Nathan Lewis discusses American affluenza:
Minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, or about $14,500 per year for a full time 40-hour-per-week load (could be multiple jobs). Often, localities have a higher minimum wage than the Federal minimum. It is not a lot. But, it should also be enough. It should be more than enough. We still live in one of the most materially abundant societies the world has ever seen. You can get a lot for $15,000.
Most of the best things in our civilization are actually free, or nearly so. Public libraries, public parks, beaches, museums, the Internet, and so forth provide most of the best our civilization has to offer. Even a genuinely poor person can afford a $75-per-year membership to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which is a really fine museum. I’ve always found it interesting that you never see anyone there who is plainly of a lower income, although they are abundant on the subway you ride to get to the museum. (Indeed, there are some low-income neighborhoods that are an easy walk from the museum.)
Even on minimum wage, you can afford things that even kings didn’t have a few centuries ago. Electric lights. Refrigerators. Hot and cold running water, and modern sewage systems. Indoor flush toilets. Hot showers. Weekly trash removal.
Orange juice. And pepper!
Even a cellphone, if perhaps a prepaid one. They used to call cellphones “carphones,” because they were so big you needed a car to carry it around. That was only 20 years ago.
You can get a decent notebook computer for $450, brand new. If it lasts for a typical four years, that is only $112 per year.
Many other material things you can get for free, or nearly so. I often contribute to a church charity nearby called Magic Closet. A few hours per week, you can bring anything you like there, and donate it to charity. You can also take whatever is there, for free. No limit. Flat out free. It is like Goodwill or Salvation Army with no money in between. Just give it away for free and get it for free. I think it’s a great way to interact with your neighbors, and also to clear unused stuff from your house and get it in the hands of someone who can make use of it.
You can get clothing and housewares of all sorts there, certainly enough for the basics of modern living. It is even pretty good quality. I know because I drop off a lot of stuff there myself (it seems to build up continuously), and the stuff I’m dropping off isn’t junk.
You can even get big-ticket items like furniture, for free or nearly so, if you ask around. Pretty much everyone has a thirty-year-old sofa in the garage, which is still in good usable condition. If you ask nicely, they will probably give it to you.
I once gave away a piano. It ended up with some Chinese people from Brooklyn.
You would think it is the best possible time to be poor, particularly since the advent of things like Craigslist or eBay, where you can get things for much cheaper than new, or sometimes for free.
On top of this, we have various government services, like Medicaid, available to the lowest incomes. For free.
Twelve years of public schooling — for free!
So, what’s the problem?
There are a number of problems, but one problem is the same problem we have throughout American society today. Affluenza. It is really not so much a question of needless luxuries, but rather that the “basic American lifestyle” is too expensive.
There are plenty of people in the U.S., making very little money, but who are quite prosperous in their way. Mostly these are immigrants. They haven’t been raised in American society, and don’t have American expectations or American ways of doing things.
They don’t own automobiles, because, where they are from, nobody owns an automobile. They probably don’t even know how to drive. (My wife, whose father owned a Honda dealership, did not drive on a public road until after age 30.) They ride bikes. When they need to travel farther, or carry loads, they share vehicles or hire one from another person much like themselves.
They will often pile into a typical suburban house, with a family (or four working men) in each bedroom. There might be twenty people in a house. On a per-person basis, it is pretty cheap, because they can split the electric or heating bill twenty ways.
Heck, I did that in college. It was actually pretty fun.
They cook for themselves, with simple nutritious food based on rice, beans, basic vegetables and so forth. It costs almost nothing. It takes labor, but one woman can easily cook for many, which is what people do and what they have always done, where they come from, and indeed in all places throughout history. If they are going outside the house, they bring some food with them. (Often, in food service jobs, you can get food for free anyway.)
Now, I am not saying that sharing a bedroom with three other men in a boarding house is as nice as having a 2500sf suburban house of your own. Did I say that? I didn’t say that. But, if you have a low income, it is not a bad solution, and indeed is perhaps not a bad way to live in any case. It depends mostly on the other people. Not everyone is badly behaved. Military people live in more materially austere conditions than this, but they are generally well-behaved, and it goes well enough. Immigrants usually know how to live with each other and behave themselves. Many American poor do not.
Do you remember the TV series M*A*S*H? It was about a team of battle surgeons in the Korean war. They lived in dirt-floor tents, a few miles from the front lines. On cots. Shared. It was OK. After the war was over, they probably remembered it as one of the most interesting times of their lives.
Of course, one of the problems is that people are badly behaved. This is a problem, but it is not really a problem of income. It is a problem that we attempt to solve with income — moving to a neighborhood with better-behaved people, which costs more money.