Do you feel your energy fade after you see all the negative news about our world? Headlines that seem to say things are getting worse everyday. Some common headlines I see are about how the poor are getting poorer, the middle class is losing ground, and that there is less opportunity today than in the past. But is it true?
This weekend, as my 2 and 5 year old sons were tearing around my parents kitchen howling in glee, one of them grabbed the tablecloth shattering the centerpiece on the floor. As we were cleaning up the mess my dad said, “things sure are safer today”.
“Safer tablecloths?” I asked.
“No, when I was their age the center piece on our table was a kerosene lamp. If I’d grabbed the cloth and dumped the lamp the house could have burned down.” he said.
“Why didn’t you just use a light bulb?” I asked.
“We didn’t have electricity or running water. We used an outhouse, you had nowhere else to go, even when it was 20 below zero, except the chamber pot. When I was really little, maybe 4 or 5, my biggest fear was falling down the outhouse hole.” he said.
“When did you get electricity and running water? I asked.
“We got running water and electricity when I was 11, between 4th and 5th grade, when we moved into the city because my mom couldn’t make any money on the farm. We didn’t own the farm. My grandpa lost his farm in ’34, so my dad rented the place. Dad inhaled poison gas during the war and it damaged his lungs. When he got home everything was fine for a while but it eventually caught up with him. He was hospitalized in the VA for two years and mom couldn’t make the farm work. The farmland was pretty poor, so we moved into town.” he said.
“How ’bout you mom?” I asked.
“My dad had a good government job and we lived in the city. We didn’t live on a farm like your father so we had running water and electricity as long as I can remember. I guess when I was born the house didn’t have running water or electricity, but I don’t remember it. Most small towns didn’t have running water in those days, so a lot of my relatives had an outhouse and an outdoor hand pump.” she said.
“I don’t think they had residential water in Ashby Minnesota until the late 50s or early 60s. You had to get water at a community pump.” my dad said.
“You lived in a damp dark old basement. It wasn’t very nice was it?” my dad said to my mother.
“My sister and I lived down there off and on until we moved out. My mother sometimes had to rent out our rooms to make ends meet. I hated it in the basement because the bugs ate holes in my clothes. I had to work at the dime store to buy all my clothes. I was fortunate to have that job, my dad knew the owner. Up until Jr. High my mother hand made my clothes, but after that I was on my own. I worked and bought my clothes myself and when the bugs ate holes in them it was frustrating.” she said.
“Did either of you consider yourself poor?” I asked.
“No, I had everything I needed. We had more than most people I knew. We weren’t poor.” my mom said.
“When I was young, we had a farm so we never went hungry. We were better off than most. Nobody had any money. My aunt Annie Larson had nothing. Hardly any furniture. She had nine kids. Her husband delivered everyone of them himself, at home, in the farm house.” my dad said.
“So you didn’t have electricity, running water, your parents rented out your bedroom to strangers just to make ends meet, you lived in a damp dark basement where the bugs ate holes in your clothes, and you didn’t consider that poverty?”
“No”, they replied together.
“So you considered yourselves middle class?”
“Yes, I suppose. We struggled sometimes, but we had what we needed. We were like most other people. No one had much money, it’s fair to say we were middle of the road.” my dad said.
I’m sure my parents told me this story many times of over the years. But I didn’t hear it until this weekend. It never sunk in. And if you think their social and moral environment were better, it wasn’t. Life could be very abusive and ugly, but in those days, no one talked about those things. But that’s for another post.
Cars, phones, running water, central heating, air conditioning, televisions, radios, prepared food, ready made clothing, comfortable mattresses, access to education, libraries, and sewer systems are just few of the luxuries many self-described middle class Americans didn’t have until the very recent past. Today, most of the poor people in this country have all these things and more. We do indeed have a high, high standard of living and it is still rising. Don’t let naysayers tell you things were better in the past, they weren’t. Even healthcare is far better than it was 20,30, or 40 years ago, even for the poor. Many of the procedures and medications routinely provided to medicare recipients were not available in the 50s and 60s. Only in a few pockets around the world (North Korea and Zimbabwe) are things actually getting economically worse. We live in times of vast prosperity.
A respected economics professor told me that she has stopped using the word necessity, because she tired of arguing with people about the definition of necessity. She said most Americans will argue that cars, TVs, and air conditioners are necessities. Some even argued that $25,000 fertility treatments are a necessity, but when one man argued, in all seriousness, that cable television was a necessity, she dropped necessities from her lexicon. She now states unequivocally that there are no necessities because 99% of her students cannot comprehend actual necessity.
Are things like cars, healthcare, housing, and education becoming more expensive in real dollars? Yes. But that’s because we expect so much more. Few people want a 1955 car, 1955 medical care, a 1955 house, or a 1955 education. They wouldn’t live up to our high expectations and if someone were to provide them today as they were then they’d be prosecuted for malpractice, negligence, or worse.
I am grateful to be alive today – grateful to have access to limitless opportunity, information, products, and services – all luxuries previous generations couldn’t have imagined.
When some negative piece of disinformation slips past your defenses telling you how rotten everything is becoming, return to this and read it again and be grateful for the luxuries you have. You are living in the best of times and they are only getting better.
Read more about the 1940s or the 1950s
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This post is part of the Season of Gratitude at the Balanced Life Center.