Most Americans, according to a new survey, were grateful this Thanksgiving not for wealth or material things but for family, friends, health, and freedom. This is how it should be. The entire Bible is full of messages against putting too much store in money or possessions.
Further, as Thanksgiving is specifically a U.S. national holiday, we are meant to thank God specifically for our unique blessings as Americans – the greatest of which, historically speaking, is our freedom. For that, we can thank a special conglomeration of founders such as Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, along with millions of military personnel who have risked, and sometimes given, the ultimate sacrifice in service of our freedom.
But just because we have a proper perspective on gratitude doesn’t mean that we should not also be thankful for material circumstances as good or better than any people in any land in history. Most Americans, unfortunately, suffer under the delusion that times right now are unusually tough and that the economic circumstances of median Americans have declined in recent decades. This is nonsense – and statistics prove it.
Take 1986, a year when the majority of Americans were rejoicing in what they then considered to be prosperity. Two years earlier, so thrilled were Americans with the economic recovery that they re-elected Ronald Reagan in a 49-to-1-state landslide. The two years since then had been even better.
And the median household income of that “year of plenty” was $24,897, which in today’s dollars would equal $54, 912. Compare that to the median household income of $56, 516 in 2015 (the last year for which numbers are available, and by all subsequent indicators a lower number than would apply today). In short, incomes have risen, not fallen – and not from a lower baseline when times were tough, but from a high baseline when the economy already was good.
Meanwhile, the prices for basic foodstuffs and energy are lower now than then. Adjusted for inflation, for instance, a dozen eggs back then cost $1.92. Today the same dozen eggs would cost $1.39. Likewise, a gallon of milk: The inflation-adjusted 1986 price was $4.90; now it is all the way down to $3.29. Gasoline, it is true, was a tiny bit lower then: $2.05 per gallon, compared to today’s $2.30. But vehicles then were less fuel-efficient, then averaging just over 25 miles per gallon compared to about 28 today. At miles per dollar spent (12.17 to 12.19), that’s as close to the exact same as imaginable.
Meanwhile, we have more access to more entertainment at cheaper prices now than then, plus year-round access to more produce, plus more information at our fingertips, plus all sorts of other advances that save us time and money.
In short, the median American earns more, spends less on necessities, and has more luxuries now than he did three decades ago when that same American thought the economic situation (both nationally and privately) was very good.
And yet today we moan and complain about how difficult life is – how much we (supposedly) are struggling financially, how the “system” is rigged against us, and all the rest.
Our complaints aren’t based in reality, but in mistaken perceptions, combined with a heightened sense of entitlement that perhaps could be called being “spoiled.”
In truth, while we are absolutely right, and wise, to thank God for family and friends and freedom, we can and should indeed thank him likewise for our creature comforts. Among all our blessings, he has not withheld those goods, either, from us in these United States.
As one of the traditional Thanksgiving readings from the ancient Israelites says, we are blessed in that our Lord has brought us to “a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills.”
That same reading continues: “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day.”
Yes, as the hymn says, for every good gift under heaven: “Now, thank we all our God.”
Quin Hillyer is a veteran conservative columnist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology from Georgetown University and has served for years in various forms of ecumenical lay leadership.