A century ago in America, it cost a lot less to buy a house. Even adjusting for inflation, the average home cost $75,600 in today’s dollars.
That might make you long for the good old days, until you consider that in 1915 you couldn’t have afforded it. The average yearly pay then equates to just $16,063 today.
A quick glimpse into the past, even through the darkened glass of some basic facts, can make the present shine brighter. It also can, believe it or not, help us understand current politics.
We hear a lot these days about taking back America or returning the country to greatness. Those political slogans are hardly unique to this election season, and I doubt many people would want to return to the past if they really understood it.
At the same time, people might change their behavior today if they understood just how closely their misconceptions resemble those of people long ago, particularly when the subject is immigration.
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To mark its 100th year of existence, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Monthly Labor Review has compiled data on life in America in 1915 and compared it to labor statistics today. Much of this is predictable stuff. We live longer today — an average of 78.8 years vs. 54.5 years back then. We earn more, which means we spend less of our income on food, clothing and housing than they did. We have cleaner homes, particularly when compared to the coal-heated, soot dusted, non-electrified homes with food preserving iceboxes back then. We work fewer hours and, for many workers, we enjoy two-day weekends and paid vacations, which were rare indeed back then.
It has been a century of progress, despite all the hand wringing about what’s wrong with America. Few of us would want to return to winding up our phonographs, should we have been lucky enough to afford them, and to riding horse-drawn streetcars to our low-paying, six-days-a-week job.
But the data also shows one way in which present America is virtually identical to 1915. Back then, about 13 to 14 percent of the population was born in a foreign country. Today that percentage is about 13 percent.
That doesn’t mean this has remained a constant for 100 years. In 1970, only 4.7 percent of America was foreign-born. We have, in that sense, restored America to what it once was, which means we have given rise again to the voices who filled the air with anti-immigration messages so long ago.
Back then, most of the foreign-born residents, about 60 percent, were from Europe. Today, about 40 percent are from Asia and 40 percent from North and South America. But that difference has hardly changed the arguments.
“It is impossible that such an influx can fail to produce material effects upon the institutions of this country, as it is doing upon the population,” a report of the Commission-General of Immigration said in 1905. It goes on to talk about the “mental and moral defects” of many of the people entering the country, men “of such a totally alien, if not repugnant character and genius as to raise a doubt whether they will in the present or the succeeding generation become assimilated in customs and ideals to the people of this country.”
Other documents of the time worry about crime and national security.
These repugnant people are, of course, the great grandparents of many of today’s adults, who probably consider themselves quite well assimilated.
Before you begin to object, consider that terrorism was as big a worry then as today, except that it concerned anarchists, not ISIS. If you think this element was relatively harmless, consider that one of them assassinated a U.S. president, William McKinley, and others set off bombs in various cities, including one on Wall Street in 1920 that killed 40 people.
Of course, history never truly repeats itself. The context keeps changing. However, those who don’t remember the past become deaf to its echoes. They treat every issue and react to every slogan as if it were just invented.
As the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reminds us, we ought to know better.