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American Standards of Living:1918-1988

Consumption Norms and Economic Distance 

In 1918, American families’ daily lives were filled with hard physical work both on the job and at home. After a long workweek, laborer husbands brought home only enough money to buy some, but not all, basics; their wives spent 69% of their budget on home life (food and shelter). (See Figures 8.1 and 8.2.) Laborer families also spent a significant proportion (20%) of their budget on presentabil-ity (clothing, personal care, and medical care).

Meager budgets provided little relief from the drudgery and monotony of everyday life. People stayed home except to go to work, school, or shopping, and their main social activity was going to church. How well a family ate and dressed was largely determined by the wife’s cooking and sewing skills, as well as her ability to shop wisely and stretch a dollar.

Black families suffered enormously compared to the working class, as they often went hungry and wore rags. Their budgets were one-third below the level required for them to buy the basics, and their poverty kept them isolated from the white working class.

Although the automobile had been mass produced for almost a decade, the Great War interrupted the salaried class’s rush to buy a car. Only one in three salaried families owned the coveted car in 1918. This proportion was to grow dramatically in the years to come as the automobile changed the landscape and the daily habits of Americans.

Salaried husbands lives’ were easier than working-class husbands’ lives because their white collar jobs were much less physically demanding, and they were not complete-ly exhausted when they came home in the evening. Their higher paychecks allowed their families to buy some relief from drudgery and monotony, and this was the primary way they were distinguished from the working class. The salaried wife spent considerably more on household operations, including a maid and laundry service, to make her chores easier, and the salaried family spent money to create a social life that included recre-ational activities.

In 1935, our next survey year, families were suffering through the economic uncertainty of the Depression, even when their own living stan-dards had been little affected because the husband had been fortunate enough to keep his job. Although home life activities still dominated the budget, families were now spending more money on their social lives as their work lives became physically easier. The share of the budget going to home life diminished slightly in order to make room for more spending on social inte-gration, including purchases for recreation, education, and transportation, and of gifts or donations. Social life includes both present-ability and integra-tion (or fitting in), yet families felt that their spending for appearance was already fairly adequate and did not have to rise as rapidly as their overall spending. So spending on social life shifted from being mostly for presentability and became more oriented towards fitting into the community.

Work hours had been reduced by the Depression, and mass produc-tion and automation helped reduce the physical demands of work. House-work became physically easier with smaller families and housing amenities, including plumbing, indoor hot water, electric and gas heating systems, and appliances like the refrigerator and washing machine. Although both paid work and housework would continue to become less physically exhausting, the improvements experienced between 1918 and 1950 were perhaps the most welcome because they finally allowed the family to use their time off for leisure activities rather than merely for recovering in order to return to their tasks. At last, working-class families could have some social activities other than going to church and buy some goods other than tobacco to enhance leisure time.

Unemployment provided the main economic distance between families during the Depression, but these families were kept hidden by the data collectors. Employed families created economic distance amongst themselves by purchasing a rich social life, more mobility, varying recreational activi-ties, and by easing the drudgery of housework for the wife. Four out of five salaried families now had an automobile, while only a minority of working--class families could afford a car. Salaried families improved their living standards compared to working-class families by spending considerably more on recre-ation and household operations.

Within the working class, wage-earner families improved their living standard over laborer families by subtle improvements across all categories. The greatest economic distance was created by ownership of an automo-bile.

Black families, who were forced to bear a disproportionate share of the unem-ployment, continued to suffer economically. Those who were unemployed lived in dire poverty. Those with jobs had not improved their living standard compared to 1918, and their budgets allowed them to purchase less than two-thirds of basics. They remained hungry, poorly clothed, poorly sheltered, and economically isolated.

After the Second World War, families were considerably better off economically. Their Depression-provoked anxiety had been replaced by optimism about the future. Many families had savings that had accumulat-ed as they bought War Bonds both because they were patriotic and because they found few goods at the store to buy.

Car production had been halted by the war. When peace came, families rushed to their car dealers to buy cars as they rolled off the line. Finally, working-class America had wheels; one-half of laborer and seven-tenths of wage-earner families owned an automobile. The proportion of the budget devoted to home life continued to shrink while social integra-tion blossomed to assume a share of the budget as large as the share of food at home or shelter. Spending on presentability maintained its share of the budget. Shelter’s share of the budget declined, after having jumped in 1935, as families had been forced by a moratorium on residential construc-tion to put off house buying plans. The rush to buy new government-fi-nanced housing in the suburbs was only beginning to show up in the data. In 1950, only a bare majority of salaried families had attained the Ameri-can dream of owning a home.

Blacks were considerably better off after the war, which opened new labor market opportunities to them. The war hastened their migration out of the rural South¾first to the urban South and then to the urban North to the rapidly growing factory jobs, especially in automobile-related indus-tries. Blacks’ budgets in 1950 were sufficient to cover 1935 basics, but their budgets fell 13% short of the higher 1950 basics.

The war had halted any major transformations in consumption norms. In 1950, salaried families spent their higher income relative to wage-earner families in subtle ways and increased spending across all categories by 13% to 40%. As usual, they spent money on recreation, transportation, furnish-ings, and gifts to create a varied and active social life both at home and in public.

Within the working class, wage-earner families were finally able to mimic salaried families in the ways they used to create economic distance. Wage earners could spend their higher income relative to laborers on recreation and transportation to begin creating a more active and varied social life outside the home.

In earlier times, shelter and diet formed economic distance across classes. The addition of social life, first in public and then at home, to create economic distance across classes was becoming an important force in con-sumption norms.

By 1973, dramatic economic growth fueled by the war on poverty and the Vietnam war magnified the trends of expanded spending for social life and growth of home-ownership. Prodigious improvements in housing had been achieved¾working-class families finally achieved the American Dream of paying a mortgage monthly on their own home rather than paying rent. Owned homes were typically larger and newer with more amenities and a yard. Perhaps more importantly, home ownership gave families a sense of control and security.

Home ownership did not halt the movement of activities to the public areas or facilitate a more intense focus on home life for long. Wives gave birth to more children for a decade, and then their rush to paid work resumed and child-bearing fell. Eventual-ly, their homes, filled with modern amenities, lay empty during week days; adults were at work and children were at school. Fewer meals were eaten at home, where people mostly watched television, slept, and prepared to return to work or school during the workweek.

Presentability was a smaller part of the budget (12%) in 1973, but social life continued its expansion since spending for social integration absorbed 35% of the working-class budget. Spending on home life shrank to 45% of the budget, even though families had augmented their spending on housing as they became homeowners. Shelter had become the largest budget category, but its growth was offset by the decline in spending for food to eat at home.

Transportation had expanded to become the second largest budget category as the second car was becoming a required part of life to accom-modate the shopping and commuting needs of the two paycheck family. With both the husband and wife working, the family’s time pressures rose along with their paid work hours. Leisure time declined, especially for employed wives. Time spent shopping expanded as the assortment of stores along with the goods and services offered multiplied. Only the salaried class could afford two cars as a norm, however, and the working class still struggled toward that goal.

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