Sunday, July 29, 2012

Hard times I've never known, or why today's families need two incomes

    We're often reminded that today a family needs two incomes whereas in the past one income was sufficient to raise a family.
    I do agree that the decision by the federal government and left-wing educators to destroy our public schools by eliminating ability grouping has forced families with bright, well-behaved children to flee, at great expense, into high-cost school districts where they can enroll their children with others of like ability and temper. Certainly our schools policy has destroyed many of our cities and regions.
    But most people aren't talking about the high cost of basic housing when they reference the need for two incomes. They're pointing out the need for two incomes to maintain what they view as a decent standard of living.
    But what is decent? My mother's father was already a school superintendent when he decided to enter the Methodist ministry, a vocation for which he realized he would need a college degree. So he enrolled at the Mississippi State Teachers College and was given a job as manager of the bookstore to pay his tuition expenses. This was in the 1930s. The school allowed him to bring a couple of cows and pasture them where the football stadium is today. My mother and uncle would sell the milk in the mornings to professors. Can you imagine how many of today's students would refuse a college education if they were told it involved milking a cow or even working in the bookstore?
    While my maternal grandfather was enrolled at "Southern" my paternal Uncle Jake enrolled as a student. His first cousin was married to the president, Dr. George. My uncle lived with them because he couldn't afford the cost of a dorm. One semester the money was lacking to pay tuition and my grandfather instructed him to just write the check and he would cover it. As it turned out he was unable to persuade the local bank to loan him $25 against $1,000 in county warrants as collateral and he had to sell his finest mule to cover the tuition check. Today this would be considered intolerable!
    In the 1940s my mother was fortunate enough to attend the University of North Carolina on a Rockefeller Scholarship, where she earned a master's in health education. She told me during her time at UNC she was "rich," as it was the first time in her life she had ever had any money. The provisions of the scholarship were that she had to work in a rural Mississippi health department for five years, so she ended up in Holly Springs, where she lived in a boarding house. She wasn't alone. There were many successful, middle-class people who lived in boarding houses in those days. (One successful businessman told me he never paid rent as he always managed to work off his rent in chores.) My mother was struggling to pay off a car on a two-year payment plan, and she told me she always tried to arrange her daily schedule so she would be visiting a school at lunchtime so she could take advantage of the five-cent lunch. Money was that tight.
    By 1948 the Depression was over, and both of my grandparents were on a sound financial footing. By that time my paternal grandfather could even be called prosperous. Yet my parents were married that year in the living room of my grandparent's home. In 1948, the expectation was not that one spend a small fortune on a wedding. Today they would be expected to put on a lavish affair at great expense.
    Take a look sometime at the homes of the 1950s and early 1960s. They tend to be nice, comfortable homes but they are not nearly as luxurious as the homes of today. Today our homes are nicer and cost more, and perhaps that's why we have to work more to pay for them.
    As a child when my clothes would get a rip or a tear, my mother would repair them. Does anyone remember the little iron-on patches that people used to use? I never see a child today with patched clothes (including my own). I used to wear hand-me-downs as a matter of course; sometimes I would be the fifth cousin/brother to wear an item. It didn't bother me. Today, of course, kids rarely wear hand-me-downs and to offer a poor person an item of used clothing is considered an insult.
    The bottom line is we insist on a much higher standard of living today than what earlier generations enjoyed. In fact, we tend to view the standard of living of 40 or 50 years ago as abject poverty. It's really not, and perhaps we need to change the way we look at the world.
    I'm not suggesting that two incomes aren't great. I just question the notion that a family absolutely has to have two incomes to survive, particularly if one parent is staying home tending to the family. As my grandmother told my father one day when he was bemoaning the high cost of living: "Son, it's not the high cost of living, it's the cost of living high."

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