Thursday, December 23, 2010

Spellbound by stuff

“We must stop talking about the American dream and start listening to the dreams of Americans.” -Reubin Askew

Christmas, 2010.

Now that we’re thick into the season of conspicuous material consumption – even as we face the frightening possibilities of a “double-dip” recession and the eventual extinction of America’s middle class – I’m filled with nostalgic memories of life in the 1950s and 60s.

Oh, wait. I wasn’t alive until 1964. And to be honest, I used to think our longing for those “Good Old Days” was misplaced. After all, people were obsessed with the bomb, and minorities, homosexuals and women were still second-class citizens. The sheer amount of self-medication during the era (the smoking, drinking, and popularity of Miltown and Valium) seemed to speak to a society addicted to escapism.

But despite the Cold War fears and the ubiquitous use of chemicals, there was also a sense of optimism; of American society being on an upward trajectory; of faith in a better tomorrow. Our standard of living is now in freefall. But (unlike the union members and African-Americans who once put their very lives on the line to demand their share of the American Dream) most of us are too busy playing with our toys to notice.

“In the 1950s and 1960s, a working man could support a family at a middle-class standard of living with just one income,” says Philip Brewer. “It might surprise you to learn that one person working full-time, even at minimum wage, can still support a family of four at that standard of living. Nowadays we call that ‘living in poverty.’”

Brewer points out that many people in the 50s had no television or automobiles, and houses were about half the size new homes are today. He doesn’t mention Bluetooth, iPods or Wii, but the fact that even many low-income households have these products would prop up his argument. We’re spoiled today, some say, because – well, look at all this stuff!!

But I think they’re wrong. It’s true that the average household has a larger home today and more personal belongings than in the 1950s and 60s. But when did the American Dream become about hand-held electronics? When did stuff become the measure of our well-being?

In 1959, the average household was headed by a single wage-earner, who most likely did not attend college, and who earned about $5,010 per year. A 24-inch Magnavox TV (black and white), at $249, was a major purchase for this family. The average home cost $12,400 – about 2.5 times the household’s annual income.

A car cost about $2,200; but people who weren’t farmers tended to live closer to urban areas and public transportation was readily available. An individual’s medical care cost about $100 a year. And college tuition (for that lucky kid who wanted more than his father had) would cost about $1,250 for all four years.

Fast-forward to today. A 26-inch Viore TV is only $239 – less than the smaller Magnavox cost 40 years ago! But wait.

Today’s home is considerably larger (whether you need it to be or not), and costs $269,700 – more than five times today’s average household income of $49,700 (which, by the way, is now earned by two people – driving two cars). New homes offer amenities like multiple walk-in closets, whirlpools and central vacuum systems – things many homebuyers would skip out on in exchange for a lower price.

But new homes without these luxuries are hard to find. It’s the same with cars: the average automobile now costs $28,400, well over half the average household income, and is packed with technological bells and whistles that jack up the price. Less expensive cars are available, but even basic cars are filled with computers and can no longer be repaired by your neighbor for the cost of a green bean casserole.

Another price we pay the price for technology is health care. Last April, a YouTube video of Republican politician Sue Lowden went viral when she said, “You know, before we all started having health care, in the olden days, our grandparents, they would bring a chicken to the doctor … Doctors are very sympathetic people.”

I hate to break it to Ms. Lowden, but today’s average family (that is lucky enough to be insured) pays $13,375 a year for coverage – TWICE the cost as in 2000!

Has health care really improved 100 percent in just the past decade? And my doctor won’t take a chicken as payment. Will yours?

Last, remember our 1950s family, which paid one-fifth of its annual income for a degree that would promise opportunity for its children? Higher education has now become the “default.” Even low-income youth are expected to continue past high school, as more jobs require more skill. And students who choose the public, four-year route can expect to pay about $12,000 each year – for a total of $48,000. When these students graduate with that kind of debt, will the jobs that pay enough even exist?

Professor Mark Perry has created a chart that shows how many more hours a 1950’s earner had to work, compared to a modern earner, to afford things like a toaster, a radio or a reclining chair. Anyone who shops at Wal-Mart or Shopko (including yours truly) knows that many items are much less expensive to purchase today than they were decades ago.

But Dr. Perry isn’t taking into account the high cost of cheap stuff – the outsourcing of American manufacturing jobs, the waste of goods that are no longer made to last, or the placation of a society that thinks it’s well-off because of $5 sneakers.

When I was in journalism school, we used to joke that we were studying journalism because we couldn’t do math. There was some truth to that, but this math isn’t hard to do. It may be much easier to purchase many tangible items today. But the intangibles – security, health, knowledge, and faith in America’s future – are fast becoming out of reach.

I have plenty of stuff. What I need is hope. Where can I buy some of that?

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