My friend Glen Craig from Free From Broke shared an interesting article on Facebook last night. With a comment of “wow”, and former Lending Club friend Rob Garcia chiming in with “whoa”, it got my attention. The article The typical American family makes less than it did in 1989 from The Washington Post has nearly 900 comments as I write this.
I read the article and shrugged. I must be missing something.
The article compares inflation-adjusted median household incomes between now and 1989. It even gives showing all the years in between. The author states:
In 1989, the median American household made $51,681 in current dollars (the 2012 number, again, was $51,017). That means that 24 years ago, a middle class American family was making more than the a (sic) middle class family was making one year ago.
This isn’t a lost decade for economic gains for Americans. It is a lost generation.
Why should we expect to make gains on median household income on an inflation-adjusted basis? It’s like getting on a treadmill and being upset that you walked for a half hour and went nowhere. I guess according to the author this is a lost half hour and yet millions and millions of people find value in it every day.
It seems quite an over-reaction to a loss of 1% of income… or about half a percent after taxes.
The Value of Living Today
Glen on Facebook brought up and interesting point, “After reading the article I also wondered what the cost of living is compared to back then. What if we just don’t need as much money for some things as we did back then, like computers?”
My family was one of the earlier families on the block to get a personal computer (The awesome PCjr) back around 1985. Even as we upgraded to 286, 386, and 486 computational behemoths, we never had more than one computer. Today we have numerous laptops, mp3 players, and tablets. The $2000 that my family spent on a computer back then is pretty similar to the $2000 that we spend on various similar technologies today.
We can look back at what my family paid for a landline. I think it was around $40 a month and there were extra charges if you wanted to call long-distance. Today we have Ooma Telo free home phone service, but it piggybacks on a cable bill that has grown from around $20 a month to $125 a month. In addition, many people spend another $100-$110 a month on cell phones and service.
The price of cars have gone up over that time. However, when you adjust for inflation they are pretty much the same (at least through 2006 in that chart). The price hasn’t changed, but you get many more safety features, better gas mileage, increased technology, and comfort.
Lost Generation? Really?
Are we really saving money on computers nowadays? Probably not. Are we really saving money on cars? Nope. However, in both cases our money gets us exponentially more than it did back 1989.
The mere fact that an ordinary person with no journalism degree like me can write to thousands of readers and convey this article is noteworthy.
Does that sound like a “lost generation” to you? Me neither.