Friday, February 3, 2017

Standard of Living versus the Cost of Living

The one thing that I like about Facebook is that they show "Memories."  That is, each day when we log onto Facebook, we are shown our posts on that day in years prior. 

Today my memory was a link I posted to this article, which appeared in the UK Daily Mail newspaper and shows pictures from a 1960s photo shoot of the Appalachian region in the US.  The headline reads:  Valley of poverty: The desperate pictures of rural America that show 1930s-style depression actually lasted until the SIXTIES.

The 1930s-style depression lasted well beyond the 1960s, actually, and even today, the Appalachian region of Kentucky remains one of the poorest in the country with 25% of the population falling below the federal poverty income guidelines and the average per capita income only $30,308 compared to $46,049 for the rest of the country.  They don't make any money in them-thar hills.  When the only steady job available is a retail or service job making minimum wage, financial insecurity is the way of life.  Then and now.

But wait.  Let's talk about this for a second.

Aside from the sensationalism of putting the word "sixties" in all caps and the fact that they really only showed a couple of families (probably the same family, just cousins living in different homes in the area), it's actually true.  Well, somewhat true.  Compared to today, the lives and homes of the people in the photo essay could be considered squalor, but maybe in rural American in the 1960s it wasn't so far from normal. 

The bit about them having no indoor plumbing was probably true back in those days (although I would argue about the "no sanitation" because outhouses smelled bad, true, but they weren't "unsanitary" if they were properly dug and maintained).  Most people didn't have flush toilets in the house back in those days, and people who lived in "Coal Camps" (housing property owned by the coal-mining companies) had some pretty sparse dwellings with limited amenities (although the linked article claims that the people lived in better housing than they had previously had - which for some may have been true). 

My own grandmother, who lived in this region her entire life, didn't have indoor plumbing until the 1970s.  Yes, I do remember using her outhouse.  It smelled bad, but I've seen public restrooms that were worse smelling and a lot less sanitary than my Grandma's outhouse.  When I was in Basic Training, the portable toilets they expected us to use while we were at the range, were, actually, overflowing.  Talk about unsanitary.

This map from 2014 shows that there are still homes, today, that don't have indoor plumbing.  Not sure we can say that all of these folks live in a 1930s-style depression, although most of them live in rural areas, and probably a lot of them are very poor.

My grandmother's house was clean, however, almost sparkling (as much as a mountain-side farmhouse with a coal burning stove in a coal burning region can ever sparkle), and so it was plenty "sanitary." 

I love my father's stories of growing up in the hills of southeastern Kentucky. Of the farm.  Of the house.  Of rough-housing with his brothers (he still has a scar on his lip where he was smacked in the face with a tin can that split his lip wide-open.  Ouch!).  Of going to school in a one-room building that used to sit in the middle of what was in my youth an open field a mile from my grandma's, where my sisters and cousins and I used to ride horses.  To hear the stories, and then visit the places where those stories occurred was living history.  It was fascinating. 

My dad used to talk about being poor.  Everyone in those mountains was poor, though, and when my dad talked of being poor, what he meant was that they took cracker-bread (which was leftover biscuit dough pressed into a pan and baked into flatbread) and a canning jar filled with milk from the family cow to school for their lunch rather than getting money from their dad to go to the corner store for candy and soda pop.  Sometimes, he confessed, they'd trade their homemade cracker-bread and fresh raw, milk for an RC Cola and a candy bar.  Dad thought he was getting the better end of the deal.  So did the kid he traded with.

I grew up knowing that it was not okay to accept government handouts.  My kinfolk were hardworking, industrious, self-sufficient, proud, mountain people. 

But they had neighbors who looked just like the people in those pictures.

That's the thing, though.  Perhaps my grandparents weren't so very different from the people pictured in those photos.  I mean, I can remember the washtub baths.  I can remember my grandmother's clothesline.  I can remember the outhouse.  I'm sure after a day of playing with my cousins out on the farm, I probably looked as messy and unwashed as the children in those photos. 

Here are some photos, also from that part of the country. 

My grandmother and my aunt sitting on their front porch.  They're clean and healthy - and my aunt, true to her nature, is reading a book or a magazine.  So much for the illiterate hillbilly stereotype.
My Great Uncle busy with some sort of project.  A handsome, strong, mountain man.
Also, apparently, literate.
My Great-Grandfather (my grandma's dad).
Check out that wringer washing machine behind him. Wish I could get ahold of one of those.   

While I'm not positive, I believe that these pictures of my family were taken sometime between 1950 and 1970 - around the same time that the photo essay was being shot.

The photo essay was trying to bring to light the deplorable conditions in which these people lived, and I get that, but it only tells part of the story.  Like the line that read: "... the harsh reality, as these pictures show, was that people of Appalachia sustained themselves on bare government subsistence, were ridden with diseases, and lived in shacks." 

Really?  Ridden with diseases?  Lived in shacks? 

Ridden with diseases could actually describe most Americans, to be honest.  I was looking up a statistic for the number of medications each American takes in each age demographic and the first thing that popped up in my search was the statement that 70% of Americans take prescription medications.  I mean, do we consider the 70% of people on medications ridden with diseases - especially the 65+ demographic, most of whom take a fistful of medications on a daily basis?  I'm not being snarky.  I worked for over a decade as a medical transcriptionist.  One of the categories in every single note I typed was Medications.  I never took a statistic, but I can comfortably state that MOST of the notes had something listed in that section of the report.  I learned how to spell most of those drugs even when they were mispronounced, and I knew what many of them were for. 

And "lived in shacks".  That word, "shack", is so subjective, isn't it?  My house looks like a shack compared to some of my neighbors' homes.  No, I don't live in a shack. 

That some of the folks who live in the mountains "sustained themselves on bare government subsistence" is true.  But consider those words "bare government subsistence."  And let's ask that question, why do most of them live on "bare government subsistence"?  Heck, WHY do they have to depend on government help?

The article linked above in the comments about "coal camps" actually sheds some light on why, by the 1960s, there was a need for "government subsistence" in that area, and it had everything to do with lack of government oversight and corporate greed (and please note the mention of one of this country's favorite dead Presidents, who also was a party to the raping and pillaging of those beautiful mountains and their people).  Then, of course, the government, which could have prevented the poverty in the first place by limiting and regulating the mines and their owners, swooped in with food stamps and subsistence programs, you know to help the people.  So much for Benjamin Franklin's sage advice:  An ounce of prevention.

As you continue reading through the rest of my rant ... er, blog post ... start nurturing that little nugget of a thought about how the corporations are given free reign to run amok and destroy in the name of profit, but then, how our government will pretend to save the day by giving us a pittance.  The destruction and degradation could have been averted, had something been done in the first place, and then, the government wouldn't have had to "make things better."  That's never how it happens.  That's not how it happened then.  That's not how it's happening now.

What's really bothersome, to me, is this mass hallucination, this widespread belief, that most of our modern amenities are no longer "amenities", but rather "necessities."

My dad occasionally tells the story of when television first arrived in the mountains.  His dad wouldn't get one of those things, but they used to go over to the neighbor's house where they could watch television.  His neighbors didn't have much else, but they had a television.

I don't have television.  In fact, there have been many times in my life when my family didn't have a television.  I don't remember much before the age of four, when we moved to Germany, and so I don't remember if we had a television before then, but I do know that we did not have a TV while we lived in Germany.  We moved to Georgia in 1975, and my father bought a DIY kit.  It took him a few months, but when he was done piecing together all of those tiny electronic components, we (finally) had a television.  That TV survived over a couple of moves for almost a decade before it died.  Then, we didn't have a TV again for a while.  It wasn't on our priority list to own a TV.  Shelter, food, heat, and clothing were higher on the list and took precedence over a TV. 

Most people who read my blog know the story about Deus Ex Machina's co-worker who tried to take up a collection to buy us a television set when she found out that we didn't have one.  We laugh, but after the laughter dies down, think about that mentality - the idea that we *need* certain modern conveniences and luxuries.

For most of the last few years, I was a volunteer at our local food pantry.  One of my favorite parts of the pantry was the Recycle Boutique.  A couple of years ago I read about these "Really, really FREE flea markets" they were having out in California, and I kept trying to imagine how we could recreate that sort of thing in my community.  The Boutique comes pretty close.  Basically, people donate stuff - whatever they have when they're decluttering - and the Pantry has this room where they sort and organize the goods, which are free for the taking.  That's right.  It's FREE.  And the stuff is actually pretty amazing!  Local businesses occasionally donated stuff, too - like the hotel that was changing its color scheme and donated all of its old bedding (sheets and comforters - most in good condition).  Clothes, shoes, dishes, bedding, curtains, books, CDs, toys ... just every manner of thing.  Really cool stuff! 

I was occasionally surprised by the kinds of things people would ask us for - like microwaves, which were a popular request.  I don't have a microwave, but I can understand that if one doesn't have any other way of cooking, how a microwave could be useful.  That wasn't the reason that most of the people asked for a microwave.  Mostly it was that they didn't have one, and there is some societal pressure to believe that having a microwave makes one more successful.  I know this to be true for a lot of people, because when I was a poor college student attempting to pass myself off as financially affluent, I had a microwave (and a television and a fancy king-sized waterbed with a full-wave mattress and a television and brand new furniture which was financed through a company that charged 19% interest, and which I really couldn't afford).

That's why that article is so important.  Those people were living in squalor, not because they were living in squalor.  Clearly, they had everything they needed to survive, but someone, somewhere, told them that their lives were lacking, and they believed them.

I started the month of January participating in an Uber Frugal Challenge, and it didn't take me very long to realize that, if those suggested life changes are what it takes to be considered uber-frugal, I've gone way beyond that yardstick. What's more than "uber" Frugal?  I might even be past that. 

But it got me thinking about that notion of "voluntary frugality."  The other night, we watched the movie Platoon (which we borrowed from the library).  There's a scene where Chris, the newbie (played by Charlie Sheen), is helping a couple of short-timers with burning the latrines.  He explains that he quit college to join the war effort - because he wanted to make a difference.  One of his comrades quipped that one has to be rich to think like that in the first place.

That's how it is with voluntary frugality.  Those of us who are doing it are already in a position to have everything we need ... and most of what we want.  We're able to consider doing without, because we're giving it up by choice, rather than because it's not available to us.

And therein lies the REAL problem.  Not that we're so entitled and privileged that we can choose to live like "poor people", but that our society has decided there are certain things we all need to have to be considered successful or to live the good life.

There's so much talk these days about living wages and standard of living

The Standard of Living is always changing, and the things that we believe we now need to live at the minimum standard are things that would have been luxuries to my parents when they were kids.

My grandma was an uber-frugal goddess.  She makes all of today's uber-frugal people look like silly spendthrifts.  I mean, washing out plastic baggies?  Seriously?  How about never wasting good money on disposable stuff in the first place.  My father tells the story of how his mother would purchase socks for them.  At the beginning of the school year, each child was given several pairs of socks - all the same color and style (no one ever had to worry about mismatching socks - my grandma was smart).  He jokes that they wore the socks until they got a hole in the heel  - and then, they'd flip them over and wear a hole in the other side.  They wore their socks out ... AND THEN, if they needed new ones they got them, but new clothes were a luxury, and not something that was purchased without a real need.  

Today, here in the United States, there is a huge - obscenely enormous - surplus of used clothes.  It's so bad, in fact, that we have stores specializing in the resale of these used clothes so that we can keep them out of landfills.  I mean, wrap your brain around that.  We, as a society, have so many clothes, we are throwing them away ... and we STILL have too many clothes in our closets.  The clothes that don't sell are sent overseas to workshops where people are hired to shred our castoff clothes, which are then used as stuffing for furniture.  That's also something pretty mind-boggling.  The waste is deplorable, but it's just part of our social fabric these days. 

Ha!  Ha!  Fabric ... see what I did there :).

When I listen to my father's stories, especially after having also lived in that region (but after I had lived most of my life outside of the region - which gave me a very different perspective of what I saw), I understand that the biggest cause of our financial woes comes not from not having enough money to survive, but from the continual chatter about what is required to achieve an adequate standard of living.

I can, actually, remember when having more than one car was a luxury, not a necessity.  These days there is one car for every licensed driver in a household - at a minimum.  We (believe we) all need our car.  Our OWN car.  It's not just a convenience.  It's a necessity.  Cars cost money - not just to purchase them, but also to maintain them.  Gas to drive them.  Insurance.  Registration.  Regular oil changes.  And cars break down.  If ever there was a thing manufactured for planned obsolescence, it would have to be cars.  I mean, how is it that cars always seem to start wearing down the moment the Warranty expires or the car is paid off - usually right around five years?  Most people never don't have a car payment.  

People lived for hundreds of thousands of years without cars, and yet, in our society, we have convinced ourselves that it is not possible to live without a car ... or that those who do must be suffering immeasurably.  Mr. Money Mustache had a really funny post about how attached to our cars we Americans are

That's just one thing in a long line of "I needs" that our society has drummed into us, which also includes: electricity, flush toilets, hot running water for bathing and doing dishes, televisions, cellphones, computers, dishwashers, refrigerators, couches, kitchen tables, diamond engagement rings, salon services, microwave ovens, dish towels, toilet paper, the latest fashion trends ....  The list of things that we need extends far out into the horizon, when the truth is that what we need, and what we believe we need are really in conflict with each other. 

So, let's go back.  We need shelter.  We need clean drinking water.  We need good food.  We need adequate clothing (that keeps our skin safe from frostbite and sunburn, etc.).

If given the opportunity, most of us could provide those things for ourselves.

Doing so has become illegal in many places.  I can't just stake out a piece of land and start building a house.  Several healthy, vibrant communities have sprung up in or around urban areas where it is too expensive to rent or own property.  The communities are illegal, and as soon as they are discovered by property owners or the authorities, they are torn down, usually under the pretense that they are unsafe and/or unsanitary.  Or that the dwellings are inadequate for human habitation (although they're fine for a weekend getaway).  It's okay that those people will end up sleeping on a mat on the floor of some overcrowded homeless shelter, or worse.  But to allow them to live in a warm, dry tent or some cobbled together, using recycled or reclaimed detritus, structure in a community they have built is not okay, because that land belongs to someone else and they aren't paying:  taxes, land fees, sewer usage fees, water fees, electricity fees.  That's the bottom line, right?  They.  Aren't.  Paying. 

It all comes back to the money.  Cha-ching. 

But even if I went through the right channels and legally purchased the land, the house I built would have to meet whatever codes had been adopted by the community in which the land was purchased.  These codes dictate the size of the house (most "tiny houses" are illegal), the location of the house on the piece of land (set-backs), how large of a septic system I will need and where it needs to be placed in relation to the house and the neighbor's houses, whether or not I need a well, and where on the property the well can be located, how much building I can have on the lot.  The codes will also definitely include needing an electrical outlet for every six feet of wall.  One can not even build a house these days without having it wired for electricity, which we can all agree is not a "need."  For most, having electricity means paying someone else to supply it. 

So, we get back into the rut of having to pay for a service - in some places, by law (i.e. it is illegal to live in a house and/or apartment that does not have electrical service, and homes can be condemned and labeled unfit for human habitation if the electricity supply is cut).  So, like, if my family really wanted to go all Laura Ingall's Wilder and live in our suburban home without electricity - you know, cooking on the woodstove and using candles and the kerosene lamp for light, hand-washing our clothes, stuff like that, and we called the electric company and told them to remove their lines, we could end up losing our house. 

The one thing in common that all of today's "need" items have is that most of them require the purchase of something that must be manufactured by someone else.  In short, we pay a great deal to have other people do stuff for us so that we can live this luxurious lifestyle.

And for the most part, most of us don't even recognize how luxurious our lives are.

Hot and cold running water.  Daylight 24 hours a day.  Refrigeration for things that don't, really, need to be refrigerated.  Ice cream all year long.  Fluffy dried clothes.  Plus, our homes all have heat in the winter (even the ones in the deep south where the temperatures only rarely go below freezing) and most of them have some kind of air conditioning in the summer (even here in the extreme northeast where, at its worst, we might have a day or two in a row where the day time temperature goes above 90°).  Most Americans live a full life during which their normal, daily temperature is between 65° and 80° with some uncomfortably extreme deviations when they go from the building to their cars.

As our standard of living has increased so, too, has the cost of providing for that living.  Most people who live below the poverty level are still living pretty good - by global standards - but because they struggle to keep the lights on, purchase clothes, pay for cable, pay the cellphone bill, maintain their cars, pay the oil bill for heat in the winter, while also trying to feed their families and not lose their homes, they consider themselves poor.  

They believe, and we will tell them, that if they don't have all of those things - the cars, the cable, the cellphone, the closet full of clothes - that they are destitute.  I've only ever met a few people who were truly destitute, although I know hundreds of people who struggle financially and live well below the federal poverty level.  I did at one time.

What we need to accomplish, as much as if not more than, ensuring that everyone be able to earn a "living wage", is a redefining of what "standard of living" means.  We need to stop forcing people who can do just fine without a television to believe they need, not just the TV set (I mean, what kind of amoral, un-American, jerk-off doesn't have a TV?  ... oh, wait), but also all of the peripherals and accoutrements attached to that device - like cable, a DVR, and the DVD machine.  

Like owning a car, the cost of owning a television doesn't end with the purchase of the set.  And even if one does not elect to have cable, it still costs money to operate the TV.  Unlike a book, which takes nothing, but gives all, a television needs electricity.  The book can be enjoyed - no energy required.  

We have this ridiculously high "standard of living" that just keeps getting more complicated and more expensive every year.  Every time we add one more thing that we "need" to survive, we raise the cost of living in this world just above what a too large portion of our society can afford.  We can keep trying to outpace the cost of living with wage increases, or we can call uncle, and start paring back our lives to actually fit our needs.

Maybe we could change the ideal from "keeping up with Joneses" to "living like the Ingalls."    


If you've stayed with me this far, I thank you.  I know this was a long post, but it's a really complicated topic.  Our self-worth is too intricately tied with how much we have in this society.  As such, I love when I find stories of people who actually get it and learn to work within and outside of the system at the exact same time. 

Johnny Sanphillippo is one such person.  In 1999, he bought a piece of property in Hawaii for a song.  His goal was to build a small house, but codes and stuff.  So, according to this article, he drafted plans for a McMansion with a detached garage, and he started work, immediately, on the garage - stating an intention to complete the rest of the plans in some unspecified future time. 

In the meantime, his "garage" is actually a home.

What I loved best was this tidbit of wisdom, which goes very nicely with the theme of this post: 

"Sanphillippo feels strongly about living small, having the sense of security that can only come with being mortgage-free and not falling prey to consumerism. “You don’t need very much stuff in life,” he said. “You need to ask yourself why you need this stuff you think you need. Is it because you really need it or is [it] because you’ve been told over and over, you have to have it?”"

Wise words.   That might be my new quote.


  1. Great post. I took a voluntary Simplicity course years and years ago. We got down to asking ourselves why do we want certain things? Why and why. Usually some emotional, non rational "need". The older I get the more things I'm getting rid of. I live in a state that's all about consumerism ironically. Idaho, who would have guessed. Hubby wont get rid of the dishwasher since hes afraid he'll have to wash the dishes! Oh well, great to see you posting!

  2. Yet again, Wendy, we are singing from the same hymn book:) This year I am living below the poverty line (by choice) because I can, and I don't accept any government assistance. The reason I can do this is I rarely spend any money and I don't own any appliances beyond a washing machine, a fridge and a stove. I have a lovely, paid-for, small house within walking distance to everything and all of this means I can work just two days a week. I have the most wonderful life, and I have it because, as you say, I am trying to keep up with the Ingalls rather than the Joneses. The best thing is that me and my girls find that life is even better that way. In regard to societal expectations - we've been had.