My mother grew up in a multi-family house in Queens, New York City, which she shared with her three sisters, her mother and father, both sets of grandparents, and a couple of surviving great-grandparents. My father, who had four siblings, grew up in similar surroundings.
The question of “Why It’s So Hard to Get By in America Today” is something I reflect on frequently. I’ve had the good fortune to make good money for most of my adult life. Liz and I learned recently that we are, according to the Census bureau, “affluent” Something for which, incidentally, we both feel incredibly lucky.
Yet there’s always been this pervasive feeling that we’re barely scraping by, and when I see friends and relatives bringing babies into their lives, I wonder how they can possibly afford that. From where I sit, having a child seems like the economic tipping point that would knock me off this spinning merry-go-round into the Social Safety Net, from which recovery is incredibly is all-but-impossible.
So why does the America we now occupy seem so much harder to afford than it used to? In the brief excerpt from Inequality For All posted above, Robert Reich does a good job of putting it in a nutshell: While expenses have grown faster than inflation, wages have not kept up. In many cases wages have been stagnant for 40-plus years–which, accounting for inflation, is a severe pay cut. Bottom line: our lives are more expensive, and we are making less money.
So what’s to be done? We can push for more pay, and we should. Minimum wage needs to be increased, and worker salaries must be higher. I’m of the mind that executive pay should be capped in the US, as it is in much of Europe. The US should end our three decades of wealth redistribution, recognize that Trickle-Down was always a trick, and put wages in the hands of the people who will actually drive the economy. But that’s a topic for another post–and it’s only one side of the equation.
Let’s look for a moment at the expense side, and how things have changed since World War Two.
Americans should recognize that many aspects of the world as we know it are new. “Suburbs” didn’t really exist before the 1950s, and neither did the Interstate Highway System, which created the concept of “commuting” to work. The idea that every family should own a car–and often more than one–has only been around for 60 years or so. “Day Care” is new–I’m old enough to remember the national angst that cropped up in the 1980s as working parents questioned whether to entrust their children to strangers. Nursing homes and retirement communities, also, are pretty new.
All of the above entered our culture during the late 1940s and 1950s, a period of economic boom for the US and the most economically egalitarian era in our history. They came in thanks to things like the GI Bill, which helped returning soldiers re-enter society by paying for an education and a home. They also came in at a time when the average worker made about 5% of the CEO’s salary–instead of the half-percent he or she makes how. And it’s worth noting that they came in during the rise of American consumer culture and manufactured demand.
I would argue that the lifestyle we have grown used to is one of consumerism, a lifestyle we were sold by the corporations who stood to benefit, and that it was never sustainable from the start. The economic pressures we now fact, unjust as they are, are not putting “the American dream” out of reach–they are showing us how damaging and unrealistic it always was.
The American dream requires an 18-year-old to go to four-year college, the average cost of which now averages between $90 and $170 thousand, and in many cases is much higher, especially if grad school is required. The college graduate should then move out, to an apartment or home of his or her own. In most cases this will necessitate a car, because unlike pre-World War Two Americans, the majority of us these days don’t live in cities where we can get to work via public transportation. To meet the demands of the dream, we need to include a spouse, a home, and 2.5 children. In order to bear the costs of the home and kids, that spouse will also be working full-time, which requires another car, and day care for the kids. This, of course, presumes both partners have good full-time jobs. In 2013 America, an increasing number of parents are underemployed and must work two or three jobs to make ends meet.
Now let’s consider the passage of time. People grow older. They require medical care. The kids will want to go to college. They’ll need high school and summer jobs to help get their own lives started, which means more cars. As parents age, medical bills will rise. Eventually their own parents, who are retired and living with the burden of paying for their own home, their own cars, and their own medical bills, will need help. They might need to be put into managed care, and the chances are good that it will be their children helping foot the bill.
Add onto this the time-stress of working full-time jobs while trying to help children with their homework, cook meals, and keep a home. Many people find their time so limited that they must open their wallets again to meet these needs–hiring cleaning people and tutors, and ordering food from restaurants.
You probably see where I’m going with this, and I bet I know what you’re thinking: “I couldn’t bear to live with my parents and/or in-laws as an adult. I’d go insane.” Believe me, I can relate–but please, take a moment and consider the benefits:
- Shared housing costs. Sure, the house will need to be bigger, but you’ll have more incomes to help pay for it–and when you do the math, each person will have a much smaller bill to pay. Since you’re sharing costs, you can afford a bigger, nicer place in a better location–like inside a major city with adequate public transportation to reduce your reliance on cars. Speaking of which:
- Shared vehicles. Two people might need two cars, but six people don’t need six.
- No more child-care costs. With retired folks living at home, there is always someone around to care for children.
- Shared labor. Three or four adults sharing a household can divide up chores like cooking and cleaning to make for more free-time, especially if one or two of them are retired.
- Reduced health-care costs. As health issues become more advanced, at-home care may still be required, but for the minor day-to-day stuff, family members can help take care of those who are sick or aged and need assistance.
- Shared wisdom. Want to know how to make a quiche or care for wooden furniture? Sure, you can ask Google–or you can ask Mom or Dad. Our elders have learned a lot of lessons about a lot of things–like cooking, child-care, making relationships work. Sure, sometimes it may be aggravating to be told you’re doing it wrong, but we actually do have a lot to learn.
- Cured Societal Ills. Sharing a living space, and vehicles reduces your carbon footprint (especially if your shared home is within a major city). With a need for fewer homes, we can cut back on suburban sprawl and destruction of wild places–and fewer homes and lawns will help fight the water crisis faced by cities like Atlanta and Phoenix. Lots of studies show that divorce rates drop when couples live with an elder, who can act as moderator and help put thing in perspective. And you’ll help fight the depression epidemic among older people, brought about by the loneliness and isolation that comes with age in present-day America.
I’m arguing here that living in a multi-generational household carries great benefit, and is something people should choose–but many experts say that economic pressures will soon force Americans to do so whether they like it or not. The Pew Foundation says this change is already occurring–which brings me back to your reservations (and I know you have them.)
Sure, living in close proximity with your parents and your in-laws sounds hellish. In my mother’s household, those four children and seven adults had to share four bedrooms and a single bathroom–though if memory serves, there was a sort of indoor-outhouse in the basement for emergencies. The solution is housing designed to accommodate this kind of living. A lot of people have never heard of a “mother-in-law suite,” which is basically a portion of a home laid out like a studio or one-bedroom apartment. Homes that are laid out to allow some privacy and independence can make multi-generational living possible, with all its benefits, and reduce the urge to murder one another. As more people embrace this living style, the demand for such homes will increase and they’ll be easier to find.
So here’s what I’m saying: Let go of the “American Dream.” It was never really yours to begin with–it’s a trick, a post-hypnotic suggestion placed there by advertisers who want you to buy their products, and then spend the rest of your life struggling to afford them. Embrace the idea of sharing your home with your parents, or your spouse’s parents, and with their parents, and consider the benefits. I’m not saying you have to move right now–but think about it for the future. If I’m right, you’re going to end up doing it sooner or later, whether you like it or not.
[Note: Today is my mother’s birthday. I posted a much shorter version of this on Facebook a few days ago, and all the parents of my childhood friends responded, “Watch out Denise, Chris is moving back home!” Hopefully this is a bit clearer about my intention, but still: Happy birthday, Mom!”]