NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Measuring Today's Prosperity

April 6, 1999

Since November 1982, the U.S. has been in recession only 4.5 percent of the time. By contrast, the economy slumped 40 percent of the time from 1853 to 1953. Not even the wildest optimist would have been brave enough to predict the prosperity of the 1990s, which has changed the U.S.

  • Compared with 1970, houses are bigger by the equivalent of two 16-by-20-foot rooms -- and they are better equipped from kitchen to garage.
  • The number of cars per 100 people jumped 83 percent in one generation -- and three out of four households possess two or more televisions.
  • Almost three-quarters of families living below the federal poverty line own at least one car, compared to 64 percent in the mid-1980s -- while 72 percent of poor households have washing machines, up from 58 percent in 1984.
  • Some 97 percent of poor households have a color television, and three out of four have VCRs.

Nor is poverty a static concept. Only 5 percent of those in the bottom fifth of the income distribution are still in the bottom fifth after 16 years.

Moreover, workers' earnings go much further than they used to.

  • Measured in time spent working at the average manufacturing wage, the price of a personal computer has fallen 85 percent since 1984 -- and cell phones are down to just 2 percent of 1984 work-hour cost.
  • Videocassette recorders go for one-fourth of what they did in 1984.
  • Compared to 1970, prices expressed in hours of work are down 40 percent for refrigerators, 60 percent for dishwashers, 64 percent for dryers and 80 percent for electric ranges.

Source: Michael Cox (Dallas Federal Reserve) and Richard Alm (Dallas Morning News), "The Good Times Will Last," Wall Street Journal, April 6, 1999.


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