When I prepare couples for marriage I encourage them to a have a larger family. After all, God said, “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28). I ponder with these couples that many married people no longer multiply; they merely replace themselves, and barely replace, at that! Many have just two, sometimes only one child. I recall to these couples how when I was growing up it was more routine for there to be three, four, or five children in a family. My family had four. I glowingly report that my cousins had nine kids in their family and that my one brother and sister-in-law have six kids. My other brother and sister-in-law have three. As I talk to the couples in this way and encourage a larger family they being to look at me funny: “He can’t be serious!” When I ask for their reaction, many (though not all) say something to the effect, “Well, Father, economics have changed and the cost of living is higher today than it was back in the 1950s and 1960s. People can’t afford to do today what you are suggesting.”
Is the cost of living higher? Actually, no, at least not in terms of all the basics. In fact, prices today, adjusted for inflation and earning power, are actually significantly lower. The problem today is that we want more of everything. More on that later. But, for now, let’s look at some data. I apologize that the latest data I have comes from a 1997 report of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. You can see the full report here: Time Well Spent: The Declining Real Cost of Living in America. I want to propose that the data from 1997, though older than I’d like, still provides a pretty current picture, since inflation has held pretty steady since 1997. Further, most of the data I am going to share is not expressed in dollars but rather in hours of work needed to pay for certain products.
Let’s start with the cost of a gallon of gasoline. Everyone likes to complain that gas prices are always going up. But actually, in the last 100 years they have steadily declined in inflation-adjusted figures and in the minutes of work needed to afford a gallon of gas. Look at the table at the left. You can click on the image to make it larger. When gas first began to be widely sold in 1920 it took almost 35 minutes to earn enough money to buy a gallon of gas. Today it takes the average American less than 6 minutes to earn the money necessary to buy a gallon of gas. This steady decline in the cost of gas is due to an increase in the wages of the average person and an actual decline in the price of gas in inflation-adjusted dollars. So gas is not going up over all. The graph does show a brief spike in the late 1970s due to the gas shortage. We also had a brief spike about seven years ago when, due to market adjustments, the price soared to over $4.00 a gallon. But the price has adjusted back downward to its overall long-term trend. So gas prices are not higher (relatively) than they were for our parents and grandparents. In the 1950s, people had to work, on average, twice as long to afford a gallon of gas as compared to today.
How about the most basic commodities of food, clothing, and shelter? Surely they absorb far more of our income than in the past. No, actually not, and in fact in a dramatic way. Look at the table at the right. You can click on the table to get a clearer view. Notice that in 1901 over 76% of income was spent on food, clothing, and shelter. In 1995 only about 38% of income was spent on these things. I do think this number is higher today, though, than it was in 1997. As you recall, the housing market became overheated and housing prices soared. However, the bubble burst last year and housing prices have tumbled to a more reasonable level. That’s bad news for people locked in mortgages from the last ten years, but good news for those seeking to buy today. A further thing to note is that in some areas housing prices are much higher than others. It is remarkable how much house you can get for $300K in many places in the mid-west compared to what the same square footage costs on the coasts. But again, the national average percentage of our income that has to be devoted to the essentials of food, clothing, and shelter is lower today, not higher. Now here, too, the problem with housing today is that most people want to buy huge houses that they can barely afford. But this is not because the cost of housing has actually increased. Rather our demand for more square feet and amenities has. More on this later.
Looking more closely at food, the chart at the left shows how many minutes a person had to work to afford some basic food items. Again, the numbers have dropped dramatically. Here too, this is due to two reasons. First, the average wage of Americans has increased significantly and this increase has far outpaced inflation. Second, the actual inflation-adjusted costs of most of the food products listed has dropped. This is due to more efficient farming, marketing, transportation, and so forth. The fact is, these things cost us a lot less than previous generations of the 1950s and the 1920s.
Finally, just a look at the chart to the right in terms of actual prices. Again, click on the chart to see a clearer image. The left column show the price of an item in 1897. The right column adjusts those figures for 1997, showing, not the actual cost in 1997, but what that product would cost if the economic realities of 1897 were operative today. You can see by looking at the chart that ordinary household items cost a lot more in 1897 than we pay today. Imagine an ordinary pair of scissors costing $65, or a pair of nylons costing $22, or an aluminum pan costing $32. Most of the items on the list are far less expensive today.
So here is some data that speaks to actual cost of living today compared to previous times. The actual prices we pay are far less than those in the 1950s or 1920s and earlier paid.
Now the couples that look bewildered as I tell them to have a larger-than-average family, and who claim that the cost of living is higher today are often amused by these data, but not impressed. The fact is, they know it costs a lot to live today, and so do I. But why is that so?
The clearest answer as to why it is expensive to live today is not so much higher prices as it is that we want more of everything. We want bigger houses, fancier cars, more clothes, more options, more, more, more. The average size of a house in 1950 was 1,100 square feet. Today it is over 2,000 sq. ft. Many people I know routinely buy homes approaching 5,000 sq. ft. with a great room, cathedral ceilings, and every amenity you can image from granite countertops to jacuzzi tubs. One TV was common in the 1950s. Today there are often five or six. I shared a room with my brother for a good part of our early years. My 9 cousins had two rooms (boys and girls) in bunk beds. Hand-me-down clothes were a common money saver and the older children helped take care of the younger ones. Our many appliances also use a lot of electricity. Next time you’re enjoying your wide-screen, plasma, HD TV, go out and look at your electric meter. I haven’t mentioned air conditioning and many other appliances, but by now you’re getting the picture. We want more, bigger, the latest, and so forth.
The fact is, children have moved way down on the list. What we once most valued, children, we now often see as expensive and limiting in terms of the other things we want more. But it is not really children who are expensive, it is our lifestyles that are expensive. I realize medical costs are higher but, there too, we want and demand more.
In the end, we have changed. Blaming it on costs isn’t really the issue. Really, it’s consumption; it’s desire on steroids; it’s slavery to all the latest comforts and conveniences. Maybe it’s even just plain greed. To think that we might live more simply in a smaller, less expensive house and drive an older car in order to afford more children is almost “unthinkable” to us moderns. So the birth rate keeps dropping in the western world; our churches and schools grow emptier and our nursing homes begin to fill. Thank God for immigration. Without it, we would be in serious economic and social crisis.
And to the couples who stare back at me incredulously, I don’t apologize. I just smile and say, “Evangelization begins at home! Have lots of babies and raise them Catholic! The Church needs you; this nation needs you. Without new life and growth we’re dying.”
Life isn’t really about things; it’s about people. An old saying goes, “The most important things in life aren’t things.”
I know some of you will think I’m crazy, too, or that I’m missing something here. I also realize that direct comparisons to bygone eras are not possible and that additional things need to be added to this reflection. But that’s why there are comments, so have at it! But I offer this final thought: “It’s not really about cost; it’s about what we want.”