As I noted last week, one reason people with these advantages don't feel rich is that they compare themselves to the people they know -- and if you are a highly educated professional, things like "children attend a selective four-year school" do not feel like a great gift that they are, with rare good fortune, able to provide their children; they feel like the very barest baseline for a decent existence. Virtually everyone I know went to a selective college, and indeed, so did most of their parents. So it comes to seem as if preparing your children for the same must be the struggle of all people, rather than the province of a fairly privileged class ... and it therefore seems odd that you're having trouble paying for it all on what sounds like a very good income. It's easy to forget that without that income, you wouldn't even be thinking about it.
That said, I think there are some other reasons that 30- and 40-ish professionals in places like New York City don't feel as rich as they ought. ... It's still true that affluent people are purchasing quite a lot with their money, such as proximity to high-paying jobs. But it's also worth remembering that they have to allocate quite a lot of their high incomes to buying something that their lower-income neighbors already have -- and that this is one big reason why they don't feel that much richer than those neighbors.
However when the shrinking middle class compares themselves to the people around them, Megan McArdle wants you to know that they should be comparing themselves to a rural child of the Depression or the 19th century Dakotas or perhaps the prehistoric caves of Lascaux.
The average working-class family of 1901 had a few changes of clothes and a diet heavy on beans and grain, light on meat and fresh produce -- which simply wasn't available for much of the year, even if they'd had the money to afford it. Even growing up in the 1950s, in a comfortably middle-class home, my mother's wardrobe consisted of a week's worth of school clothes, a church dress and a couple of play outfits. Her counterparts today can barely fit all their clothes in their closets, even though today's houses are much bigger than they used to be; putting a family of five in a 900-square-foot house with a single bathroom was an aspirational goal for the generation that settled Levittown, but in an era when new homes average more than 2,500 square feet, it sounds like poverty.
At that, even the people living in the last decades of the 19th century were richer than those who had gone before them. I remember coming across a Mauve Decade newspaper clipping that contained a description of my great-grandmother "going visiting" in some nearby town during the 1890s. On the other side of the clipping was a letter to the editor from a woman in her 90s, complaining that these giddy young things didn't know how good they had it compared to the old days -- why, they even bought their saleratus 1 from a store instead of making it from corncobs 2 like they did back when times were simpler and thrifty housewives knew the value of a dollar.
Joni Ernst, who is just a few years older than me, had a much more affluent childhood than the generation that settled the prairies, and more affluent still than the generations before them. But in many ways, she was much poorer than the people making fun of her on Twitter, simply because so many goods have gotten so much more abundant. Not just processed foods and flat-screen televisions -- the favorite target of people who like to pooh-pooh economic progress. But good and necessary things such as shoes for your children and fresh vegetables to feed them, even in winter.
In every generation, we forget how much poorer we used to be, and then we forget that we have forgotten. We focus on the things that seem funny or monstrous or quaint and darling. Somehow the simplest and most important fact -- the immense differences between their living standards and ours -- slides right past our eye. And when Ernst tried to remind us, people didn't say "Wow, we've really come a long way"; they pointed and laughed.
To make the long, long, long ago days of the 1950s-70s seem like the days of The Little Subsidized Farm In Iowa, McArdle has to, shall we say, bend the truth a little. Why, her mother barely had a shoe to wear or a Sunday go-to-meetin' dress or a pot to piss in, back in the day! However, McArdle already told us that her mother's father was quite well off; in the comments of this post we see he was probably in the top 5% of income in the US at the time. Maybe McArdle's mother only had six dresses or skirts but that would have been by choice, not because "we had less then."
Parenthetically, I have researched vintage items from the '50s and '60s and middle class girls and women had enough personal items to choke a horse. Women had hats, gloves, matching handbags, stockings, garter belts, slips, petticoats, foundation garments, belts, suits, dresses, evening dresses, and plenty more. Poor people always have had little but the middle classes are a different story.
While we are fact-checking, note that saleratus is potassium bicarbonate and was only briefly used as baking soda became widely available in the 1860s, and was not made from corncobs.
What is saleratus? Wood burnt to ashes. Ashes are lixiviated -- lye is the result . Lye is evaporated by boiling -- black salts are the residuum. The salts undergo a purification by fire, and the potash of commerce is obtained. By another process, we change the potash into pearlash. Now put this into sacks, and place them over a distillery wash-tub, where the fermentation evolves carbonic acid gas, and the pearlash absorbs and renders it sold, the product being heavier, dryer and whiter than the pearlash. It is now saleratus. How much salts of lye and carbonic acid can a human stomach bear and remain healthy, is a question for the saleratus eaters." -- The Adams Sentinel and General Advertiser. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Monday, 15 August 1853. Page 5.
Evidently it was typically made by chemists.
Remarks of the New England Farmer -- Storekeepers who have been engaged in the business for many years, have told us formerly they used to purchase three or four small kegs of saleratus for a year's supply in a country village, but that they now purchase more than as many large cases weighing six or eight hundred pounds each. Large quantities are used in making bread, the most common food, and of which all partake. Milk should take its place there. Many persons are in the habit of adding a little saleratus to most kinds of pastry. We are inclined to believe the remarks quoted above have much truth in them. We do not know how far the powder of saleratus may be neutralized by a mixture of other substances used as food, but it may be known by the chemist, and should be explained to the people.Always wrong, never in doubt.