Last Thursday, our financial section published a story that said many of our "paychecks are sharply higher than a decade ago, yet the income does not buy as much."
That's an opinion to which most of us have given voice. As the years pass, our memories get worse and the good old days get better. The older we get, the larger the sack of groceries we remember buying for $5. Now when you buy $5 worth, they ask, "Do you want to bag for that?"
The day after that financial story was published, I received a letter from Martin Buxbaum, who used to be the editor of the Hot Shoppes' "Table Talk" before he retired. Bux said:
"While cleaning out some old papers recently, I came across some facts that might be interesting to your readers.
"In 1936 I worked for a building materials company for 32 cents an hour. My hours were from 7:30 to 6, six days one week and 5 1/2 days the other, with a half hour off for lunch each day.
"Today, the minimum wage is, I believe, $3.20 an hour, and the work week is 40 hours. But is the $3.20 an hour worker any better off than the 32-cent an hour worker was?
"Back then, gasoline was 13 cents a gallon. My pocket computer tells me I had to work 24 minutes for that gallon back in 1936. The person making $3.20 an hour today and paying $1.27 a gallon must also work 24 minutes.
"Coffee was 29 cents a pound then, and I worked 54.4 minutes to earn that pound. Today's minimum wage earner has to work 54.2 minutes for a pound of coffee at $2.89.
"I worked 15 minutes for a loaf of bread that cost 8 cents. At $3.20 an hour today, I would work 14.8 minutes for a loaf of 79-cent bread.
"As far as I can see, we're no worse off than we were 44 years ago. We did have one advantage in that we worked 20 more hours a week and therefore earned 20 more hours of pay. I bought my lunch back then for 25 cents -- sandwich, pie and coffee. Today's worker can get a sandwich, pie and coffee for $2.45. In both cases, it's 46 minutes of work."
Several comments seem in order.
Today's $3.20-an-hour employee very likely must work a second job in order to make ends meet. He can't support a family on a gross of $128 a week.
Bux worked an average of 57 1/2 hours a week. The man or woman who is forced to work two jobs today may put in up to 80 hours a week.
To my mind, that's one of the reasons for the steady drop in American productivity. You will notice that I said put in 80 hours, not work 80 hours. Properly motivated, one can work 40 hours a week at a productive pace, but even a mule can't keep it up forever.
Another point worth noting is the tremendous increase in the average wage earner's tax bill between 1936 and 1980. Many of you will recall the first time income taxes were withheld from American paychecks. The amounts involved were minor. Social Security deductions, which started as Bux began to work for that building materials company, were calculated in pennies. They didn't amount to a hill of beans. Property taxes were low and you had to be a millionaire to be subject to a 6 percent income tax. State and municipal income taxes had not yet been invented. The sales tax, a "temporary" Depression measure was 2 or 3 percent.
In the example Bux cited, minimum wages multiplied tenfold from 32 cents to $3.20 and many prices maintained that relationship with uncanny precision. Yet seemingly uniform changes had vastly different effects on various individuals. A manual laborer who was at the minimum wage in 1936 might still be at the minimum wage now; however, a bright kid just out of school in 1936 might have been at the minimum wage then but advanced rapidly thereafter. On the other hand, taxes took a much larger percentage of the bright kid's lifetime earnings and left him wondering if there really is a way to beat the game.
It has been argued here many times since 1947 that as the standard work week shrinks, more married women are forced to work and more men are forced to moonlight on second jobs.
I do not consider it socially desirable for married women to be forced to hold jobs. If a married woman wants to work, that's her business. But if she would prefer to remain at home to raise children and run the household, our economic system ought to permit her to that. And it ought to permit her husband to spend a reasonable amount of time with his family instead of being forever absent as he tries to earn two paychecks.
One final comment: As the purchasing power of the 1936 dollar shrunk to a dime, our economic system stole 90 cents from every workman who had saved a dollar for a rainy day. When Bux skipped lunch to save 25 cents, inflation stole 22 1/2 cents of it. Instead of encouraging and rewarding thrift, our system has been laughing at it -- just as a pickpocket laughs at a chump whose wallet he has just lifted.