It’s Complicated. But Hopeful.

Rare is the public policy panel where someone does not bring up the fading grandeur of America’s middle class, and when they do, rare is the participant who does not sorrowfully nod and agree that yes, living standards are bad and getting worse, and today’s children are the first generation in our nation’s history that cannot expect to be better off than their parents.  Perhaps a techno-libertarian will pop up to note that we have immensely powerful computers in our pockets, a seemingly infinite wealth of information and entertainment available on demand, and an array of other technological marvels, like self-driving cars, coming down the pike. Then the argument over whether living standards are rising or falling will rage for a few moments. But no one will ask what seems to me to be the most obvious question: what does that even mean?

The generation that fought the Civil War paid an incredible price: one in four soldiers never returned home, and one in thirteen of those who did were missing one or more limbs. Were they better off than their parents’ generation? What about the generation that lived through the Great Depression, many of whom graduated into World War II? Does a new refrigerator and a Chevrolet in the driveway make up for decades and lives lost to the march of history?  Or for the rapid increase in crime and civic disorder that marked the postwar boom? Then again, what about African Americans, who saw massive improvements in both their personal liberty and their personal income?

We should never pooh-pooh economic progress. As P.J. O’Rourke once remarked, I have one word for people who think that we live in a degenerate era fallen from a blessed past full of bounty and ease, and that word is “dentistry.” On the other hand, we should not reduce standard of living to (appropriately inflation adjusted) GDP numbers either.  Living standards are complicated, and the tools we have to measure what is happening to them are almost absurdly crude.  I certainly won’t achieve a satisfying measure in this brief essay. But we can, I think, begin to sketch the major ways in which things are better and worse for this generation. Hopefully we can also zero in on what makes the current era feel so deprived, and our distribution of income so worrisome.

My grandfather worked as a grocery boy until he was 26 years old. He married my grandmother on Thanksgiving because that was the only day he could get off. Their honeymoon consisted of a weekend visiting relatives , during which they shared their nuptial bed with their host’s toddler. They came home to a room in his parents’ house—for which they paid monthly rent. Every time I hear that marriage is collapsing because the economy is so bad, I think of their story.

By the standards of today, my grandparents were living in wrenching poverty. Some of this, of course, involves technologies that didn’t exist—as a young couple in the 1930s my grandparents had less access to health care than the most  neglected homeless person in modern America, simply because most of the treatments we now have had not yet been invented. That is not the whole story, however. Many of the things we now have already existed; my grandparents simply couldn’t afford them.  With some exceptions, such as microwave ovens and computers, most of the modern miracles that transformed 20th century domestic life already existed in some form by 1939. But they were out of the financial reach of most people.

If America today discovered a young couple where the husband had to drop out of high school to help his father clean tons of unsold, rotted produce out of their farm’s silos, and now worked a low-wage, low-skilled job, was living in a single room with no central heating and a single bathroom to share for two families, who had no refrigerator and scrubbed their clothes by hand in a washtub, who had serious conversations in low voices over whether they should replace or mend torn clothes, who had to share a single elderly vehicle or make the eight-mile walk to town  … that family would be the subject of a three-part Pulitzer prizewinning series on Poverty in America.

But in their time and place, my grandparents were a boring bourgeois couple, struggling to make ends meet as everyone did, but never missing a meal or a Sunday at church. They were excited about the indoor plumbing and electricity which had just been installed on his parents’ farm, and they were not too young to marvel at their amazing good fortune in owning an automobile. In some sense they were incredibly deprived, but there are millions of people in America today who are incomparably better off materially, and yet whose lives strike us (and them) as somehow objectively more difficult.

My grandmother will turn 100 next month. Let’s look at some of the major changes her life has seen to living standards, from the obvious to the less tangible:

Automobiles. Let us bypass the boring arguments about to pros and cons of suburbanization, and consider what the automobile meant to farm wives who were trapped long miles from town unless their husband could spare the horses from farm work. What getting all that manure off the streets did to urban air quality. How it changed the lives of families who could now travel thirty miles in any direction in an hour, rather than a day. And how much better cars have gotten since the first Model T rolled off the line: faster, more comfortable, safer, easier to drive.

Diet. We have a tendency to romanticize “the good old days” of fresh foods and home cooked meals. Yet when you look at what the majority of people were actually eating on an average day in 1930, it looks considerably less appealing: fresh vegetables in season, yes, but the rest of the year it was grain, milk, more grain, beans, and cuts of meat, like salt pork and calf’s liver, that most Americans won’t touch today. Bread and milk was an actual meal that many people ate for supper, and not because it was homey and charming, but because most people could not afford the rich diet of the modern American.

In 1901, the average “urban wage earner” spent nearly half their family budget just on the raw ingredients for their meals. They ate less, and less appealingly. Meat, eggs, and fats and oils were precious and expensive, so they economized on them to what now seems a ridiculous degree—old cookbooks praise one-egg cakes not by saying they are good, but on the grounds that they are “economical.” We’ve all read the articles on the obesity epidemic, but in the first half of the twentieth century, similarly worried pundits were obsessing about the high percentage of draftees who showed up too malnourished to qualify for service, with diseases like rickets and pellagra that are now seen only in extreme cases of child neglect.

Food processing. And without the much-reviled modern American food processing industry, the average American housewife spent more than thirty hours a week preparing those meals: plucking birds, grinding coffee, shelling nuts. Her raw materials were also inferior to what is now available: if fresh produce wasn’t in season, or she didn’t feel like cooking, canned goods were her only alternative. Frozen produce didn’t arrive until after World War II, and it wasn’t until late in the twentieth century that trade liberalization and container shipping made a variety of produce and fresh meats widely and cheaply available year round. Today families with less than $5,000 in annual income still only spend about 16% of their budget on food. It’s not surprising that we’re fatter; what’s surprising is that we aren’t all perfect spheres.

Household appliances.  If you do not think that we are living in miraculous times, I suggest you go read these old instructions for doing laundry. But I don’t suggest that you try them, as they involve hydrochloric acid and lye. Laundry is perhaps the worst job that has been automated, in the process changing from backbreaking labor into a slightly tedious chore. But of course we also have clean-burning stoves that don’t require constant tending of a fire, refrigerators that keep our food safe and refreshingly cold, vacuum cleaners that keep our carpets vastly cleaner without hours of beating, mixers that save our aching arms, drip coffee makers that make our favorite beverage better, faster, and with much less work … the list is potentially endless, but the general results are the same: our homes are cleaner, and our food requires a few hours a week to buy and prepare, instead of most of a housewife’s day.

Homes. A 1,000 square foot home in the first Levittown was an aspirational goal for people who had grown up cramming large families into smaller quarters.  Now the average new home is over 2,500 square feet, well insulated, stuffed with bathrooms and closet space, and of course, climate controlled year round.  We are fooled into thinking that our ancestors had huge and lovely homes because most of the homes that survive from earlier eras are the houses built by the prosperous; the ugly, tiny, unventilated spaces that most previous generations grew up in have been long ago torn down and replaced with something else.

Entertainment. This is a good candidate for the greatest transformation of the twentieth century. Ubiquitous entertainment, available 24 hours a day to even the poorest family, would have seemed like a miracle—did seem like a miracle—to previous generations. People living in cities had plays and music, of course, but these were special treats, not something you used to pass the time during your commute, or settled down for every night after the dishes were done. Radio and television meant that the average person had a higher variety of entertainment available to them than J.P. Morgan did in 1895.

Travel.  The idea of a regular weeklong vacation where you go to another city would have amazed most of our ancestors. They didn’t have vacations, and if they had, they wouldn’t have diverted precious money from food and clothes just to stay somewhere else. Of course, even ordinary people did travel occasionally, but these were major events, not an annual ritual. The rise of the airplane, and then the tremendous decline in airfares thanks to deregulation and falling oil prices, have now made travel ubiquitous, rather than a special treat that an ordinary person might enjoy only a few times in their life.

Clothes.  Anyone who lives in an old house has bemoaned the tiny size of the closets, but few of them think about why: people, even affluent people who could afford big, centrally located homes, simply didn’t have a lot of clothes. Global trade networks, and modern materials science, have made clothing absurdly cheap by historical standards, and we have responded by assembling wardrobes of a size that would only have been available to 19th century tycoons.

But what about quality? Well, that’s a complicated question. Because clothes are cheap, and fewer people do heavy manual labor, we don’t choose our clothes for durability—instead, we prize attractiveness and comfort. We’re not willing to wear scratchy wool or stiff new denim that still has a lot of wear in it, but that looks funny and kind of chafes for the first year or so. And we wash our clothes a lot more, wearing them out as we do. That 1900 laundry manual recommends washing every week if you can, but it accepts that some people will only be able to manage every two weeks.  This for clothing that was probably worn daily, or near daily, as most people did not have seven days worth of fresh clothing in their closet.

Liberty. Life is a lot better than it was in 1930 if you’re black. Or gay. Or a woman who wants to work outside the home. Or mentally ill. Or pregnant. Or cohabiting. Or accused of a crime. Many categories of people who previously suffered brutal punishment—legal or social—have had their lives immeasurably improved. Are we a perfectly equal and free society? No. But many groups of people have immensely more freedom and opportunity than they used to.

Pollution. If you’ve ever wondered why women in old novels seem to spend so much time dusting, here’s your answer: burning wood or coal produces fine particulate matter that gets into everything. Including your lungs, where it can kill you. (Millions in developing countries still die of these sorts of diseases every year.) Whether or not you think we should do more for the environment, it’s beyond dispute that our environment today is vastly cleaner and safer than it was a few decades ago.

Computers. I hardly need to tell you how great these are, or how much they have changed our lives, since you are now reading an article in a journal that did not exist a decade ago, on a technology that did not exist when I graduated college.

But wait, many of you are thinking. What about health care and education? You’re just focusing on the things that have gotten cheaper and better. What about the things that have gotten more expensive?

Well, let’s look at health care. In the 1950s, when the president of the United States had a heart attack, he got the absolute state of the art treatment from some of the top doctors in the country: blood thinners, painkillers, and bed rest. Today, he would have had an array of scans and blood tests to diagnose his problem, and then his physicians would have been able to choose from an array of treatments—stents, coronary bypass, balloon angioplasty—to prevent future heart attacks. And thanks to epidemiology, public health campaigns, and an array of smoking cessation aids, he probably wouldn’t have had a four-pack-a-day cigarette habit, either.

1950s health care isn’t expensive; this same regimen would be a bargain at today’s prices. What’s expensive is things that didn’t exist in 1950. You can say that “health care” has gotten more expensive—or you can say that the declining cost of other things has allowed us to pour a lot more resources into exciting new health products that give us both longer and healthier lives.

Which is not to say that everything has gotten better in every way, all the time. There are areas in which things have gotten broadly worse, though some of those seem to be improving lately: 

  • A college degree is increasingly the entry price to a stable career, and perhaps because of that, its cost has soared over the last few decades. Crime spiked up in the middle of the 20th century, and is still well above where it was in the 1930s. Substance abuse, and the police response to it, has devastated both urban and rural communities. 
  • Divorce broke up millions of families, and while the college educated class seems to have found a new equilibrium of stable and happy later marriages, marriage is collapsing among the majority who do not have a college degree, leaving millions of children in unstable family situations where fathers are often absent from the home, and their attention and financial resources are divided between multiple children with multiple women. 
  • Communities are much less cohesive than they used to be, and while the educated elite may have found substitutes online, the rest of the country is “bowling alone” more and more often—which is not merely lonely, but also means they have fewer social supports when they find themselves in trouble.
  • A weekly wage packet may buy more than it did sixty years ago, but the stability of manufacturing jobs is increasingly being replaced by contingent and unreliable shift work that is made doubly and triply difficult by the instability of the families that tend to do these jobs. The inability to plan your life or work in turn makes it hard to form a family, and stressful to keep one together.
  • Mass incarceration rips millions of men out of the workforce and away from already fragile families, destroys their employment prospects, and of course, inflicts considerable misery on the men themselves.
  • Widespread credit has democratized large purchases like furniture and cars. It has also enabled many people, particularly financially marginal people, to get into serious trouble.  Debt magnifies your life experience: when things are going relatively well, it gives you more options, but when things are going badly, it can turn a setback into a catastrophe—as many, many families found out in 2008.

Like I say, it’s complicated.

This list illustrates why public policy seems to be struggling to come up with a plan of attack against our current insecurities. The welfare state is relatively good at giving people money: you collect the taxes, write a check, and now people have money. The welfare state has proven very bad at giving people stable jobs and stable families, a vibrant community life, promising career tracks, or a cure for their drug addiction. No wonder so many hopes now seem to be pinned on early childhood education, far in excess of the evidence to support them: it is the only thing we have not already tried and failed at.

But I think this list illustrates the poverty of trying to measure living standards by staring at median wages. Many of the changes of the last century show up in that statistic, but others, like the time no longer spent plucking chickens, or the joys of banishing lye from the pantry, appear nowhere.  Nor do the changes in job and family structure that have made the lives of people who are indisputably vastly materially richer than my young grandparents were, nonetheless feel much more precarious. We look into the numbers and think we’re seeing hard facts. But in fact, like someone reading tea leaves, we are projecting our intangible impressions onto an ambiguous picture.

Also from This Issue

Response Essays

  • Tangible Gains, Intangible Losses by Brink Lindsey

    Brink Lindsey argues that improvements to our standard of living have been real and easily measured. But there have been significant areas of decline as well, and these, while real, are often harder to measure: We can measure increased life expectancies, or declines in the crime rate, but it’s harder to measure the alienation that comes from lost social status, or the long-term effects of pervasive single parenthood, or the fact that fewer and fewer men of working age are staying in the workforce. These negative trends are mutually reinforcing, he warns, and they may represent a growing threat to future generations, no matter how much life may improve by some metrics.

  • Let’s Compare Our Standards in the Present by Jared Bernstein

    Jared Bernstein argues that the less privileged take no comfort from improving living standards. The privileged of today are the relevant comparison cohort, and until the less privileged are comparable in wealth, liberty, and dignity, they have every right to complain. People should - and indeed do - think about inequality in relative terms, and in present-day ones. They are rightly uninterested in historical comparisons. And they are correct to complain when the wealthy get still further ahead than they have. Absolute progress over time is real, but it’s also irrelevant in any conversation that values equality.

  • The Pain of Progress by Richard V. Reeves

    Richard V. Reeves finds it “offensive” to read that poverty has been eradicated in advanced countries. Poverty is always relative, he writes; it otherwise has no meaning at all. And relative poverty we still certainly have. The relative poverty of Americans – even those who are affluent by historical standards – has had real and indeed devastating effects on their lives. The gap continues to grow between rich and poor, and although our economic development is not to be regretted, its ill effects are certainly to be mitigated through policies that directly benefit those who are paying its greatest price.

The Conversation