Measuring Living Standards: The Family Road Trip

For many American households, incomes have been stagnant over the past generation. But (lack of) change in incomes isn’t necessarily a good indicator of change in living standards.

On the one hand, as Elizabeth Warren and others have pointed out, the cost of some key middle-class consumption items — housing, health care, and college — has increased much more rapidly than the consumer price index. And inflation-adjusted income data don’t capture important aspects of quality of life such as commuting time, work stress, and crime, which have gotten worse for some people over the past several decades.

On the other hand, income data also fail to capture many ways in which living standards have improved. Consider the quintessential American middle-class summer ritual: the family road trip. In 1974 my parents drove us from Atlanta, where I grew up, to Phoenix, where one set of grandparents lived. My wife and kids and I have just done the reverse, driving from our home in Tucson to Atlanta to visit my parents and siblings.

Some things haven’t changed: You still get in an automobile and drive 1800 miles over three(ish) days. Food at most freeway exits isn’t much different than it was a generation ago; Subways have replaced Stuckeys, but McDonalds, Burger King, and Dairy Queen are still the chief options, and their menus still feature mainly burger-fries-soda. It’s a far cry from the Italian Autogrill.

One thing has gotten worse: Gas is, at the moment, almost twice as expensive as in 1974.

Yet there are a host of ways in which the family road trip has gotten better:

In 1974 my parents drove a Chevy station wagon. We now drive a Toyota minivan. Toyotas, largely unknown to Americans prior to the late 1970s, are comparatively reliable. And the minivan gets better gas mileage. Also, the fact that it’s a minivan means an adult can walk (sort of) to the back to separate quarreling kids, something my parents were unable to do as my brothers and I bickered our way across 800-plus miles of Texas.

Freeway speed limit: 55 in 1974, it’s now 70 or 80 on much of the I-10 and I-20 stretch that takes you from Arizona to Georgia.

Cruise control.

Cell phones. What a convenience to be able to chat with friends and relatives during the seemingly endless drive, or to get a listing of hotels in the next town and make a reservation at the last minute.

Portable DVD players. On our 1974 trip we listened to Robin Hood on a portable tape player. My kids now watch the video version. Both are fun, but videos are more entertaining and hold kids’ attention for longer stretches.

Music. In 1974 there were no CDs, iPods, or satellite radio.

Laptop computers.

The internet, and wireless access to it.

MapQuest (we don’t yet have GPS).

A number of fast-food restaurants now have enclosed play areas, helpful for letting kids blow off some steam.

Hotel breakfast. Each night one of my parents would drive to a grocery store to buy milk and cereal, then put the milk on ice, so that we could eat a quick inexpensive breakfast before heading out the next morning. Now we walk to the hotel lobby for breakfast and choose from a half-dozen cereals, pancakes, eggs, orange juice, coffee, and so on.

More public rest stops across the south seem to have shaded areas and clean restrooms.

It appears to me there’s less litter on highways these days.

Starbucks. A decade from now minivans may come equipped with an espresso maker in the dashboard. For now the availability of decent coffee at semi-regular intervals is a big help to those of us for whom conversation and music and breaking up kids’ squabbling isn’t quite sufficient to ensure constant alertness at the wheel.

For more on changes in quality of life, this book is a good place to start.

6 thoughts on “Measuring Living Standards: The Family Road Trip

  1. Now imagine doing this is twenty four hours by rail, where the kids can walk around (and with video on demand), and the coffee comes around (or you can go to a restaurant car). And you don’t need the coffee to stay awake (you can sleep).

  2. Pingback: By The Fault » Blog Archive » Lane Kenworthy Takes A Road Trip

  3. Give it to ’em, Give it to ’em, Give it to ’em Friar!

    Yes, we have many technologies that help us survive the family road trip. Most devices have gained mainstream acceptance because of low cost and durability. But all to avoid one eternal question. “Are we there yet?” How did our parents keep their sanity?

    Also, what’s the cost comparison for coffee prices? Starbucks? A cup of coffee or a gallon of gas.

    Ps. Was that tape of Robin Hood legal? I keep getting letters from the MPAA.

  4. There is a fundamental flaw to this argument, or two or many.

    The first is whether the *cash* cost of the trip has increased faster than *cash* wages or not. Perhaps the quality of the experience has improved, but your living standards depend on *cash* cost. Most products are sold at fixed price points, and if the SUV and the Chevy cost the same, your cost of living has not improved; the basic purpose of the Chevy and the SUV is just to ferry you 1800 miles.

    If you can buy now a 1974 Chevy new for half the price of a 2008 SUV then you can claim that prices have gone down; but you cannot. You income buys the same “quantity” of stuff, the stuff is merely more comfortable.

    In other words, can you buy today a 1974 lifestyle for less nominal dollars than in 1974? No, your only option is to buy a 2008 lifestyle for more nominal dollars, while nominal wages have hardly budged.

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