Improving living standards benefit the poor most

The 20th century was an era of rising living standards for Americans, and the benefits weren't all economic. People spent less and less time working to support themselves and their families, and more and more time at play. Health and life expectancies improved dramatically. And those who have benefited most are - the poor.

Such are the findings of University of Chicago Nobel Prize winning economic historian Robert W. Fogel in his new book, The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism (University of Chicago Press). Fogel writes, "In every measure we have bearing on the standard of living, such as real income, homelessness, life expectancy and height, gains of the lower classes have been far greater than those experienced by the population as a whole, whose overall standard of living has also improved."

Here are some of his findings:

  • In 1880, covering the typical household's annual food bills cost 1,405 hours of labour - whereas a year's worth of food now costs a mere 260 hours of labour.

  • This has helped allow the free time of a typical working man to triple over the last century - and he now spends more time at leisure than at work.

  • Life expectancy has increased by 10 years just since 1950.

  • The age at which chronic problems like heart disease and arthritis sets in keeps occurring later, and those ailments are less debilitating.

    Fogel argues that to solve the puzzle of rising inequality one must look at how individuals chose how to use their free time.

    Researcher Chulhee Lee, an associate of Fogel, reports that variations in how heads of households and their spouses worked account for 54 percent of the rise in the spread between the highest 10 percent of household incomes and the lowest 10 percent.

    Changing wages, by contrast, accounted for less than 6 percent of the increase in the gap.

    Source: Virginia Postrel (Reason magazine), The Rich May Get Richer, But Numbers Suggest the Poor Are Doing Better, Too, New York Times, August, 10, 2000.

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