January 30, 2015

NO ONE HAS IT HARDER THAN THEIR FATHER DID:

When Bread Bags Weren't Funny (Megan McArdle, 1/29/15, Bloomberg View)

Or take the matter of food. There is nothing so romanticized as old-fashioned cookery, lovingly hand-prepared with fresh, 100 percent organic ingredients. If you were a reader of the Little House books, or any number of other series about 19th-century children, then you probably remember the descriptions of luscious meals. When you reread these books, you realize that they were so lovingly described because they were so vanishingly rare. Most of the time, people were eating the same spare food three meals a day: beans, bread or some sort of grain porridge, and a little bit of meat for flavor, heavily preserved in salt. This doesn't sound romantic and old-fashioned; it sounds tedious and unappetizing. But it was all they could afford, and much of the time, there wasn't quite enough of that.

These were not the nation's dispossessed; they were the folks who had capital for seed and farm equipment. There were lots of people in America much poorer than the Ingalls were. Your average middle-class person was, by the standards of today, dead broke and living in abject misery. And don't tell me that things used to be cheaper back then, because I'm not talking about their cash income or how much money they had stuffed under the mattress. I'm talking about how much they could consume. And the answer is "a lot less of everything": food, clothes, entertainment. That's even before we talk about the things that hadn't yet been invented, such as antibiotics and central heating.

In 1901, the average "urban wage earner" spent about 46 percent of their household budget on food and another 15 percent on apparel -- that's 61 percent of their annual income just to feed and clothe the family. That does not include shelter, or fuel to heat your home and cook your food. By 1987, that same household spent less than 20 percent on food and a little over 5 percent of their budget on apparel. Since then, these numbers have fallen even further: Today, families with incomes of less than $5,000 a year still spend only 16 percent of the family budget on food and 3.5 percent on apparel. And that's not because we're eating less and wearing fewer clothes; in fact, it's the reverse.

The average working-class family of 1901 had a few changes of clothes and a diet heavy on beans and grain, light on meat and fresh produce -- which simply wasn't available for much of the year, even if they'd had the money to afford it. Even growing up in the 1950s, in a comfortably middle-class home, my mother's wardrobe consisted of a week's worth of school clothes, a church dress and a couple of play outfits. Her counterparts today can barely fit all their clothes in their closets, even though today's houses are much bigger than they used to be; putting a family of five in a 900-square-foot house with a single bathroom was an aspirational goal for the generation that settled Levittown, but in an era when new homes average more than 2,500 square feet, it sounds like poverty.



Posted by at January 30, 2015 4:22 PM
  

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