No single measure of well-being is more informative or important than life expectancy. Happily, an American born today can expect to live approximately 79 years—a full five years longer than in 1980 and more than a decade longer than in 1950. These longer life spans aren’t just enjoyed by “privileged” Americans. As the New York Times reported this past June 7, “The gap in life expectancy between whites and blacks in America has narrowed, reaching the lowest point ever recorded.” This necessarily means that life expectancy for blacks has risen even more impressively than it has for whites.
Americans are also much better able to enjoy their longer lives. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, spending by households on many of modern life’s “basics”—food at home, automobiles, clothing and footwear, household furnishings and equipment, and housing and utilities—fell from 53% of disposable income in 1950 to 44% in 1970 to 32% today.
One underappreciated result of the dramatic fall in the cost (and rise in the quality) of modern “basics” is that, while income inequality might be rising when measured in dollars, it is falling when reckoned in what’s most important—our ability to consume. Before airlines were deregulated, for example, commercial jet travel was a luxury that ordinary Americans seldom enjoyed. Today, air travel for many Americans is as routine as bus travel was during the disco era, thanks to a 50% decline in the real price of airfares since 1980.