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.
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.
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.