How good (or bad) do we have it?
October 13, 2016 6:28 PM   Subscribe

Earlier today on reddit someone shared a hospital bill for a baby delivery from 1954. The bill was for $99.84, which inflation adjusted is $893.93. Other posters chimed in to complain about cost inflation for homes and college tuition, with the sentiment that the present generation "has things worse off" than the post-war generation did. Does it?

Medical technology is substantial further advanced than it once was, and infant and maternal mortality is substantially lower. Similarly, home owners nowadays likely live in larger homes and with better amenities. (Personally I find this advancement argument weak due to the hedonic treadmill effect.) All this begs the question in my mind of whether the average American is better off today than they had been sixty years ago. Clearly it is difficult to draw comparisons. It is difficult to even rigorously define the question. The best I can do is "Is today's average American household's economic quality of life 'better off' than that of our parents and our grandparents." Or, "How do the experiences of median-earning households today compare with those in prior decades since the 1950s?" I'm interested in politically unbiased, intellectually honest research. I'm also interested in how this wellbeing has changed over time (e.g. across decades).
posted by prunes to Grab Bag (28 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
This Guardian article discusses two reports on the subject but they're more about where we are right now to maybe the Gen X generation. Here's a US Census blog post on the same general thing. Reason magazine, who is not unbiased but still believes in facts, has this to say (tl;dr consumption has increased, but regulation has also increased).

The fifties are an interesting drop-off point because there were a lot of advancements in legal and social freedoms for women and people of color (there is a long way to go yet, but some codified laws and social norms) that made the American experience hugely different for them right after then. Access to legal birth control/abortions and the Civil Rights Act (and voting rights act) while not total panaceas were very big deals. And even white men don't have a draft to worry about the way they did back then which is a small improvement for them as well.

One thing people do tend to agree on, however, is that Millennials may be the first generation that won't be able to do "better than their parents" (linking to same report from that other Guardian article) so while "better off" may be somewhat subjective, the idea of "not doing as well, even though they are trying" may be another way to look at it.
posted by jessamyn at 6:54 PM on October 13, 2016

This is also a good compilation of "Things that have gotten better" though not quite direct to your economic question.
posted by jessamyn at 7:08 PM on October 13, 2016

You might be interested to read about the hedonic adjustment to inflation calculations. FAQ here.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:13 PM on October 13, 2016

Using childbirth costs as your starting example but then going to household economic quality of life instead of women's economic quality of life is going to produce unclear answers. A woman who only owes an inflation-adjusted $800 to the hospital instead of multiple thousands is much better off by an objective measure. That is, unless she relies upon her husband to pay that bill because she had no job of her own prior to pregnancy and couldn't get one commensurate with her education and skill level if she tried. I understand that when historical figures were recorded for 'households,' research has to work with what's there, but the average person, who gives birth to about 1.037 babies in his lifetime in America, can fall out of a household, or be pushed. Changes in divorce laws since 1954 are as relevant as inflation or employment discrimination when considering economic advances or declines.

This is not meant to be unduly contentious or to make your question more difficult to think about, but it is necessarily difficult to be rigorous in restricting the scope of inquiry when childbirth costs are in consideration. It is a lot simpler to find out whether the average household has more or less in the way of income, assets, and expenditures now than to find out whether the average person has a better economic quality of life. I would consider increased economic freedom to be a pre-requisite for good economic quality of life (so, the ability to open my own checking account, rent my own apartment, buy my own house, pay my own bills with my own income.)

in 1954 it would have been easier for me to marry a man who could more easily do all those parentheticals for me, but now it is easier to do them all myself, even with less money coming into my household. that to me is an unquestionable increase in the average economic quality of life, no matter how low wages are or how much basic necessities cost. but that's a subjective judgment.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:19 PM on October 13, 2016 [8 favorites]

I think this is entirely dependent on what "better off" is.

On the one hand, in the mid/late 50s my grandfather was able to purchase a stand-alone house in a reasonably good neighborhood of a major US city for wages he earned straight out of college, and my grandmother was a homemaker for her entire adult life. This would be unheard of among 22-year-olds today. I'm in my 30s and well established in my career, and I can still only dream of the idea that maybe someday, if my partner and I (both of whom have careers of equal skill level) are very lucky, we might own our own home.

On the other hand, despite the fact that a routine hospital birth costs something like 3-4 times the 1954 fee (even adjusted for inflation), there have been so many advancements in women's health and reproductive medicine since 1954 that I feel absolutely comfortable paying more. I really hate the "welp, twilight sleep was good enough for my grandmother, so it's good enough for me!" mentality that some people use to make the "good old days" seem even vaguely palatable.
posted by Sara C. at 7:26 PM on October 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

Well, I don't know that you want minimum wage calculations, but here is something from the Pew Research that has information about how the minimum wage has not kept up with inflation.

Since others have mentioned housing costs there was a link in the reddit post that you cited that showed how housing sizes have gotten bigger and bigger.

Sure, new construction has, but plenty of us are buying those older houses. And in my families case it is taking 2.5 jobs to pay for my 1950's 958 square foot home with two adults, two kids.
posted by aetg at 7:41 PM on October 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think this is an argument in which people use statistics more to buttress their viewpoint than to determine it. (Your choice re: whether this is true of all arguments.) That is, if you have a bunch of stats that say, "Actually, things are better economically for the average person," they're going to move off of the economic argument rather than moving off their side of the argument.

Quality of life is difficult to measure, and looking back for an example of when things were "better" is often a way of pointing out what we find missing in our own life. Now me, I am jealous of my grandparents' big, close-knit family, and their lower-speed existence, and the vitality of the American Catholic church at the time. But my grandparents were more ambitious than I am and not very serious Catholics, and their kids would probably envy my independence.

I guess I'm saying I think this is mostly a proxy fight people make when they feel out of joint, and it can't really be argued on the merits. This is true of the other side of the argument as well—libertarians often make the "We're better off now!" point when they want to justify Walmart at the expense of labor, but they don't really care about the larger question of whether life is better, they're just making a point about productivity in a way that allows them to retreat to other quality of life measures if they need to. Likewise, answering something like "We've lost our way!" with data about infant mortality or lifespan or huge strides in social justice is accurate to the letter, but if that's not what's animating their angst in the first place it's not going to be a satisfying answer unless there's a direct trade-off between the things they're fond for and your response. (i.e., if they're talking about one-income families and you're talking about increased opportunities for women.)
posted by Polycarp at 7:58 PM on October 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

It also just occurred to me that, if you're not white, you almost certainly have it better, or at least perceive with good reason that you have it better.

Not to mention that I bet if you went to the postpartum woman who generated that $99 hospital bill and asked her whether she'd be willing to pay more, except that she also gets no fault and thoroughly de-stigmatized divorce, credit in her own name without her husband's consent, safe and cheap birth control that she'd be in full control over, and not only gender neutral want ads but employers aren't allowed to discriminate based on gender or even gender-correllated things like marriage or pregnancy, that woman would probably pay the 2016 bill.
posted by Sara C. at 8:14 PM on October 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

Regarding medical science, I like to think about it this way: how many people you know would be dead without modern medicine?

For example, neither of my children would have likely survived much past birth if they had been born even 20 years prior.

People take modern medicine for granted.
posted by LoveHam at 8:16 PM on October 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

There is also Baumol's cost disease. Over time, we are more productive overall, but not in every sector. Yet we still need people to perform labor intensive tasks (like medicine), so its cost relative to over more labor efficient sectors increases. That's one reason why a baby today costs more than $900. (I suspect insurance has a factor, as well.)
posted by Monday at 8:17 PM on October 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

All this begs the question in my mind of whether the average American is better off today than they had been sixty years ago

When you say average American, are we talking middle class, white, male? Because you could probably make solid arguments on both sides, and there's probably a plausible argument for why they might be worse off.

Are we talking persons of color? Or women? Or women of color? Or people on the LGBTQ spectrum? Because as a (white, cis) woman, there is no way I think I would be better off living in the 50s. And I'd find it hard to believe very many people who are not white men would feel this way. As has already been covered, for women, just the increased freedoms of access to birth control, ease of divorce, etc is really hard to put a price on.

But if you want to go back to the more straighforward economics argument, even the most entry level job these days expects a college diploma, and I think it used to be a lot easier to get a job with "just" a high school diploma in previous decades. When you combine that with the rapid rise in the cost of tuition, that's how you get so many millennials saddled with crippling student loan payments (also worsened by high school kids getting told 'follow your heart to the school of your dreams, no matter the cost, and study whatever you want, because that's what college is for, etc'). So this is one way in which you could argue that people were better off in previous decades. And that's without even getting into how hard it is to get a job so that you can start paying off that six figure student loan debt.
posted by litera scripta manet at 8:27 PM on October 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

aetg: "Sure, new construction has, but plenty of us are buying those older houses. And in my families case it is taking 2.5 jobs to pay for my 1950's 958 square foot home with two adults, two kids."

And in fact median square footage of homes and median square feet per person of all occupied homes (not just new ones) is in fact declining.

The American Housing Survey started tracking square footage of all housing units (apartments, single family homes, mobile homes, etc.) in 1985. Here's the data from 1985-2013 (the most recent year released). As you can see, the amount of space each person had in their home steadily rose until the 2007-08 financial crisis, since when it began to fall.

1985: 633 sq ft / person
1987: 648
1989: 660
1991: 674
1995: 694
1997: 711
1999: 714
2001: 720
2003: 734
2005: 752
2007: 769
2009: 750
2011: 750
2013: 700

Big drop between 2011 and 2013, going back to 1995/7 levels. It'll be interesting to see what the 2015 data says when it comes out this month.

All that said, based on this one single data point it's hard to say that we're not doing better at this moment than the postwar generation. But the current trend is not good.
posted by crazy with stars at 9:12 PM on October 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just because modern medicine is more advanced, does not necessarily mean it has to be exponentially more expensive.

For example, we all know computers are way more advanced now, but they are not commensurately more expensive.

Penicillin used to be so expensive they recycled it from urine. Now it's $4 at Target.

That hospital bill from 1954 paid for doctors and nurses trained to the standard of the day, best-of-class medications of the day, and appropriate technology of the day. As such, it's as valid a comparison as any.
posted by metaseeker at 10:04 PM on October 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I just got my July 2016 baby delivery bill; it is $20,305.70 for my portion. The baby's portion will arrive under separate cover.

It's better than 1954, but I'm not sure it's $19,000 (plus indeterminate baby bill amount) better.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:14 AM on October 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's better than 1954, but I'm not sure it's $19,000 (plus indeterminate baby bill amount) better.

I'm sure. I'd pay every last penny I have to avoid having to go live as a woman in 1954.
posted by emilyw at 2:37 AM on October 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

Food! Back then, people actually starved to death on the regular, and the breadth and quality of things people could afford was much lower. Now we subsidize slightly food production and it affects everything - feed corn for meat animals, etc. You spend a much lower portion of money on food and it is better stuff.
posted by corb at 5:18 AM on October 14, 2016

Just yesterday, I saw a chart showing the increase in cost for various services. The one that went up the most was college tuition.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:26 AM on October 14, 2016

I would just like to suggest that there is a way to say "as a black woman I have more freedom but as a worker I am worse off." We shouldn't have to accept crumbs on the working front because once we weren't even deemed worthy of crumbs. We don't have pensions, we get less of the value of our productivity, companies still expect our loyalty but give us none and I think that is reflected in working environments. That this changed when white men stopped being the only people who could access it is certainly interesting, but I don't think the question of better healthcare and astronomical costs or maternal death and a cheap bill really makes sense. They aren't inherently connected.
posted by dame at 5:59 AM on October 14, 2016 [10 favorites]

Also, generally if you look at those charts, food and heavy consumer goods (fridges, TVs) have gone down in cost and services — healthcare, college, child care — have gone up sharply. You definitely can't live a middle class life and buy a house on an average salary. Everyone who owns (including me) got there with family money. This is — I think — pretty uncontroversial.
posted by dame at 6:01 AM on October 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

I mean, I'm not sure if this is an answer you're looking for, but I asked my mother about the $99.84 and that was NOT an insignificant amount of money for a middle class family in 1954. She said that they, at the time, would have had to have asked for a payment plan to pay it back.
posted by cooker girl at 6:02 AM on October 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Just talking about the medical costs- I mean we know for a fact it is unreasonably expensive in America now compared to every other developed country. "Well, the tech is better so of course it costs tens of thousands of dollars" is a nonsensical argument because dozens of other countries have the same tech and charge orders of magnitude less.

Honestly, this question reminds me of the right wing anti-welfare argument that poor people have access to refrigerators so they're not 'really' poor because even kings didn't have access to such amazing technology in ye olden times
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:28 AM on October 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

I would just like to suggest that there is a way to say "as a black woman I have more freedom but as a worker I am worse off."

Not sure that's true. We tend to think of 50s as a golden age for workers because there were a lot of unionized, manufacturing jobs available to mostly white men.

But that's a pretty small set of workers, really. Service employees and agricultural workers, for example, weren't any better compensated than they are now, and most labor protection laws didn't come into being until the late 1960s-1990s.

Were workers better off before OSHA? Before public sector unions, which didn't come about until 1978? Before the ADA (1990)? Before the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993? When employers could legally fire women for being pregnant? When employers could legally fire someone for being old? When the classified jobs section was divided into male and female?

And even the bounty of unionized manufacturing jobs was kind of an abberration, historically. Workers were certainly worse off at every point before WW2, basically.

This whole misty-eyed "the past was better" thing is just another of those myths that right-wing, rich white men in the 1980s started peddling that everybody in the US unconsciously bought into.
posted by pocketfullofrye at 9:35 AM on October 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

There really was no health insurance that would have paid that bill back in the '50s so another comparison would be the out of pocket coat then vs now. Also, most hospital bills are severely discounted by your health insurer so another point of comparison would be the amount actually paid by the health insurer to satisfy the bill.
posted by mygoditsbob at 10:00 AM on October 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think you may have missed what I am saying. I am saying let's compare office worker to office worker (say) skipping the part where as a black woman I would not have had access to the kind of office job I now have. (Likewise I think it is silly to say "your bill would have been a lower percent of pay but you couldn't have had a job" when talking about relative economic situations.) Otherwise we're saying "we gave you access but now things are less good but just suck it up because you couldn't have even had this before" — and I find that a poor argument. We can push for greater access and better treatment equally.

I am not sure that Ask is the appropriate place for a political back and forth, but the question seems to say "better than our parents and grandparents" and for most people under 40, that would be the postwar years and beyond. And we are doing worse. The OP asked for some resources. Here is Wage Stagnation in 9 Charts— check out figure 2 in particular. I am sure others can chip in with cost charts.
posted by dame at 10:03 AM on October 14, 2016

I am saying let's compare office worker to office worker (say) skipping the part where as a black woman I would not have had access to the kind of office job I now have.

I think it's odd to talk about whether things were better then or now if you're going to restrict the conversation to "were things better then or now for the subset of the population who were white men working office jobs."

In the same way I can't separate "worker" from my identity as a woman who is latina, I can't separate being a woman or latina from my identity as a worker.

I think you're just trying to make the point that you want things to be better for office workers of all genders and ethnicities now. Which is fine, but it's not a convincing argument that "things were better" for people if you define people as such a small subset of the population. I mean -- things were way better for people in England in 1850 than they are now... if you define "people" as the male British nobility.
posted by pocketfullofrye at 10:17 AM on October 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

You definitely can't live a middle class life and buy a house on an average salary. Everyone who owns (including me) got there with family money. This is — I think — pretty uncontroversial.

This is absolutely false. It may be more true in high cost of living areas, but certainly not the whole of the USA. I know many people, including myself, who own their house making an "average" salary.
posted by LoveHam at 10:47 AM on October 14, 2016 [6 favorites]

Life in the 1950s was very good for a narrow group -- white men with college degrees (which were way less common back then), and men without college degrees who managed to get union jobs at big companies. But that was probably less than 20% of the population.

Life today is good for a different group -- people of both genders who go to college (and usually grad school) and study a few pretty lucrative areas, like finance, medicine, engineering, software, or business. Still under 20% of the population. But a different 20%.

Housing costs have increased a lot, but remember that Mefi is very biased to a few large coastal cities with extremely high cost of living. The median house in the US is still $188K. A family making $50K, the median household income, could still afford that fairly easily. If you're in San Francisco or New York, of course the prices salaries and prices are all out of whack -- but that's not the entire country.
posted by miyabo at 12:41 PM on October 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Things are so much better the mind boggles even if you completely discount the massive gains in equality. My mother, born in 1950, grew up in a small town but didn't have running water in her home.
posted by Mitheral at 9:33 AM on October 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

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