Who’s better off compared to what?

Carol Hymowitz writing for Bloomberg Business Week reported that [some] baby boomers are poorer in old age than their parents. My response: “Who cares?”

To gain a much wider perspective on the quality of life today, I think we must consider what life was like before minimum wage laws, labor unions, child labor laws and women gaining the right to vote and own property—that didn’t come about until the early 20th century contributing to the creation of America’s modern middle class.

For most Americans today even if they are worse off financially than their parents, they are still much better off than most Americans in the early 20th century and the entire 19th century.

For instance, the average life expectancy in America in 1900 was 48 years. Today that average life expectancy is 78.7.

And in 1900, only 6.4 percent of Americans earned high-school degrees compared to 90% today (by age 24 because some do not earn their high school degree on time at age 17/18). Logically, if only 6.4% of Americans graduated from high school in 1900, there must have been a high rate of illiteracy and ignorance in the United States.

What about college graduates in 1900 compared to today—how many graduated from college back then? The answer is 38,000 (in 1900 there were 76 million Americans meaning less than 0.05% of the population graduated from college mostly from families that were in the top 1% financially).

But this year: During the 2013–14 school year, colleges and universities are expected to award 943,000 associate’s degrees; 1.8 million bachelor’s degrees; 778,000 master’s degrees; and 177,000 doctor’s degrees.

In fact, more than 20% of adult Americans have college degrees today—that’s almost 46 million.

Even if the parents of Baby Boomers have more money—which makes since because they are older and worked longer—life is much better than it was in 1900 and the public schools are succeeding at the job of educating America’s youth better than at any time in the history of the United States regardless of what the critics who want to destroy public education claim.

And where did America’s modern middle class come from in the first place?

The period from the end of World War II to the early 1970s was a golden era of American capitalism because—for instance—the G.I. Bill financed a well-educated work force, and the middle class swelled.

The U.S. underwent a golden age of economic growth distributed fairly evenly across the economic classes, with some credit going to the strength of labor unions—labor union membership peaked historically in the U.S. during the 1950s, in the middle of this massive economic growth.

You also may want to seriously consider this: Think Progress.org reports that as union membership decreases, middle class income shrinks. In 1967, when union membership was high, the middle class earned more than 25% of the national income but by 2007, that ratio had fallen to 10% of income, and the rich—who are often critics and enemies of labor unions—just get richer.

In addition, much of the growth of the modern middle class came from the movement of low income farm workers into better paying jobs in the towns and cities—a process largely completed by 1960.

In 1801, when Jefferson became president, 95 percent of Americans essentially made their full-time living from agriculture. By the turn of the 20th century, it was 45 percent, and by the turn of the 21st less than 2 percent. (An America without farmers?)

Maybe the real truth is that following World War II, America grew a middle class urban bubble as Americans fled farms to the cities and now that bubble’s getting ready to pop just like the dot com and real estate bubbles exploded.

When many are starving in the cities, will the few farmers left in the United States be starving on their farms?


Lloyd Lofthouse is a former U.S. Marine, Vietnam Veteran and English-journalism teacher.

His latest novel is the award winning Running with the Enemy that started life as a memoir and then became a fictional suspense thriller. Blamed for a crime he did not commit while serving in Vietnam, his country considers him a traitor. Ethan Card is a loyal U.S. Marine desperate to prove his innocence or he will never go home again.

And the woman he loves and wants to save was trained to hate and kill Americans.

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14 responses to “Who’s better off compared to what?”

  1. We are not only less “well off” than our parents — or more accurately mine, since my husband’s were dirt poor and could not have lived without help from the kids — but we are actually below the poverty line and have to choose between food and medical care. e can’t maintain the house. We can’t afford doctors because we have no money for copays. And the kids live on minimum wage. In the basement. With our granddaughter. We have too much to qualify for assistance — you have to be living in a crate to qualify for low income housing — but not enough to live on.

    Who cares? You’re right. Nobody.

    1. How about Obamacare—will that make a difference with the healthcare? Because my medical provider is the VA, I have no idea exactly how Obamacare works with co-pays.

      Then there is medicare? I may never know how that works because I’m with the VA. With the VA, any medical appointments linked to my service related disability have no copay and the copay for other health issues not related to exposure to Agent Orange or PTSD has an $8 copay for the first visit. If there are any other visits for the same issue, that $8 counts for them too.

      When I was born, my parents were still living in poverty but thanks to the rise of labor unions and my dad getting into a union, the pay improved and so did the quality of life for us. Our family lifestyle changed slowly for the better, but as a child, I never really noticed. That’s just the way life was. My mother raised rabbits and chickens for meat. We never ate out until after the union job my dad got and then it was maybe once a month at my dad’s favorite Mexican restaurant where he’d pile on the hottest sauce until he was sweating.

      But it all hit home after my dad died and his retirement went with him. That left my mother with about $500 a month from Social Security to live off of. Fortunately for her, the house was paid and my dad—while he was alive—kept the house maintained but she still had to pay the property tax. To keep the house, she took out a reverse mortgage at my urging. She was reluctant at first because she wanted to leave her three children something but I was relentless and she eventually got the reverse mortgage.

      My parents were teenagers when the Great Depression hit and both had to drop out of high school at 14 and find jobs. Because of abuse from her father, my mother ran away from home at 14 and hitchhiked her way from Deadwood to Seattle where she got a job as a waitress. A few months later, her mother and younger sister showed up because they also decided to run away from my mother’s father and then my 14 year old mother found herself supporting three people instead of just herself.

      Surviving the Great Depression made my parents very frugal. They didn’t use credit cards, drove only used cars [back then—before all the safety gear and computer chips in cars—it was possible to actually work on your own car and keep it up and my dad did most if not all of the maintenance even to the point that he rebuilt the transmissions when it gave out], and paid off the thirty-year mortgage in 15 years. They both “feared” debt and what it could do to them.

      Of course maintaining a lifestyle was easier when there was one phone on a party line, we didn’t eat out often and, in the beginning, there was no TV.

      Back then we didn’t have to pay for an internet connection, buy computers, TV’s, cell phones, video games, etc. Our biggest luxury was a radio, a roof over our heads and hot water. And simple food of course that was probably a lot healthier and safer to eat than a lot of the junk available today.

      I haven’t forgotten my mother washing our clothes in a big tub in the backyard and then hanging them on a laundry line out in the sun to dry—the sun is free but an electric or gas dryer is not. Then for dinner, she’d go to the chicken coop and bring out an old hen that had stopped laying eggs and using an old tree stump chop of its head before she took it in the house to pluck all the feathers out.

      One time after the head came off, the rest of the chicken—minus the head—leaped out of her grasp and ran around under the clean laundry that was still drying and sprayed blood all over the sheets and she had to wash them over again after she caught the headless chicken.

      I’m concerned about the war on labor unions being waged by the super wealthy, and the rise of people working for poverty wages for the fast food industry and companies like Wal-Mart. It seems that the United States is slowly sliding back to where it was before labor unions when there was little or no medical care, no social security and a lot of people living in poverty while the super rich lived in their huge estates and piling up huge mega-fortunes.

      And, if it weren’t for the teachers’ unions, I’m sure teachers in this country would not have health care or any retirement at all other than Social Security.

      Pardon me for leaving the topic but during the thirty years I was a member of the CTA/NEA, every few years when the teachers’ contract ran out, we had to fight to keep class size down and struggle for slight pay increases. In lean years, when tax revenue was falling, we went without pay increases.

      And when most teachers retired, for those who stayed long enough to qualify to retire, many left without health care and for most teachers who are not qualified for healthcare through the VA, if they aren’t old enough for medicare, they go without healthcare for several years.

      What I remember most is how the district administrators hid money to make it look like the district didn’t have enough to provide for pay raises. What the district did each year when it created a budget was to pad different accounts in the budget to hide money they didn’t spend so it looked like the district had little to no money left over after paying for all of the expenses of running a school district, but at the end of every financial year, the budget always had a surplus left over from those fake sections of the budget that were set up to hide money.

      The watchdogs who uncovered this tactic were a handful of high school math teachers who requested a copy of the district’s budget at the end of each school year when the district was required by law to reveal detailed expenditures during the previous school year and these teachers discovered how the district hid money by padding different accounts that the district would hide again at the beginning of each school year.

      And contract negotiations would always take place during a school year when the budget looked lean without a surplus allowing the sneaky district administrators to claim that there was no money for improving health care or for raises. It was a never ending struggle, and the district always had a surplus of money left over at the end of each school year no matter what.

      Sometimes, I think they were trying to make a profit and public schools are supposed to be nonprofit. That surplus of money that could have been applied to buying more academic materials or supplies was there even after the teachers had a raise in income but the skinflints in charge seemed to have trouble spending it for what it was meant for—to improve the education of children.

      1. Once you are over 65, it’s all medicare. Obama or whatever care doesn’t apply. It isn’t really legal to be old in this country. And it isn’t just about choices you make. It’s also about the economy — and the industries in which you work — that can completely change between the sensible choice you made when you were younger. Your entire profession may get shipped overseas (yes, it happens) after airplanes hit the twin towers. You’d be surprised how many lives that ruined, not just by death but by the disappearance of whole job categories. The assumption that your entire life is a matter of what you choose is absurd and arrogant. People get sick, can’t work. Companies close. Culture changes.

        There are life accidents. You can prepare all you want, but shit happens. The sensible choice in 1990 can turn out to be a very bad choice in 2001. And unless you have a functional crystal ball, you won’t see it coming until it leaves you bloody and stunned. For what it’s worth, I got sick and couldn’t work. But even before that, companies were deciding that documentation was unnecessary. They were wrong, but it was no help to me.

        Garry got old and they decided he could be replaced by a cheaper younger version of himself — after 31 years and three Emmy awards mind you. My son trained for a computer job that got shipped to the far east and never returned. We all had good careers and made good decisions. But life doesn’t necessarily go the way you think it will and if you don’t get that now, you eventually will … when something happens to you or yours.

        WE DO NOT CONTROL EVERYTHING. We might think we do or want to, but it’s an illusion. You do the best you can and hope it turns out the way you expect. If it doesn’t? Then you have to put up with people saying it’s your own fault and blaming you for things entirely beyond your control A position that’s only possible to maintain until something clobbers YOU … like a heart attack or cancer or an industry deciding it’s cheaper to outsource. And then suddenly, you discover just how little you actually control the direction life takes.

      2. Yes, what you say is true. Even if we take time to make good decisions that should pay off later in the future when we are older, things change and shatter those plans that looked so good at the time. For instance, what happened after 9/11 and then again in the 2007-08 global financial crises that cost millions their jobs and brought an end to job sectors that will never return. And that’s not taking into account jobs that have been outsourced to other countries or jobs replaced by automation.

        I belong to ARP and get their magazine and newsletters. The stories are endless of people who had good careers that just vanished during one of the many burst economic bubbles that seem to plague the American economy, and that isn’t even factoring in the youth worship in this country that also leads to lost jobs when people get older—ignoring studies that prove older workers are much better qualified and more productive than most younger workers.

        You also mention how a heart attack or cancer can destroy a life. It doesn’t have to be a disease. It can be a car accident that cripples a person and lands them in the hospital for endless surgeries. Or what happens when there is a family with only one person working who supports the wife or husband to stay home and raise the kids. If the working partner dies without warning, that income is lost—gone forever.

        I remember one assembly at the high school where I taught. This woman came to talk to the kids about the importance of being a lifelong leaner so as adults they would be ready to go back to school to be reeducated into a different job field. She was a college educated housewife who never worked a day in her life. She married her college sweetheart who became a doctor, who without warning had a massive heart attack and died in his early forties leaving her and her three children without any income and mired in the debt that had financed their lavish lifestyle. She lost everything and had to reinvent herself to find a low paying job just to keep her family together and then she wrote about it leading to her becoming a motivational speaker. But how many people end up with that option? Not many.

        It’s true that some people make bad decisions in their youth but it is also true that people who make good decisions get blindsided later in life. There is no guarantee. And this is why I prefer to vote for politicians who support unions, public education and Social Security. Without a public education system that’s required to teach everyone by law no matter what, there would be no guarantee of an education at all. The same laws that monitor public education do not apply to private sector education. In a country where most of the jobs now require a college education, what would happen to those who were left behind because there were no public schools to educate them?

      3. Thanks for mentioning unions. There’s a lot of anti-union sentiment among young people who don’t realize how much unions have contributed to whatever security American workers enjoy. How quickly people forget!

        Outsourciing has a lot to do with avoiding paying people salaries they can live on, the very thing that unions fought so hard to get. Not everything can be fixed.

      4. The war against labor unions has been going on since the beginning. It seems as if the super wealthy can’t stand anyone else to have any influence over the decisions of government.

        Recently I read an opinion piece that pretended to be exposing the undue influence of the teacher unions by pointing out how much they were spent on lobbying in DC.

        What the opinion piece did not mention was that the super wealthy—for instance: the Koch brothers; Walton family, Bill Gates, Bloomberg, Hedge Funds, etc—and corporations are spending for lobbying is a LOT MORE.

        And I wonder how many middle class and poor Americans, who support the end of labor unions, have lost the ability to think when it is the labor unions that are the only voice working class Americans have to represent their interests.

      5. Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it? We kill off the unions and have to fight for salaries and benefits that can support a family. Just like we did at the beginning of the 20th century.

        We appear to be going backward, socially and culturally. I know things are cyclical and in theory, we’ll swing the other way — eventually — but I doubt I will live to see it.

        The VA is a godsend for a lot of vets. I have several friends who could not survive without it. It’s the best medical care money can’t buy. Medicare is far better than nothing, but a LOT more expensive than the VA.

        Social Security is pathetic … but again … a whole lot better than nothing. We would be out on the street without it. We may be out on the street anyway, but for now, we are warm and dry, if poor.

        I suppose what puzzles me is that the big corporations that are busily chipping away at society are killing off their own customer base. The poorer people get, the less they consume. But they don’t see the connection. It’s a long spiral downward.

      6. “big corporations that are busily chipping away at society are killing off their own customer base. The poorer people get, the less they consume”

        I’ve thought of this often. What happens when the greedy CEOs and super wealthy have destroyed the middle class and what’s left can’t afford the junk they produce?

        Then a really big financial bubble will explode.

      7. Uh huh. And it boggles my mind that these corporate guys are so shortsighted. But they get paid the REALLY big bucks.

      8. Have you seen the film, The Wolf of Wallstreet?

        I think this movie showcases how they think. Greed and egos gone wild while losing all common sense and ability to reason.

      9. Haven’t seen it yet. It’s on our schedule for next months when we have a veritable orgy of films to watch … our annual pre-Oscar moviethon. But this is one I would want to see anyhow.

      10. Hitchhiking on what I said about greed taking over the ability to think: 60 Minutes last Sunday had a segment on the alternative energy industry and how billionaires who made it big in Silicone Valley jumped into this growing industry with both feet as if they knew what they were doing and there have been a lot of failures.

        I think people who are very successful in one area, end up thinking because of that success, they know it all now and can be successful in every area and this of course often ends up seeing very wealthy people who made huge fortunes going broke later.

        There is another area where very wealthy people are meddling and that is public education. The Koch brothers and the Walton family, who didn’t even earn their wealth but inherited it, think they know what’s best for teaching kids and are out to destroy the public education system in America to prove it.

        Bill Gates, who made his own fortune, also thinks he knows the best way to teach kids and he is causing as much damage to public education as the Koch brothers and Walton family—maybe even more damage. And Bill Gates founded Microsoft and anyone who uses their software knows what a great job they did writing that mess that keeps patching up its problems to limp along a little longer before the next patch comes along.

  2. Things in general are much better than when my parents were kids, back in the nineteen-teens and twenties, but there is much less opportunity for my grandkids than even I had. With all the rhetoric about the value of higher education, I can see that obtaining a degree doesn’t really mean you’ll have anywhere to take your knowledge and find a job commensurate with your education. In addition, chances are a kid from a working family will carry out a huge debt burden from college, which will make “starting out” a nightmare. No, these days the ladder of success is pretty much relegated to those with parental and social connections and wealthier backgrounds. Middle class kids will find the ladder is missing most of its bottom rungs.

    1. What you say is true to a point. However, to have a college education pay off often depends on the degree. There are dead-end degrees that go nowhere and then there are degrees that lead to high paying jobs. From what I’ve read about half of college graduates—no matter what they are told or read—they will still major in degrees that do not lead to jobs with high pay.

      Are they in denial as they follow what interests them spending/borrowing a small fortune to do so? I don’t think they have an excuse. It seems that every month there are one or more pieces in the media about college majors that pay off and those that don’t.

      For instance, I’ll use our daughter’s boyfriend at Stanford who is working toward his PhD and the government is paying for everything [tuition and living expenses] because of the major he’s in that most students don’t pick. There is a serious shortage in this one field. I don’t remember the name of the major but it has to do with drones, the flying kind. He builds and programs them.

      And my wife’s sister’s oldest son graduated from Stanford and ended up in a job that pays more than $80,000 annually [to start]. He wanted to major in political science and philosophy, one of the fields that runs into a wall after graduation, but his parents wouldn’t pay for his schooling unless he majored in one of the fields that leads to a job.

      I think it is all about the choices they make. And if they go for a degree that all the information says doesn’t lead to a high paying job or any job at all, it was their choice so they have to live with it.

      In addition, I think our parents had more choices in the job market that offered low skill unionized jobs at decent pay that don’t exist anymore because of automation or outsourcing. Automation by itself has replaced millions of union jobs. Today, most of the higher paying jobs require working hard in college to earn a tough degree that many young people have no interest in.

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