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

About a year ago, my niece and her new husband bought an older house on the edge of Denver. From the looks of it, it had been built in the late ‘30s and had some additions but very little in the way of actual renovation — a cute, well-maintained little bungalow in a pleasant old-fashioned sort of neighborhood.

There was one little architectural detail that puzzled them as they showed me the house: a pass-through nook, maybe a foot wide and little taller, with a shelf about a foot square and another shelf below with about a six inch gap between them. This was in the wall between the kitchen and living room.

They had no idea what it was. Readers my age and older will remember: it’s a phone nook.

I explained to them that, once upon a time, before they were born, telephones were expensive items wired to the wall, and a lot of people only had one. That nook was where it had gone, and it was a pass-through so people could reach it conveniently from both the kitchen and the living room.

This had never occurred to them. They remembered wired phones — both of their families still had land lines but they considered them a little silly, and the notion of having only one phone for the whole house seemed unbelievably primitive — you just plugged in a $10 phone in any room you wanted, or you got a wireless. Or, of course, you do what they do, and don’t bother with a land line. They already have phones.

This came back to me this morning as I was watching some youngsters (yes, it hurts a little to find myself saying that, but as I near 60 it happens more and more) on Facebook repeating this week’s talking point about the foolishness of “trickle down” economics. And that got me thinking.

* * *

Fifty years ago, I was a seven-year-old boy in Alamosa, Colorado. We were reasonably well-off with the family business; we lived in a pretty big, older house, and we had a phone in the phone nook and an extension phone in my parents’ bedroom. But we had a septic tank even though we were right in town — when the house had been built there were no sewer lines — and the fireplace was arranged with extra ducts to let you heat the house with it, albeit inefficiently.

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.

Ten years ago, 2002, people are still insisting I should have a cell phone; I still refuse. You can still buy a 21-inch TV if you look, but 28- or 32-inch TVs are more common and run, yes, about $350. (About $80 in 1972 dollars.)

This year, I have a cell phone; I hate the thing, but I have one. It cost me $10 at Wal-Mart, and costs me about $20 a month for service (in 1982, that’s about $2/$6; in 1972, $4/$8). I just bought a TV, 32-inch, for about $300 — but it’s 32-inch, high-definition, and as well as the hundred-odd cable channels I’m getting, it connects to my wireless network: I can buy a movie (or even get one for free from Amazon) and watch it, any time I want, and if I don’t like that there’s always Netflix and Hulu and YouTube.

* * *

So that’s fifty years. Think about a poor person in 1962: outdoor plumbing and no phone. In 2012, I doubt there are many people with outhouses except the occasional back-to-the-land hippie who actually stuck it out; they’re much more likely to live in a separate home, and that home probably has telephone service — if the family bothers, since cell phones are so cheap.

In fact, while this article was in the queue, PJ Media editor David Steinberg pointed me to a study by the Heritage Institute that examined statistically what I’ve been saying anecdotally.

This study — “Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What is Poverty in the United States Today?” — found that the “typical poor family with children” had the following:

Amenities in Poor Families with Children. Poor families with children have more conveniences and amenities than other poor families. In 2005, the median amenity score for poor families with children was 16. We examined all poor families with children with an amenity score of 16 to determine which items appeared most frequently in these homes.

  • These homes typically had both air conditioning and a personal computer.
  • For entertainment, they typically had cable or satellite TV, three color televisions, a DVD player, a VCR, and a video game system, such as an Xbox or Play Station.
  • In the kitchen, they had a refrigerator, a stove and oven, a microwave, and an automatic coffee maker.
  • Other amenities included a cell phone, a cordless phone, and a clothes washer.

Now, here’s a comparison for you: I’m a senior professional in my day job, and single, and I make a decent amount of spare cash as a writer.

But this list of amenities pretty much matches what I’ve got in my house — and I just bought my first computer game machine this year.

Yeah, I have some other things a poor family doesn’t have, but both poor people and I have a life of unimaginable wealth compared to even well-to-do people fifty years ago — or twenty.

It turns out the “trickle-down fairy dust” talking point doesn’t stand up very well to close examination; the truth is that over time, even poor people are richer.