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Redefining ‘Poor’: The Fifty-Year Change in Quality of Life

Struggling in 2012 is undeniably preferable to 1962 affluence.

by
Charlie Martin

Bio

September 14, 2012 - 12:00 am

The lady that babysat me and my siblings, and who also did ironing for my mother, lived about four miles out of town, and they’d just gotten indoor plumbing to her house a year or so before. There were still a fair number of houses, especially rural houses, that didn’t have indoor plumbing. We had a black and white TV, and we got three channels since the community antenna was installed a couple of years earlier. Before then, all we could get was KOAA in Albuquerque, and that was chancy.

* * *

Forty years ago, I’m seventeen in Pueblo, Colorado. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have indoor plumbing, but certainly there are friends of mine who don’t have telephones yet at all, and we all think it’s kind of amazing (and even a little scandalous) that one of the families we know actually has two phone lines. We’ve only got one line, but we have three phones: an upstairs extension, a downstairs extension, and one in my father’s bedroom.

The family business — musical instruments, propane gas, and appliances — is doing fine, with fifty-odd employees. I’ve been working there since I was about 12, and now work on the loading dock or programming the computer (8K of memory and everything on punch cards).

I still have a scar on my wrist from where I tore it open delivering a console TV much like this one. It was a 21-inch, with the newfangled rectangular picture tube (and a bunch of other tubes inside) and cost something in the neighborhood of $500. (The inflation calculator finds that to be about $2600 in today’s money.)

 * * *

Thirty years ago, I just moved to Europe. When I moved back, there was a new thing on the horizon — the “cellular telephone.” It costs about a grand, and it’s the size of a big phone book. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have indoor plumbing, or a phone.

Twenty years ago — not too long after my niece was born — people are trying to convince me to get a cell phone; I refuse. A 21-inch color TV is still around $350, but that’s only about $100 in 1972 dollars. Oh, and it has a remote control, and if you have cable you have 50 or more channels.

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