Talking to seniors about working poverty

I recently co-authored a paper on Working Poverty in the Toronto Region with some colleagues at Statistics Canada. I also  have a PowerPoint presentation that I take on the road.

I have presented to Annual General Meetings, think tanks, universities, groups of advocates, municipalities, special government panels, and to the public at large. One of the presentations to the public was at the Gardiner Museum as part of Open Doors Toronto.

I tailored my presentation to a public audience. I took out the math and the technical discussion. The audience was polite and appeared interested and appreciative. At the end after about 40 minutes, I asked if there were any questions or discussion.

Some polite and easy clarifying questions were asked and answered.

Just as I thought we were winding down, an elderly gentleman who attended with his wife started to make a point. He had a booming voice. He talked slowly with a great deal of confidence and precision.

Paraphrasing from memory, this is the gist of his comment and question:

“Now these working poor people that you talked about….. You may not know this, but do you think that these people would have things in their homes like say… a colour television and a computer?”

I answered as honestly as I could from my experience and I said it is likely, on balance, that a working poor family would have a colour television and some type of computer in their home.

He smiled with bemusement. His expression showed me that he believed I had made a fatal admission. He had me. In his mind, he had won an important point.

He then said:

“So what you are telling me is that they have these things and I guess I have to tell you that in my opinion that these people are probably doing pretty good – that they have pretty good lives in comparison to other times and other people. I’m not sure what you are saying about what we should do to help these people but I sure hope you are not saying that government should be doing anything, because when government gets in there they just screw it up.”

At this point, with no prompting at all, a young man spoke up and said something to the effect that every house that has young kids has to have a personal computer, and that a computer is a necessity, not a symbol of a ‘good life’.

The elderly gentleman seemed to be quite surprised; perhaps even somewhat befuddled that anyone would disagree with his points about the symbols of a good life. He clearly saw himself as being on a strong wicket, playing a winning card. He was clearly surprised that anyone would disagree with him and certainly taken back by the tone of the young man.

We went a few more rounds.

I tried to point out that having certain things did not mean that a person is well-to-do. When my own mother was growing up, her family did not have electricity, indoor plumbing or central heating. But they had plenty of food, a roof over their head and besides, no one else had these basic utilities. My mother’s family and  the families that lived near them were not poor based on the standards of the day.

But a family living in Toronto today without the benefits of central heating, indoor plumbing or electricity would likely be seen as living in poverty by the standards that most of us observe.

Still I worried that younger people do not connect well with the elderly gentleman and other senior citizens. When seniors   say that there is no real poverty in Canada when poor people have basic utilities, computers and televisions, many of us roll our eyes.

So how do we connect with the elderly who think like this gentleman?

On reflection, there are several ways to have this conversation.

The first way is to compare prices and incomes. The elderly man I judged to be about 82. This means that when Colour TV’s first came out in 1954, he would have been about 24 years old. A colour TV cost about $1,000 back then[1] and the average annual wage of a worker was about $2,853[2]. In other words, the television (before the days of sales taxes) would have cost him about 35% of his annual wage.

Full time minimum wages in Ontario on a full year basis are now about $20,000 in gross terms. The equivalent cost for a colour TV in 1954 terms would be over $7,000. But a nice colour television can now be picked up for about $300 meaning that the relative cost of the colour TV is only 4% of what it was when they first came out. You could buy more than 23 colour TV’s now for what it cost for one in 1954.

For computers, it is even more startling.

When one of the first popular home computers first came out in 1975 ( the IBM 5100), the elderly gentleman would have been about 45 years old. The basic IBM 5100 with 64kb of memory cost about $17,975[3] back then when the average annual wage of a worker was about $9,962. In other words, the home computer would have cost him about double his annual wage if he was anywhere near the average.

Looking at the present full time minimum wage of $20,000, the equivalent cost for a personal computer in 1975 terms would now be over $40,000. But a much faster personal computer  can now be picked up for about $50o meaning that the relative cost of the computer is only  a little over 1% of what it was when they first came out. You could buy more than 80 personal computers now for what it cost for one in 1975.

The elderly gentleman had not worked out these numbers. And until I sat down at the computer neither had I. He was right in a way. You did have to be well-to-do to buy a computer or a colour TV back in his day.

The second point is that the $300 television and the $500 computer that you can buy today are much better than their counterparts of yesteryear. This is yet another reason to believe that today’s working poor with computers and televisions are living high off the hog!

But then there are the senses of novelty, exclusivity and prestige.

I started to think about John Grisham’s A Painted House as I listened to the elderly gentleman. I found the passage. Grisham spoke through one of his characters – a young boy watching his first baseball game – the year is 1953[4]:

“My heart froze; my mouth dropped open. I was too stunned to move. Three feet away was a small screen with lines dancing around it. It was in the center of a dark wooden cabinet with the word Motorola scripted in chrome just under a row of knobs… The picture became clear…it was a baseball game. Live from Yankee Stadium. And we were watching it from Black Oak Arkansas… During supper, the adults gave me the floor. I talked nonstop about the game and the commercials and everything I’d seen….”

And the so-called personal computers; they did not even sell them to the public in 1975. They were sold to scientists and engineers and they were considered way beyond the price range of the public.

I recall laying out over $3,000 for my Commodore 64 computer, screen, printer and disk drive in 1983. It was a major investment. I was at the forefront.

So the conversation about the working poor with colour televisions and personal computers is almost the same conversation as the conversation about indoor plumbing, electricity and central heat. It is a discussion about invention, improvement and plummeting prices in a world where the exclusive and highly exotic become both humdrum and inexpensive.

But it’s also a phenomenon whereby our distant memories fool us into thinking that mere possession of yesterday’s exotica somehow makes it impossible to experience hunger and hardship.

Why?

No one in yesterday’s world could ever possess these things unless all their necessities were paid. And none who were poor could contemplate owning them.

Personal computers and colour televisions don’t prevent hunger and have little to do with making ends meet. And not having them means that it is hard to keep up with everyday life.

Let’s make time to have these conversations with our older generation. They just may recall equivalent comparisons with the generation that came before them and open their minds to understanding the present. We can help them to rely less on distant memories that they don’t take the time (or may not be able) to update to reflect the realities of the present.

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