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A Look Back at the U.S. in 1915
With all the negative talk these days, including in my Week in Review column, I thought I’d post a few thoughts from economist Robert J. Samuelson, who wrote some of the following recently from his perch at the Washington Post.
“By 1915, the United States was the world’s richest nation – and yet, most Americans were dirt poor by today’s standards. Adjusted for inflation, men’s average wages were about a third of what full-time workers now earn. The average workweek in manufacturing hovered around 50 hours, and many employees worked a half day on Saturday. Less than a third of homes had electric lights. Less than a fifth of the adult population were high school graduates.
“Every so often, we need to take note. For all of today’s pessimism, long-term trends in the United States are mostly positive. We tend to forget that and the parallel lessons. First, dramatic change is a constant; the notion that we’re living in a period of exceptional upheaval is a shortsighted fiction. And second, the United States has a solid record of adapting to change, albeit with some setbacks and regrets.
“So let’s recall gains of the past century. The figures above and below come mainly from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its flagship publication – the Monthly Labor Review – with an article by economist Carol Boyd Leon comparing 1915 with 2015....
“A century ago, the United States was a country of about 100 million people, just shy of a third of today’s 321 million. Then as now, immigration was at near-record levels, with immigrants constituting about 13 percent of the population in both periods. Then as now, this was controversial. But the fact that we absorbed the newcomers then suggests that, despite many conflicts, we will do so again.
“Since 1915, one vast improvement has been housing. Although the rich and the upper-middle class often inhabited spacious homes, that was not true of the lower-middle and working classes. Renters outnumbered owners, roughly 80 percent to 20 percent. Contrast that with the 64 percent of households who are now owners, even after the mass foreclosures of the burst housing bubble.
“What they rented then was often crowded and dirty. In 1915, ‘few of the homes of working-class families had running water, and almost none had hot running water,’ writes Leon. Heating was typically provided by ‘a potbelly stove or a coal furnace in the basement.’ For two-thirds of homes without electricity, lighting came from kerosene lamps or natural gas. These homes required some upkeep. Homes dependent on coal or wood for heating were ‘harder to clean because of [the] soot.’” [You can quickly see just off the preceding why in 1915, life expectancy at birth was only 54.5 years; now it is 78.8. One in 10 babies died.]
Jobs back then were also more dangerous. “In 1913, the Labor Department counted 23,000 deaths from industrial accidents, a rate of 61 deaths per 100,000 workers. The most recent data on all occupations show a death rate of 3.3 per 100,000, a decline of 95 percent.”
And modern appliances, cars, universal electrification have transformed everyday life, but as Samuelson notes, “The question now is whether we will be as adaptive in the next 100 years as in the last. History offers a cautious case for optimism.”
Wall Street History will return in two weeks.