I grew up living an ordinary middle-class life.
What does it cost to live that life today?
The point of consumption is pleasure.
Not an instant hot mess of pleasure… Well, sometimes… But what’s much more important is the kind of pleasure that’s so comfortable, homey, and wholesome that we don’t think of ourselves as “consumers” while we’re consuming it.
We don’t regard loving families, happy children, full stomachs, clad bodies, and shelter from the elements in clean, safe, verdant places as a “product” to be “consumed.”
We regard these things as natural and expected parts of ordinary middle-class life.
But what do they really cost nowadays?
Let me go back 65 years to the ordinary middle-class life I lived as a child in Toledo, Ohio, in 1952.
To calculate what 1952 incomes and prices amount to in modern dollars I’ll use the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ basic Consumer Price Index (CPI). The CPI tells me I should multiply a 1952 dollar by 9.3 to get a 2017 dollar.
If the Tooth Fairy left a dime under your pillow in 1952, you don’t even have a penny now.
(Let us pause for a moment to contemplate the chilling fact that the U.S. dollar has lost 93% of its value in one lifetime. And pause also to wonder what other things, fundamental to an ordinary middle-class life, have lost 93% of their value. Trust in our political institutions? Patriotism? Modesty? Virtue? Faith? Hope? Charity?)
Anyway, Dad made about $10,000 a year. That’s $93,000 these days. We were pretty well-off by most standards. (The median U.S. household income in 2017 is $59,039.) And we were quite well-off by the standards of the day. (The median U.S. household income in 1952 was $3,900.)
We had a new house with four bedrooms and a two-car garage with two cars to put into it. The house cost $21,000, which is to say $195,300. It was in a city-suburban neighborhood, in the kind of so-called “close-in” suburbs that are currently getting the heck gentrified out of them now that the 1960s-1990s crime binge has abated.
Our neighborhood was so safe that we didn’t know where our door keys were – in the kitchen junk drawer, maybe.
We had three kids, a dog, and a stay-at-home mom. Stay-at-home moms were the norm. Then they became a male-chauvinist oppression of women’s rights. And now, I understand, they’re back but are considered a lifestyle luxury.
The public schools were excellent. The grade school was a block away. Everybody walked. Nobody was dropped off by a nanny. We didn’t know what a nanny was. Maybe a nanny was Billy Goat Gruff’s little sister?
In first grade, Miss Westfall had us reciting the alphabet forward and backward. In fourth grade Miss Sonnenberg made us memorize the multiplication tables through 13 times 13. Miss Geiger, the principal, told us, “All I require is that when I say ‘jump’ you ask ‘how high?’ on the way up.”
The high school was three blocks away. It taught Calculus but also Home Economics, Latin, and Shop. It had a state championship football team.
The high school sent its share of students to places like the University of Michigan, and every year a few went to the Ivy League. Although, if you told your neighbors in Toledo, “My son is going to Princeton,” they would say, “Why? It’s so far from home.”
Toledo was in the “Rust Belt.” But in those days, the Rust Belt was more like the “Cummerbund of Steel” – the center of American industrial production.
Toledo was the corporate headquarters for Willys-Overland Motors (Jeep, today), Champion Spark Plug, Autolite Batteries, DeVilbiss Paint Spray Guns, and Toledo Scale. It was the largest soft coal port in the nation. It was called “The Glass Capital of America” because the Libbey-Owens-Ford, Owens-Illinois, and Owens Corning glass companies were all based there. Business and employment opportunities abounded.
Now let me try to figure out how and where an ordinary 1952 middle class Toledo, Ohio, life could be lived in 2017.
It has to be in a place that’s hip and has a strong economy. Toledo was never hip. But in 1952 it was hip to be square. And Toledo was very square. So the modern equivalent would have to be someplace like Portland, Oregon.
Portland’s median household income is above average. Its unemployment rate is below average. Portland is, as Toledo was, on the cutting edge of what’s contemporary in technology. Portland is sometimes called “Silicon Forest” for its abundance of tech firms. (And for all the nearby trees that hipsters love, like the squares of yore loved wide open spaces – which Toledo had in plenty with corn fields growing right up to the city limits.)
Portland is twice as populous as Toledo was in 1952, but the whole U.S. is twice as populous now. And, in the “Things We Don’t Talk About Department,” Portland is very white (72%), about as much so as Toledo was in my boyhood – if you count the Irish as white.
I searched the Internet real-estate listings for a home in a Portland city-suburban neighborhood. Healy Heights seems to have the lowest crime rate and the best public schools. Other people have noticed this, too… Only six houses were for sale. The best deal I could find for a 4-bedroom with a 2-car garage was $650,000.
It’s a little more posh than the house I grew up in but, having been built in the 1970s Left-Coast Modern style…
Throw away the level and plumb-bob! Put the windows anywhere! Let a crazy person draw the roofline! Slap up the wood siding every-which-way!
…it is a lot more ugly.
Mortgage rates were close to the same in 1952 as they are now. Dad’s monthly mortgage payment was probably about $100 ($930 in chained dollars). The Healy Heights mortgage payment is estimated at $2,536.
Now to shop for two cars. Dad’s 1952 Buick Super Riviera sedan cost $2,563. ($23,836) Mom’s ‘52 Chevy station wagon cost $2,297. ($21,362) But you can’t fit three kids and the giant backpacks all kids carry everywhere these days into a modern sedan, especially not if you’re taking them on the requisite snowboarding trip to Mt. Hood. (The 1952 Toledo equivalent: ice fishing for carp on Lake Erie.)
The sedan will have to be an SUV. I guess the BMW is the Buick of today. An X5 goes for $56,600. And it’s Portland so Mom gets a Prius, $23,475. (Note that that’s what it used to cost to buy a Buick – a big, swoop-fendered, port-holed, chrome-bedazzled, beautiful Buick. And now you get… a Prius.)
It’s fairly easy to calculate the cost of comparable housing and transportation. Comparing the cost of food and clothing is more difficult, so I’ve left them out. Styles shift. Men’s suits cost about the same, adjusted for inflation. But who wears a suit anymore? And I Googled “men’s luxury t-shirts” and found a Salvatore Ferragamo crewneck selling for $220 at Saks Fifth Ave. Adjust for inflation all you want, but nobody in 1952 was going to pay like that for underwear.
Tastes in food have changed as well, and getting over-scheduled moderns to all sit down at the same time for a home-cooked dinner is almost impossible. Equally impossible is getting moderns to stay out of trendy restaurants.
Nonetheless, food has gotten relatively cheaper. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the 1950s an average household spent twice as much of its budget on food as it does now (32% versus 15%).
Food, however, is about the only thing that’s gotten cheaper in ordinary middle-class life.
Partly, this is because we expect more from that life. We expect vacations.
An all-inclusive trip to Beaches Ocho Rios Resort in Jamaica for a family of five plus airfare from Portland to Kingston and a generous tip to the cabana boy because of what the kids did in the pool is $9,581.75.
Not that we didn’t take vacations in 1952. We went to my uncle’s cottage on the lake. That cost (steaks + case of beer + fill up car + carton of nightcrawlers for bait) $23.25.
Then there is the true killer of the middle class – being schooled to death.
As I mentioned, Portland’s Healy Heights neighborhood has the best public schools in the city. Of course it does. We wouldn’t move our families into anyplace that didn’t have the best public schools. But it’s not as if we’re actually going to send our children there. Heaven forbid!
Public schools are full of bullies. Public schools don’t teach Mandarin.
Classrooms are crowded. The other children get head lice. The gym doesn’t have squash courts. PE does not include sailing instruction.
The best public schools are there just in case. Just in case little Liam or little Ava have “issues” and are required to leave the best private school.
The best private school in Portland is the Catlin Gabel School. K-12 tuition is $29,640 per child.
Now let’s do the math.
And one last thing… Because the divorce rate has doubled since 1952, there is a very good chance that an ordinary middle-class life will include a divorce. Get divorced, start a new family, and the cost of being middle class
is multiplied by two: $289,897.50
So what the math tells us is… In order to live an ordinary middle-class life you have to be rich.