How America Spends Money: 100 Years in the Life of the Family Budget

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The 100-year story of how a nation that feels poor got rich
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A campaign poster of President William McKinley in the year 1900; Wikimedia Commons

You can learn a lot about somebody by looking through his receipts. Is he rich? Is she poor? Where does he shop? What does she value?

Alas, the U.S. economy doesn't come with a receipt. GDP tells us how much stuff we produce. GDI, or gross domestic income, tells us how much money we make. But these numbers don't tell us what the economy looks like from the viewpoint of a typical household.

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Fortunately, we have something that's very close to an aggregate receipt for the American family going back more than a century: "100 Years of U.S. Consumer Spending", a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This is our story today: It is a story about how spending on food and clothing went from half the family budget in 1900 to less than a fifth in 2000.It is a story about how a nation that feels poor got so rich. Here's the big picture in one chart showing the share of family spending per category over the 20th century. The big story is that spending on food and clothes has fallen massively while spending on housing and services has gone up.

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HOW WE SPEND: 1900

The year is 1900. The United States is a different country. We are near the end of the Millennium, but in the "warp and woof of life," we are living closer to the 1600s than the 2000s, as Brad DeLong memorably put it. A quarter of households have running water. Even fewer own the home they lived in. Fewer still have flush toilets. One-twelfth of households have gas or electric lights, one-twentieth have telephones, one-in-ninety own a car, and nobody owns a television. 

1900spend.pngSo where are we spending all our money? Most of our income goes to the places where we work -- to the farm, to the textile mills, and to the house. The typical household haul in 1901 is about $750.

Families spend a whopping 80% of that on food, clothes, and homes.

In 1900, seen from perch of the Bureau of Labor Statistics -- which counts national jobs, income and spending -- the United States is like one big farm surrounded by a cluster of small factories. Almost half of the country works in agriculture. As for the budding services economy: There are more household servants than sales workers. As for the women's rights movement: More than twice as many households report income from children (22%) than wives (9%). 

Over the next 100 years, the U.S. family got smaller, more reliant on working women and computers, less reliant on working children and farms, and, most importantly, much richer. About 68-times richer, in fact. Household income (unadjusted for inflation) doubled six times in the 20th century, or once every decade and a half, on average.

But to appreciate the transition in full, let's first meet it halfway.

HOW WE SPEND: 1950

1950spend.pngThe year is 1950. Compared to just five decades earlier, the United States is already a different country. The population has doubled to 150 million. The economy's share of farmers has fallen from 40% to 10%, thanks to the mechanization of the farm, led by the mighty tractor. At the same time, food has gotten much cheaper compared to wages, and its share of the family budget has declined from 43% to 30%.

Meanwhile, the "making-stuff" economy is at its apex. Nearly half of working men are craftsmen or operators. (The female labor participation rate is still below 20%.) Factory wages have grown by seven-fold since 1901, and they've nearly tripled since the Great Depression. Textile manufacturing has never been higher and will never be higher. The year 1950 is its exact peak. Apparel manufacturing would grow through the 1970s before collapsing in the last third of the decade. The U.S. was the making-stuff capital of the world, and our dominance probably felt indefinite.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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