitterness coloring national affairs — down at the level of neighborhood, family, coffee shop, tavern — a tenuous belief in the collective good remains, perhaps moderating national dismay.

I don’t think that the Times article intended to demean the level of suffering and pain that individual people a experiencing during this downturn. But they captured something of the zeitgeist that I experience as a I travel around the country. People are carrying on, often with a tremendous amount of energy and a degree of mobility and connectedness that is unmatched by any time in our history.

That perspective made the chart above particularly powerful.

One dramatic difference is the relatively low cost of food in the U.S. compared to other places in the world. The affordability of food is driven by diverse factors, including vast natural resources of our country, federal subsidy programs, efficiencies in distribution and innovations in preservation.

And compared to other countries, there’s no other place on the planet that has cheaper food than the U.S. (2008 data here). The 5.5% of disposable income that Americans spend on food at home is less than half the amount of income spent by Germans (11.4%), the French (13.6%), the Italians (14.4%), and less than one-third the amount of income spent by consumers in South Africa (20.1%), Mexico (24.1%), and Turkey (24.5%), which is about what Americans spent DURING THE GREAT DEPRESSION, and far below what consumers spend in Kenya (45.9%) and Pakistan (45.6%).

When you don’t worry about where your next meal comes from, you can afford to feel optimistic and energetic. The relatively low cost of food in our country is an important element in keeping that positive viewpoint up