Wednesday, March 10, 2010

I was going to talk a lot about food as I continue my ideas of how to survive and thrive in diminished circumstances.  I had set out to show how much food plays a part in the fact that so much waste is built into people's expectations of what it really takes to live an abundant life. I would like to show how a wise person will be able to live richly in the important things (including nutrition and and great tasting food) and still be prudent in expenditure. I still hold to the proposition that this can be done by eliminating what the world has told us we must have.

As I began to do some research, however, I learned a few interesting facts. Did you know, for instance, that 50 years ago a full one third of the family's income went to food and that now on average, a family spends only 12 to 13 percent their take home pay on food, including that which is procured in restaurants and take-out? How can this be, I wondered?  One factor, I believe, is that 50 years ago the food we bought was whole food, either coming to us as God created it (whole chickens, whole fruits and vegetables, hunks of beef) or at least it was made from ingredients that God had created, like wheat, milk, eggs, with white sugar being a quasi-exception because it is refined from a whole food, sugar cane or beets). The foods on our tables were not part whole food mixed with inexpensive fillers and cheap substitutes (think butter rather than trans fats, sugar rather than high-fructose corn syrup, animal protein rather than hydrolyzed vegetable protein).

So perhaps this was a factor that made food a bit more expensive, but perhaps the expenditures in other areas cost less than they do today, percentage wise.

For example, when I was a child, a loaf of bread cost about 30 cents. Bread, back then, was sold almost exclusively in one pound loaves. My father, who made less than the average wage, was bringing in about four grand or so as a construction laborer who found himself unemployed each winter. We did have his unemployment check then and my mother would supplement that with the previous spring's tax return money. She would make sure to squirrel this away against that inevitable day just before Christmas each year when he would be laid off.

We were a family of four. We were also a one-income family, as were most, and we lived in a small cottage which they had purchased in 1955 for $8,700, which amounted to about two years' wages. So they would buy the bread for 30 cents a loaf, and we never went hungry, but were quite well fed and comfortable. In fact, like most children, we thought that Mom and Dad were the King and Queen of Happy Land, as most children are wont to think, and it takes quite a bit to disabuse them of that notion. (Which right away should put to rest the antithetical idea that Mommy has to go to work full time in order to give the little ones what they need to be happy; as an older  mother of 13 said to me once: "If they don't know they need it, they probably don't need it").

But back to the bread. Last week as I was checking prices of a multitudes of foods and staples at Walmart, I saw where I could purchase, some 50 years after the good old days, a 24 oz. loaf of Great Value (the store) brand bread for $1.34. That bread costs about 6 cents an ounce, which means that at that price a one pound (16 ounce) loaf would cost 96 cents. So in 50 years, it seems the price of a cheap loaf of bread has a little more than tripled. So if you tripled the paycheck of my"strong-of-shoulders-but-slight-paycheck" father, you would end up with the princely sum of $12,000. I think that is less than one can make on minimum wage at present.  Uhh????

To be fair, the average head of household at that time was making about $5,300 a year, so let's just triple his salary, which means that he makes $16,500. Just above minimum wages for a year. Now, don't we all know families who are making $16,500 a year, with only a single breadwinner, who also own their own home, the loan for which requires 20% down on just to get the mortgage, with two kids who are well-fed, warm and cozy while they benefit from their mother's full time care of them, eating the Walmart bread while paying all their bills on time?

Well, no we don't know anybody like that, I suspect.

At this point, I looked over at the website to see what the current poverty line is for a family of four as of last year (2009). It seems that if your family of four has a yearly income less than $22,050, then you are poor. And you probably are, but not because of food.

Remember our comfy little cottage? And that it cost about two years' wages? Our imaginary worker, whose bread has tripled to 96 cents and yearly pay has tripled to $16,500 would have be able to afford a house that was two years' worth of his salary. 16,500 X 2 = 33,000. His house would have to cost about $33,000.

Now let's look at the real world today, where nobody has so much from making so little. According to the folks at the Dept. of Labor, who doubtlessly enjoy crunching numbers and compiling these statistics more than I do, the current yearly income on average for the American family is $63,091. So if that family purchased a house that was worth a little more than two years' wages, they would have to pay a little over $126,000 for it. (And, by the way, pay next to nothing in property taxes). And that's not happening, is it? I bet you a year's worth of Walmart wheat bread that we will not get back onto solid financial ground as a nation or individual families until A) that housing bubble finally bursts for good, allowing housing prices to get back in line with what is sustainable, and B) taxes are cut to much lower levels .

Another area in which we spend tons more is that of transportation. Too many high car payments, too many cars per family and too much suburban sprawl (thus making for more miles driven per year), have us in a choke hold. To say nothing of choking on dirty air from car exhaust. Do you know why America has been the number one polluter all these years? Not from factories, because goodness knows we don't make anything here anymore, but from transportation. Look it up.

So again, I am attempting to ding on people's heads about making voluntary choices like downsizing on housing and transportation. And not feeling badly about it, but feeling a bit smug about getting off the wide road that leads to destruction.

While we are at it, we might want to learn how to do some of our own car maintenance, look at living a little closer together in centrally located areas known as cities. And downsizing our homes and our debt,  laying off the credit cards, raising the deductibles on all our insurances, raising vegetables and raising chickens if need be. And bunches more, including the delightful subject of grocery shopping and be continued.


  1. Anonymous11:49 AM

    Ah! This is perfect! Thanks for dispelling a few
    misunderstandings I have read regarding this recently.

  2. I have rewritten this in hopes that I can make my points clearer, although I felt I still needed to include statistics. All that math gives me a headache, but I hope to avoid imparting one to anyone else.

  3. Anonymous11:39 PM

    Thank you for this! More inspiration to downsize is always welcome!

  4. Anonymous1:24 PM

    All too true! And I must say that I feel a special connection with this post because I grew up in a similar fashion as you did. My father, may God rest him, was also a construction worker. For years, it seemed, he would come home (you mentioned the timing of "right before Christmas") & announce that he'd been laid off. Yet, my parents gave us such a good life, & I respect & appreciate them far more now than ever before.


  5. I am so glad you had a good, wonderful father, too. May God rest their souls.


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