American Standard of Living in Decline

We may have more vcrs, tvs, ipods, and computers but our standard of living is in the toilet. A look at some common stats will make that clear. The first step to fixing the problem is recognizing that we have one.

I don’t care what anyone says but it’s become totally clear to me that the economic path we have chosen is not working.  Our standard of living is in decline.  Sure, we may have more cars, more tvs, more iPods, but we’re working harder and harder to get them and borrowing more and more to afford them.  As a country, I feel that we are poorer today than we were 8 years ago, and perhaps even than we were thirty years ago.    

I believe at the root of the problem is one thing: the government’s calculation of inflation.

According to the government, inflation has remained tame over the last 8 years, rising less than 3-4% per year. Yet, we all know this number does not reflect reality.  Here are some interesting stats:

  • The price of housing has more than doubled since 1997 in most parts of the country, resulting in mortgage payments that have taken a recent percent of a buyer’s salary.  This is true even with record low interest rates factored in.
  • Health costs have been skyrocketing.  In 2007, the average rise in health-care premiums is expected to be 12%.  The average worker’s salary will go up less than 3%.
  • The price of energy is at record highs and shows no sign of coming down.
  • The price of food is increasing.  Check how much you pay for a gallon of milk.  I bet it’s almost double what you paid three or four years ago.  I will concede that the price of junk food and McDonald's has stayed the same or dropped.
  • Many forms of entertainment have increased in price.  Been to a concert or sports game lately?  The prices are ridiculous.
  • Trips and vacations in foreign countries now cost almost twice what they did just three or four years ago.  The falling dollar has made us poor in the international community.
  • College educations are increasing at three to four times the rate of inflation.  An education at a four year private school costs between $40-50,000 per year.

Why does the government fudge the inflation rate number?  It does that to keep the cost of entitlement programs down.  If the government says that inflation is only 2% then it only has to increase social security payments by 2%.  This change was originally made to reduce entitlements without having to actually cut them and taking the political heat.  After all, if inflation is really rising at 5% and you only raise social security by 2%, you've effectively cut the benfit by 3%.

About the only thing that hasn’t increased in price are cheap lead-painted toys, cloths, and consumer electronics imported from China.

So, has our standard of living increased or decreased?

You tell me.  If you like buying cars, eating at McDonald's, living in a household where two parents have to work to pay the mortgage, sitting in front of 3 tvs while you listen to MP3s on your iPod, I guess the argument could be made that thing have gotten better.

But if you are looking to eat healthy good, have time to exercise and spend time with your kids, want to take a trip, want to send your kids to college,  want to see a  concert, want to buy cloths from a place other than Target, then I'd say things have gotten worse.

So, I still wonder, are we living better now than we did 50 years ago?

Sam Cass
Sam Cass: Sam Cass, MBA, JD, University of Texas at Austin. Always a fan of Leonardo Da Vinci.

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  • Steph Roberts

    November 03, 2007

    You are correct. Things are worse, much worse now. It is part of failed strategy by the Bush administration to debase the value of the dollar in order to safe the manufacturing sector. They have made our entire country poor. It is very, very sad.

  • Anonymous

    November 03, 2007

    Sam, I think your right on the money.

  • ay

    November 03, 2007

    I absolutely agree that our standard of living is declining. That has little to do with Bush, though.
    It has started over some 2o years ago when we started to give out our jobs to other countries. Yes, I am talking outsourcing. Now we starting to see the results. The manufacturing industry is gone. We do not make consumer products any longer. Same for industrial products, electronics, etc. Our country,as a whole BUYS things. What do we produce? Dollars?
    This situation remedy is having ability to manufacture our own goods. Lower our trade deficit to the point when it becomes proficit. Having government control the greedy multinationals by making it economically unfeasible for them to outsource to the cheaper labor market.
    If we don't do it - we will become, and we started to, country selling it's riches for the handfuls of pretty, shining, and oh, so beckoning wonderful toys.
    Does not this remind you of something?

  • Nick

    November 05, 2007

    I certainly agree with most of what you have said. I would add that SS should not be tied directly to inflation if we truly added in all the things on your list (Which are really killing us all). Most retired people are not putting kids through school or buying bigger houses and other things. Older folks situation is different then when they were younger. I will say they are getting it hard with medical extras and taxes especially property taxes. Many are forced to move that they is not fair. Township are crazy they force an older couple to move due to high property taxes and now a younger couple with 2,3,4 children move in and the town has to pay for their education. Of course since most homes have now been fully assessed there is no additional property tax gain for the town. Someone is not thinking on this one.

    We do spend tooo much on crap. I don't think we are any happier maybe less then when we kids used an old big cardboard to play tank outside for hours with all our friends. We almost had nothing that exist today a ball, bat, stick, TV had 5 channels when we watched it.

    I can see the kids today even my own two boys and my grandchildren are not as free and happy as we were. Hay I am only 59.

  • Drew

    November 06, 2007

    I can't believe that the Federal Reserve has lowered interest rates lately. In my opinion, INFLATION has been running wild lately for people who purchase everyday common items (gas & energy, food) and I believe an interest rate HIKE is necessary to fend off inflation.
    Plus, I would like to lock in some higher savings/cd rates! The rates over the past few years has been horrible!

  • Nicko

    January 28, 2009

    We used to buy things using gold coins... which then declined to silver... which are now a copper/nickel mixture. Our pennies, once copper, are now nearly all zinc with a copper coating.

    We once owned enough land to farm, and in most cases, the land was owned outright. Now we're nearly all landless, and while our parents generally paid off their 30 year mortgages and left us their house/land, the current generation never pays off their house/land.

    Mothers once rarely had to work. Now nearly all have to work.

    A generation ago, it wasn't all that tough to support 4 or 5 children. Today we struggle just supporting 2.

    A generation ago, someone pumped our gas, checked us into our flights, served all of us at the banks, etc. Today, self-service is pushed on us more and more in the name of 'efficiency'.

    Not all that long ago, very few families ran out of money before the next paycheck and thus there was no need for payroll/cash advance stores. Now the stores are ubiquitous and for good reason.

    Once, most American workers drove a relatively short distance to work. Now, millions drive 30 miles or more each way because it's too damned expensive to have a house close to where you work.

    A generation ago, furniture was made of real wood. Now more and more is made of pressed sawdust with a fake wood grain overlay.

    Our homes a generation ago were made of solid timber. Composition board today makes up more and more of the construction.

    Two generations ago, our vehicles were made of solid metal and sometimes even had real wood in it. Today's cars are like tin cans and loaded with plastic.

    Need I go on?

  • Nikita

    March 20, 2009

    I think that the reason that our standard of living may be going down is because Americans are material-minded today. Family, time, morals...ect. are not what Americans consider first when they want happiness. Studies prove now that Americans are more depressed, clinically, than they have ever been. But how? We have so much stuff. Exactly, this stuff (ipods, tvs,cameras and phones with hundreds of properties, clothes, ability to travel around the world, movies rather than books...)has replaced what people for previous generations really considered to be valuable. In the end, what really matters? Do Americans ask that question any more? Where our treasure is, so will our hearts be.

  • Daniel DeCamp

    January 26, 2010

    Comparing the economic situation over the past couple of decades with that of the 60s and 70s, the ones in which I grew up, I think the most significant thing to be observed is that it has become necessary for people to amass much greater amounts of debt in order to maintain what is now thought to be a middle-class standard of living. But of course the standard has changed.

    My mother took care of the home and the children. My father generated an income from a small pizzeria which enabled them to purchase a home in 1960 for about $13,000. My father netted approximately $50,000 a year, almost four times the amount of the purchase price of their home. Today, the numbers would be just the opposite: You would probably need four years worth of income to buy a home and a huge monthly mortgage payment.

    My mother's job was to take care of the house and the children. She was there for us when we came home from school or our afterschool activities. We usually ate together as a family, especially on the weekends. Do you think there would be any possibility today for a middle-class family of four to have a full-time mom? Or even have a family of four, for that matter?

    My parents sent me and three other siblings to private Catholic schools. That was during the 50s, 60s and 70s. Gee, I wonder why my youngest sister, a surprise baby, whose schooling was mostly in the 80s, wasn't sent to a private school. I never heard my parents badmouthing public education, by the way. My mom was just into the whole Catholic thing.

    My father had a savings and paid cash for his cars and other large consumer goods, as well as vacations. Do you know anyone today who doesn't have a car payment or debt on credit cards used to pay for vacations or big screen TVs?

  • Joe Doe

    January 31, 2010

    It's a good rule of thumb to add 2-3% to the officially reported rate to gauge what the true inflation rate is. You hit the nail on the head as to why the government always underestimates the true rate of inflation.

    The standard of living of Americans has been going down for some time. Real wages peaked sometime in the 1960s and have been slowly declining since. There are lots of reasons for this, but in a capitalist economy an employer will naturally seek to pay the lowest wages possible.

    Our economy is far more productive today than it was in the 1960s with the introduction of computers, sophisticated manufacturing and genetic engineering in agriculture. We are producing more with less. But the bounty of all this is not passed on to workers. The wage of a worker is not necessarily proportional to the value a worker produces - a wage is determined by the market.

    Where is all this wealth going to? A quick check of the earnings of those at the top of the pyramid over the last 50 years reveals the answer. They don't work for wages.

  • GeoSlice

    April 04, 2010

    There is only one way to turn back the clock. ban china's lead based junk. say no to the commies just because it is cheap does not make it worth what it cost in the long run..........OUR STANDARD OF LIVING!

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