Now and Then

by Don Boudreaux on September 5, 2006

in Standard of Living

This interesting report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks changes in American living standards over the 20th century.

Here are some facts revealed in this study that I find either surprising or especially important:

(1) It’s surprising that the percentage of the average household’s income spent on non-essential items was significantly higher in the mid-1930s than in the late 19-teens (about 28 percent compared to about 22 percent in 1918-19 — and about 21 percent in 1901).

(2) It’s important to note that throughout the 20th century, the share of the average household’s income spent on non-essential items increased steadily, although noticeably slowing down between 1984-1985 and 2002-2003.

(3) It’s surprising that the percentage of women in the workforce increased steadily throughout the century, with no noticeable jump in the 1960s or 1970s (where I would have expected to find such a jump).

(4) It’s surprising that average household annual expenditures changed its trajectory in the mid-1970s from one of rather modest decadal increases before then to much more dramatic increases since then. (It’s true that these data are in nominal dollars, but the continuing hefty increases in household annual expenditures post-1975 seem not much muted by the collapse of inflation rates from the mid-1980s on.)

(5) It’s surprising (and important to note) that one-hundred years ago, nearly 80 percent of the expenditures of the average American household were for food, clothing, and housing; today this figure is about 50 percent.

(6) It’s surprising (and important to note) that in 1901 only 19 percent of U.S. families owned a home; by 1972-1973, this figure had risen to 58.8; indeed, the percent of familiies who owned their homes outright — with no mortgage — was 25.3 percent.  In 2002-2003, the percent of families who own their own home is even higher — at 67 percent; likewise with the percent of families today who own their homes outright — sans mortgage — 26 percent.

It takes mighty clever sophistry to spin these, and other related, numbers in order to conclude that Americans today are economically not much better off than we were in the mid-1970s.

(Hat tip to Reason’s Ted Balaker.)


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