In 1961, the minimum wage was $1.15, which means that a student who worked part-time in high-school (and summers) and in college could pay his way through school. UC Berkeley tuition was equal to around 600 hours of minimum wage (not including taxes). Here’s the situation in 2011:
Flagship state universities set their prices below those of elite private colleges. But they are not cheap by any other standard. At the University of Michigan, an in-state freshman will face total expenses of $25,204, a senior $26,810. At Penn State, an in-state freshman will pay $25,416 for tuition, fees, and living expenses this year.
That’s around 3,500 hours of minimum wage (again, I haven’t factored in taxes). Unless a student is involved in one or more of the various sex industries, loans are a requirement–for in-state students.
Daniel Becker relates these rising costs to the lack of economic mobility now found in the U.S. (boldface mine):
The article in the paper talked about a Mr. Bacon. He worked in the mill in 1956 along with 700 to 800 other residents. The job was not as a machine tool maker (the mill as most had their own machine shop) or a special machine operator that required special skill. He was a laborer. The tasks mentioned were stuffing waste wool into burlap sacks or “picking up the yarn” or fetching parts from the machine shop. We’re talking menial labor tasks. Starter jobs.
For this work Mr. Bacon was paid $1.80 per hour. The minimum wage was $1.00 per hour. At some point he was earning $80 per week for 40 hours work. This is $4160 per year. With this income Mr. Bacon was able to put himself through college and became a teacher in the local school system. It was not just any old college he went to. It was Providence College with a tuition of $500 per year. Yes, a private college that cost only 1/8th of his annual income.
Mr. Bacon’s story is the story that not only are the Republican presidential candidates promoting as to what we need to “get back” to, but the democrats are saying we need to go forward to. Mr. Bacon’s story with this mill is the proof that the 2 parties are not talking about a fantasy time in our history. It did exist.
Here’s the problem though with both of their directions. I’m just going to list them.
1. $40,000 is the annual tuition at Providence College today.
2. $1.80 per hour is equivalent to the following: $14.40/hour standard of living, $17.80 real value, $18.20 unskilled labor and $22.00/hour production labor.
3. Tuition of $500 is equivalent to the following: $4010.00 standard of living, $4960 real value, $5050 unskilled labor and $6120.00 production labor
Are you seeing the problem here? It’s not just the difference of tuition going up 80 times. It’s that the wage equivalent today for what amounts to stacking shelves in Walmart is not being paid at Walmart. Not only is this Walmart job not paying such wages, this is what the current autoworker is earning. The autoworker was one of the best compensated citizens we had. Look up the definition of middle class in the dictionary, and you would have seen an autoworker!
It really is a double whammy: wages haven’t kept up, while the ticket to a good life has become more expensive. Actually, it’s a triple whammy, once we factor in the inability of our tax code to moderate income inequality–which drives up college costs even more.
Having a middle class was nice while it lasted.