27 June 2018

Then and Now.

I had a conversation with Younger a few days ago about the increase to the minimum wage. From what she had learned at school, and what she was repeating as true, the wage increase was not enough. "Years ago," she said. "People earning minimum wage could afford a house. Now they can't."

Well, yes. And no. It's a little more complicated than 'then they could, now they can't'. That's really an apples to oranges comparison, but it may be illustrative to look at what has changed, what the differences are between now and then.

Younger's grandparents worked low paying jobs, and managed to buy a cheap house in the working class part of town. That area has been gentrified now. So have most of the other working class parts of the city. Worker's cottages are now highly sought after dwellings for upwardly mobile upper middle class people and their dogs. So are the converted lofts that were once factories where those workers used to work. History is not without a sense of irony.

Like most of the Italians living in that area, they adapted their rural life from home to the city. They dug out the ground under the front porch and built a cantina to store food. They most likely did the work themselves. They also dug up every blade of grass on their tiny property and grew beans, tomatoes, garlic, onions, eggplants and grape vines, then carefully preserved or fermented them and filled the cantina with the food they had grown themselves. They made their own sausage and panchetta and hung it from the rafters of the cantina. They didn't own a car, so they used their garage to raise chickens. They paid very little to others to feed themselves.

And they actually had quite a few mouths to feed. Like many other immigrant groups, they wrote home to family and offered them a place to stay if they were to come over. And they came. Beds were moved and bedrooms rearranged in their tiny houses, people would sleep two or three to a bed or on a folding couch, then work during the day and pool their paycheques to pay the bills and save money to buy houses for the siblings.

Nowadays, you couldn't dig a cantina yourself- most people do not have the skills, and the government would not let them. They would need to get permits and inspections. From the late fifties until very recently it was illegal to raise chickens and other domesticated animals within the city. The government now 'allows' the raising of chickens, but there are permits, and inspections, and strict limits on how many. It's cheaper to go buy eggs.

So Younger's statement is correct: there was a time when you could support yourself and your family on low paying work. But so much has changed between now and then and much of that is not merely inflation and housing market bubbles. The means the people of the past used to support themselves are often not possible for the current generation, either because they don't know how or because those means are now either restricted or illegal. The people of that period also owned far less- no tv's, no computers, cell phones, wifi, microwave ovens, etc etc. These things we now consider necessities, and overwhelmingly another must be paid to provide them. Back then, whenever possible, they produced the necessities themselves because they could. Nowadays, we could if we had the skills or were willing or capable of picking them up, but on the whole we pull out a card and pay someone else for them instead.

What would be a feasible living wage for us? I don't know, but here's another interesting fact from a few years back. Apparently, in a survey conducted at that time, twenty five to fifty per cent of people who lived in households with a combined income of greater than $100,000.00 claimed they don't have enough money to procure what they deemed to be the necessities of life.

This is not exhaustive by any means- for instance, I have not touched upon the rise of single parent households (thus making daycare an absolute necessity) and a host of other social or political factors. But it seems to me that the comparison between the eras is both enlightening, and at the same time not very helpful.Yes, they got by with less. I am not certain, though, that even their lifestyle would allow them to get by today with all the new 'necessities' and regulations.

1 comment:

Patience said...

I grew up in a predominantly Italian area. Most families lived in the basement and rented out the rest of the house to relatives. What you say about the backyards and garages is also true. Most of the guys seemed to work construction and the moms stayed home with at least 4 kids. My family lived in a house that was duplexed and we rented out the upstairs but my mom was told off my one of the 9 year old girls on the street (the same one responsible all day for her two younger brothers) that she was wasteful... my sibling and I had our own rooms! Whole rooms that could be rented out and we could sleep on fold out cots in the kitchen at night! Seriously! And my parents (both working at low paid jobs) were pretty thrifty) LOL