A surprising majority of Americans surveyed said life was better in 1973

Fifty years ago, 1973, was a tumultuous year in America, but in a recent Pew Research Center survey a majority — particularly Republicans and older people — said life was better then.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and a good bit is related to wages and the cost of living. It’s telling that near-record-low unemployment and a declining rate of inflation don’t make up for all the uncertainty in our economy today.

People old enough to remember 1973 might recall the Watergate scandal that bought down a presidency, the OPEC oil embargo, the long gas lines, the stock market crash and recession and the stark condition of major American cities that prompted movies like “Death Wish” and would cause New York City to seek a federal bailout in 1975.

Changes in 40 years of Joe Riley (copy)

The 1970s were a tough decade for many American cities. East Bay Street in Charleston is lined with restaurants and crowded with tourists today, but here’s what it looked like in 1980. File

It was also the year the Vietnam War and the military draft ended, the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade abortion rights decision was made, the World Trade Center opened in Manhattan and median wages for male workers in the U.S. reached a peak that wouldn’t be exceeded until 2020.

Unemployment rates were higher then than today, particularly for Black Americans (Black unemployment hit an all-time low this year), and mortgage interest rates were higher. At least divisive social media didn’t exist yet (or personal computers, bank machines, smartphones, pretty much anything digital or dependent on microprocessors).

Those surveyed by Pew had quite different responses depending on their politics. A whopping 72 percent of Republican or Republican-leaning respondents said things were better 50 years ago, and just 14 percent said things are better today.

For Democrat or Democrat-leaning respondents, 43 percent said it was better 50 years ago and 33 percent said things are better now. The in-between choice was “about the same.”

Still, red or blue, in each case a majority would seem to prefer 1973.

The national debt then equaled just 33 percent of gross domestic product and hovered in that range until President Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts and spending increases sent the debt on an upward trajectory from which it mostly hasn’t looked back (debt hit 129 percent of gross domestic product in 2020 and then slightly eased).

I would have been interested to see how the survey question broke along gender lines, because 1973 was a benchmark year for the fate of middle-class workers, and men and women fared very differently in the years to come.

For men, median real wages had been rising since the 1940s on an inflation-adjusted basis along with gains in productivity. They were, until they peaked in 1973 and stagnated for most of the five decades to follow, as manufacturing jobs shifted overseas, unions weakened and federal tax policy increasingly favored the wealthy.

Not until 2020 did the inflation-adjusted earnings of full-time male workers ($61,417) exceed the mark reached in 1973 ($58,412). So, for many men old enough to have been working full-time in 1973, that would have been a peak year for wages.

For women, who accounted for less than a third of full-time workers 50 years ago, half earned $33,081 or less that year, adjusted for inflation. Unlike their male counterparts, their wages increased in the decades that followed, hitting $50,982 in 2020. 

So, the nostalgic glow of 1973 might look different to men and women.

Then again, in 1973 it was common and possible to support a household with the income of one full-time worker. In 2023, that’s far more difficult, and decades of above-inflation increases in the cost of health care, housing and higher education have made it even harder.

It’s primarily due to two-earner households that median family income in the U.S. has increased from $65,868 in 1973 to $88,590 in 2021. 

There are plenty of good reasons to feel bad about 2023, and I can see why some people might think 1973 was an easier time. Personally, I recall that year being one when things seemed simpler and less stressful, but then, I was seven. 

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