Living in America, Then and Now
One hundred years ago, you could buy a house from a mail-order catalogue off of one year’s salary, and on April 15, most people just ignored the tax man. Of course, you were much more likely to die horrifically in a factory and had likely been working around dangerous machinery since you were a child.
If you think life is rough, take a look back to 1919, when the work days were long and painful, and you were paid like garbage. Here are 10 comparisons of American life then and now, as it relates to work and money.
1919: Working Conditions
Bottom line: Ditch your childhood dreams for dangerous factory work
Ten to 12 hour days were common before New Deal labor laws. Working in the steel mills was particularly grueling, with the average American working 63 hours a week. Industrial deaths were expected; in over the course of one year in the early 1900s, 526 workers died in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania — 195 were steel workers. In 1913, 23,000 industrial deaths occurred, making the fatality rate 61 deaths per 100,000 workers. Children were a significant part of the workforce; by 1910, two million children under the age of 15 worked in industrial jobs.
Most states had enacted workers compensation laws wherein the employer paid for medical costs and wage-loss benefits. However, if the employee accepted this, they forfeited the right to sue.
2019: Working Conditions
Bottom line: We have laws now
Deaths among the American workforce have drastically fallen over 100 years. Across all industries, 5,147 workers died in 2017, according to data provided by the Bureau of Labor. The most fatal occupation is construction worker, with 971 deaths. Mandatory meal period requirements are now a thing and eight-hour days are the standard.
Bottom line: Almost nobody paid federal taxes
Income tax was still a fresh policy in 1919, as the Sixteenth Amendment, which allowed congress to levy an income tax, was ratified in 1913. As such, income taxes were low — very low. The average tax rate across all income brackets was 6.39 percent, and the average tax bill was $238, or about $3,646 in 2019 dollars.
It was also difficult for the government to collect, and most people simply didn’t pay their taxes. According to the IRS, only about 5 percent, or 5.3 million, of people who should have paid their taxes actually did.
Bottom line: Well, you better pay
Those 1919ers would have been aghast at our tax rates in 2019, which range from 10 percent for the most impoverished to 37 percent for the wealthiest. It’s difficult to calculate the average American’s taxes in 2019, but the Motley Fool estimates that we pay about $8,367 in federal taxes on average. And if you don’t pay, the IRS will track you down, fine you and even throw you in jail.
Bottom line: They didn’t work
Workers were fighting for labor laws, with the Great Steel Strike of 1919 seeing some 350,000 workers striking against long hours, low pay and horrible working conditions in the steel industry. Throughout the year, over 4 million workers participated in strikes all over the nation.
Demands for an eight-hour workday, better pay and union recognition ultimately failed. In what may sound familiar 100 years later, steel companies were able to manipulate the American public into believing that unionization represented the creeping threat of communism. Violent repression via the police and National Guard was not uncommon.
But hey — congress also passed the Child Labor Tax Law in 1919, which imposed a 10 percent tax on net profits from companies employing children. So those companies couldn’t work those kids to death without 10 percent of proceeds going to the government!
Bottom line: They have a better shot at enacting change
Modern strikes in America are less about working conditions and more about fair pay. And there are still lots of them — in 2018, 533,000 workers went on strike or participated in work stoppages, according to the Washington Post. The largest strikes involved teachers, who swapped the chalk for picket signs in Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Los Angeles. In 2019, Denver teachers won $23 million in pay raises after a three-day strike.
1919: Average Salary
Bottom line: You didn’t make all that much
The IRS reported average net incomes during the earlier part of the 20th century and not the median adjusted gross income it does today. As such, the IRS’s 1919 statistics of income report is likely skewed because the high earnings of the nation’s wealthiest earners were factored into the equation. According to the IRS, the average net income of Americans in 1919 was $3,724 — or about $57,000 in 2019 dollars.
Another report, published in the “Journal of Political Economy” in 1921, estimated that the average male industry worker worked 45 hours per week at 30.1 cents an hour and made an average of $1,322 in 1919. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $20,253 a year — and only if they never missed work.
The report also notes that large sections of this workforce suffered from “excessive underemployment,” with 10 percent working less than 24 hours per week.
2019: Median Salary
Bottom line: Better, but also not that much
According to the IRS, the median adjusted gross income for the 2016 tax year was $40,078. According to the US Census Bureau, the unadjusted median income for 2017 was $61,372.
In 1919, $40,078 would have the same buying power as $2,579, while $61,372 had the same buying power as $3,950.
1919: Cost of a House
Bottom line: It was really affordable
In 1919, you could shop for homes from a catalogue. Sure, you had to build it yourself, but it was cheap. The cheapest the 1916 “Book of Homes” was $325 — about $5,000 today. But a more typical house from the catalogue and was around $1,300, or about $20,000 in today’s dollars. Other figures place the cost of a home at $3,200 in 1915, or about $49,000 today — basically one year’s salary.
2019: Cost of a House
Bottom line: It’s pretty dang expensive.
You’ll need a lot more than one year’s salary to purchase a home in 2019. Today, the national median home price is around $257,600.
1919: Women in the Workforce
Bottom line: You worked hard and were paid squat
Popular jobs among women during this period included cooks, waitresses, manufacturing, clerks, secretaries, teachers and nurses. Their wages varied by state and profession, but their pay was low. A 1919 report on female candy makers in Pennsylvania said that the majority in that profession earned less than $6 a week, or $92, in 2019 money. If you were lucky to be a female resident of a state like Massachusetts, which had minimum wage laws for women, you could enjoy fairer pay. But only for a little while — those laws were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1923.
The International Congress of Working Women formed in 1919, and while they asked congress for eight-hour workdays, equal pay and maternity leave, the group was unsuccessful. It wouldn’t be until the Equal Pay Act of 1963 when gender discrimination would be banned.
2019: Women in the Workforce
Bottom line: Better, but certainly not perfect
The gender pay gap has closed significantly over 100 years, but it’s still not where it should be. According to Pew Research Center, on average women in 2018 earned 85 cents for every dollar a man earned. The most common jobs for women are elementary and middle school teacher, nurse, secretary and administrative assistant, customer service representative, retail supervisor and cashier, according to the Department of Labor.
1919: Food Prices
Bottom line: Inflation spiked prices
Think the price of food has gone up now? People were really hurting at the grocery store back then, as post-war inflation helped drive food prices up 88 percent from 1913 to 1919. For example, the price of a dozen eggs went from 34.5 cents in 1913 to 63 cents in 1919.
Food prices in 1919 include:
- Quart of milk: 15 cents
- Pound of cheese: 43 cents
- Pound of rice: 14 cents
- Pound of coffee: 43 cents
- Pound of margarine: 41 cents
- Pound of potatoes: 38 cents
- Pound of bread: 10 cents
2019: Food Prices
Bottom line: We’re paying less
In 2019, we’re paying less for groceries when inflation is taken into account. For example, 43 cents for a pound of coffee in 1919 had the same purchasing power as $6.50 in 2019. Some examples of current food prices:
- Gallon of milk: $2.90
- Pound of cheddar cheese: $5
- Pound of potatoes: $0.75
- Pound of margarine: $1.60 (tub)
- Pound of rice: 72 cents
- Pound of coffee: $4.30
- Pound of bread: $1.20 per pound (white)
1919: Infant Mortality
Bottom line: It was bad
The rate of infant mortality in 1919 was 87 per 1,000 live births. That’s comparable to the Central African Republic today, which has an infant mortality rate of nearly 88.
2019: Infant Mortality
Bottom line: It’s good, but it depends on the state where you live
As a nation, the United States has an infant mortality rate of 5.7. That rate varies by state; Mississippi and Alabama have the highest infant mortality rates in the nation, with rates of 8.9 and 8.7, respectively.
1919: Owning a Home
Bottom line: Probably not
If you were alive in 1919, you had less than a 50/50 shot of owning a home. According to the U.S. Census, only 45.9 percent of Americans owned a home in 1920, the closest year on record. Contributing factors possibly had to do with it being the pre-Housing Act era of the 1930s, and mortgage companies could, and did, deny people access to homeownership in certain areas due to their race.
2019: Owning a Home
Bottom line: You have a better shot
The 2019 homeownership rate is 64.8 percent, a number that has actually fallen since 2000, a year with a homeownership rate of 66.2 percent. The 2019 rates are closer to the 1980s and 1990s, when the percentage of people who owned a home was 64.4 and 64.2, respectively.
1919: Biggest Employers
Bottom line: Grab your hardhats and overalls
Government jobs were common, with 2.7 million workers having been employed by Uncle Sam in 1919. But the biggest industries of 1919 were manufacturing (10.7 million), service providers (14.25 million) and goods producers (12.8 million). Huge industry players included U.S. Steel, which was worth $1.4 billion and controlled 50 percent of the market.
2019: Biggest Employers
Bottom line: Retail is king
The U.S. government is still the top employer in the country, with about 2.7 million employees. Right behind the government is Walmart, which employs 2.2 million people worldwide and 1.5 million in America. Another huge employer, Amazon, employs over 600,000 people worldwide, including over 200,000 living in America.