Being too lazy to find out on my own and, therefore, that much more curious about the answers, I repost this past exchange by Yishen and Kim in the hope that they may have further thoughts on the subject. How much, I wonder, has the cost of lodging changed over the centuries and in the recent slump for an unskilled laborer? I can provide one factoid: for the unskilled laborer without papers here in the SF Bay Area the price of housing - i.e. sharing a bedroom with 3 other laborers in a ranch house in the non-posh suburbs - has gone down by 30-40%. House rents have slumped badly as the supply of tenants has fallen even faster than housing prices (the decline in remittances from the U.S. to Mexico is a lagging indicator of this trend.)

Yishen wrote:

I recently took a look at cost of living in 1700s London versus 2000s New York City.

I took the approach of figuring out how much of each item could an unskilled worker consume a year based on his salary and the price of goods then.

For instance, an unskilled laborer could purchase 511 lb of bacon in 1700s London with his annual paycheck versus 4122 lb of bacon in NYC today.

There's a lot of detail one can get rigourous about (like correcting for various taxes) and a lot of assumptions about prices, so I don't think the numbers I cite contain much (or any) precision, however the magnitudes of improvement should tell the right story:

Item              1700s 2000s

Postage 80 miles  1872  83324

Coarse Soap, 1lb  3744  5833

Beer, 1qt         1404  3888

Barber visit      936   1167

Butter, 1lb       624   5833

Bacon, 1lb        511   4122

Mail, London-NY   468   41662

Steakhouse dinner 468   583

Candles, 1lb      165   1458

Coffee, 1lb       94    1326

Tea, 1lb          62    1750

Simple dinner     899   1167

Ticket            45    93 (Handel's messiah vs Madonna's latest tour) 

Our average Joe benefited the most in communication anywhere from 40 fold to 90 fold greater consumption.

Agricultural goods came next, some 10 to 30 fold for tea and coffee, 8 to 9 fold for processed goods like candles, butter and bacon.

Finally, a trip to the barber didn't change all that much in terms of affordability for the average Joe.


Kim Zussman replied:

By any measures standard of living (i.e., real wages/real cost of living) has improved dramatically since the 1930s. Just check any data source (government conspirators), and you will see that with improved productivity and agriculture, this is true over time in most periods.

However it is still possible, with 2006 dollars, to eat for less than $20/week:






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